Hosting a Japanese Exchange Student

Hi guys! Next week, a group of high school exchange students from Japan will be arriving in my community. They will stay here in host families for a period of two weeks, and my family is one of the households that’s hosting. During her stay, the girl we’re hosting will follow my schedule with me in school as well as participate in a couple different trips and social events in the area. Her English is minimal, and my Japanese is non-existent, but I’d like to help make her stay as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

So I have a few questions: What kind of culturally unique behavior can I expect? What are some things I should know in advance–extreme politeness, shyness, nervousness, etc.? What are your guys’ best experiences with connecting with people you can’t communicate with language so well with?

Another thing is I am a seventeen-year-old male, and I’ve heard that Japanese people are generally more strict about interactions between people of the opposite gender. The last thing I want her to feel is uncomfortable–what do you think I should understand about this before she gets here?

Thanks so much in advance for all your responses! :slight_smile:

I’ve got some experience teaching in Japanese high schools and managing study abroad programs.

One thing to be aware of is that Japanese students are often unwilling to ask for something they want. So, even if you say, “If you feel hungry, take anything you want from the fridge”, many students will be unwilling to take something without permission - and they’ll hesitate to even ask. They’ll just sit there and be hungry. Also, Japanese students often refuse things the first time because it’s polite. If you ask them if they want something, and they say no, maybe just check another time or two just to make sure.

Another common problem is with food. There are obviously big differences in diet. Sometimes Japanese students have difficulty with the very meat-heavy diet in the US. As portions are probably bigger, they sometimes feel obligated to eat more than they want. People also eat a lot more bread in the US than the students may be used to. It’s only 2 weeks, but trying to prepare more veggie-oriented dishes, plus rice sometimes, might be appreciated.

Also, Japanese people usually have a bath in the evening, so students are happy if they are able to continue that custom.

There is very little physical contact in Japan and people give each other a lot of personal space (if possible). I probably wouldn’t greet her with a big hug :slight_smile:

If students don’t understand something, they generally just look down and don’t say anything. If she doesn’t understand what you’re saying in English, she may just look down silently, or she may even just say “Yes.” Lots of students just say “Yes” when they don’t understand.

But generally, in my experience anyway, most students enjoy their homestay experiences very much.

Very good advice from Bortrun.

You can expect the student to be overly concerned with not offending anyone or overstepping her boundaries, so she is likely to be passive, never complain and show little initiative, depending on you to guess what she needs instead of asking overtly. She will be more concerned about not offending anyone than about what she wants. Be careful about statements like “it’s up to you” or “if you want” because they’re likely to interpret it as though you don’t really want to yourself – I’ve heard from many Japanese visitors that these kinds of open questions make them feel uncomfortable, and they simply don’t know if they should dare to ask or what you really want or mean. We don’t want to offend by imposing, but they don’t want to offend by saying that they want something. In my experience, a bit of imposition is okay, or offer her a clear choice – just take her out places, show her things, let her meet people, but don’t let her be isolated. Be particularly attentive to what the student seems to want as this might be more telling than what is actually saying.

Bortrun is right in saying that they are not used to physical contact; however, I’m met many Japanese people who were more than happy to find themselves in a more touchy-feely environment and simply embraced it as the way to be. They usually enjoy that kind of warm human interaction as it’s rather novel and is part of what they expect from a foreign culture. My Japanese friend’s parents came to visit Canada for the first and we had them over for supper. After we drove them back to the airport, her mom hugged my wife – my friend was shocked and said she never saw her mother do that before! In your case, though, hugging the girl might be awkward.

As for the language barrier, show genuine care for her efforts to communicate and if you can, make it something fun. Although they study English for many years in school, they usually have little to no experience using the language with a native speaker, and she likely won’t want to burden you, or retract as soon as you don’t understand something.

Of course, these are generalisations and you could meet a very outgoing person…

Thanks you guys for your thorough responses! I’ll be sure to be aware of all this when she arrives, though of course I won’t make any assumptions. Thanks again!

Tell us your impressions when she arrives.