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#TBT Japan 1981

by AIFS Abroad

We have been pestering the senior staff around the office for some quality #tbt material and a few have definitely delivered. We had some good laughs at the expense of Paul Watson (that unruly hair, those short shorts), our Executive Director, but then we sat down and talked to him about his study abroad experience in Japan, and he had some great insights about his own experience and study abroad in general.

Paul studied abroad at Konan University in Kobe, Japan from 1981-1982. The program was, and still is, academic year and homestay only, so a little different from the many offerings students can pick from today.

On choosing Japan: 

“It was almost accidental. Because my last name starts with a ‘W,’ when I was a freshman I was one of the last people to sign up for classes. I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to, but I ended up taking an upper level East Asian history course and I loved it. I probably studied more for that course than any other and it really stuck with me.

Still though, I really never really gave any thought to study abroad until I saw a poster for the program at Konan and I decided to go. At the time, the steel industry in Pittsburgh was collapsing and the Japanese economic boom was in full effect so as a business student it seemed like a good idea.”

On homestays:

“It was the best part of the experience.  I was very much a part of the family.  The children were young, 11, 8 and 3, and because I knew no Japanese, they were my best teachers.  Especially Aoi, the three-year old. Today it seems that many students won’t consider homestays because of perceived restrictions on their lifestyles, but there is so much to gain.   I am still in touch with my host siblings to this day.”

Paul Watson with host siblings in Japan

On language:

“I was a beginner with the language and felt that after a year of intensive study and immersion that I had done well, but I never developed any level of real fluency. Still, I think even basic language skills are valuable in so many ways. I do use it when I travel to Japan or when I encounter Japanese travelers here. Studying and experiencing another language helps one understand the richness and diversity of other cultures. Studying abroad in Japan was still somewhat rare in 1981 and American students were quite the novelty. I think many of us felt a bit like celebrities with all of the attention and even uttering a few words in Japanese came as a great surprise to most Japanese (who still think that their language is unspeakable by gaijin (foreigners).”


On the food:

“Food is a big part of the cross cultural experience and experiencing Japanese cuisine was a highlight of my time there. I ate breakfast and dinner with host family for the most part  and I think I liked just about everything. Maybe with the exception of nattō.”


On traveling:

“Traveling around Japan was, of course, part of the adventure as well. We went from Kobe to Sapporo in northern Japan to see the snow and ice festival; we were on a budget so we took a series of local trains that took us about 30 hours to get there. But it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The sculptures were so impressive, and there was three or four feet of snow everywhere you looked. Northern Japan is quite wintery.”

On study abroad:

“Like most study abroad alumni will say, it was the best decision I ever made. It was an amazing learning and growing experience. The reflection period is a long one – perhaps it never ends. My study abroad experience set the stage for what has been an amazing career path. It took me awhile to realize that I would be the happiest if I was involved in higher education and specifically in study abroad. So here I am now, 33 years later,  helping today’s students have similar experiences. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to live and study in Japan.”

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