Baseball, Soccer, and Japan: Joshua Reflects on his Study Abroad at Keio University

December 20, 2016 

When I talk to people about my study abroad experience, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “what was it like?” It’s such a seemingly simple and straightforward question, and yet it’s one of the hardest questions to answer.

What was it like?

Do I talk about the beautiful country? Japan is a country born from volcanic activity, and everywhere you go there are breathtaking landscapes for your eyes to feast upon. Do I talk about the magnificent temples and shrines, amazing artwork, or priceless cultural artifacts? Do I talk about the people, how they are polite and friendly, and yet reserved at the same time? Do I talk about the food, and how some of the most common pizza toppings are corn, mayonnaise, and seafood?

The fact is, while all of this is important, and provides little glimpses into life in Japan, it is all merely things on the surface. These are all things that a fifteen- or twenty-minute search on the internet could tell you. It’s useful for giving a visual image of Japan, but doesn’t really get any deeper than that. None of it really says what living in Japan is like.

The thing is, you can’t really explain what living in another culture is really like. Is there any way for you to describe the feelings and interactions of living in your own culture? The best way I’ve found to describe it is by way of analogy.

Imagine you are born into and spend your whole life playing baseball. You are intimately familiar with it, not only the rules, but also the little details that you could never explain to someone else, like knowing when to run to a particular place to catch a long drive, knowing when to run or when to stay, or knowing when to try to steal a base. All these things are ingrained to you; you are a baseball player.

Then one day, you hear about this other game that is played on far side of the world, called soccer. You think to yourself, this seems interesting. It’s also played with a ball. The rules might be a little different, but how hard could it really be? You look up pictures of people playing soccer. You study the rules. You learn the terminology. You watch videos of soccer games. You practice different parts of soccer with other baseball players who also happen to be interested in soccer. You think, this is good; I can do this.
So then you go to this far off place and try actually playing. And you realize that you don’t know soccer at all. You trip. You fall. You get in other players’ ways. You don’t have any of the intuitive knowledge that the soccer players have about how you should move in the game. Even worse, all of the intuitive knowledge you have of baseball tells you that you should move in certain ways, which sometimes is exactly the opposite of the way you should move in soccer.

You get mad. “Why can’t this be more like baseball?” You get frustrated. You want to cry. Sometimes you do. You want to give up. But you keep at it. And each day, the game gets a little bit easier. You remember what happened when you moved right, so you move left instead. You start to see patterns where before there was just chaos. You no longer think of yourself as learning soccer; now you’re practicing soccer. One day, you wake up and think, I can do this. I can be a soccer player. I have a long way to go, but if I keep trying I can become a soccer player. You realize that soccer, like baseball, isn’t the ball or the field or the stadium. As magnificent as the stadium is, as meticulously cared-for as the field is, as impressive as the uniforms are, none of that is really soccer. Soccer is the interactions between the players. It’s the feelings you give to each other. It’s something you can’t explain, but you can learn if you try hard enough.

And this brings me to the final answer I have settled on to the question I am most asked.
What is living in Japan like? It’s like being a baseball player, and learning to play soccer.

photo and essay courtesy of Joshua, a Bridging Scholar alumnus, who is majoring in computer engineering and applied mathematics at Western Michigan University and studied at Keio University during academic year 2015-2016