Saturday, January 9, 2016

One week of remedial Tokyo

It's Saturday, which means the start of a three-day weekend -- Coming of Age Day is Monday -- and the end of TUJ's week-long orientation. It was equal parts an introduction to the university, preparation for the coming semester, and a primer for life in Tokyo. It was a bit of a whirlwind at times, but I'll sum up the highlights as best I can below the jump.

MONDAY -- Move-in day. I'd been dreading this day for a while as the prospect of lugging my stuff through the Tokyo metro system seemed less than promising. Fortunately, a couple factors left that dread mostly misplaced: I packed even lighter than usual, only taking enough to fill a backpack, a laptop bag, and one suitcase, and the fact it was so soon after the New Year's holiday meant traffic on the trains was comparatively sparse. As it was, the biggest bother during the trip from the Juyoh Hotel in Taito-ku to Takadanobaba was that I kept losing feeling in my right arm thanks to the arrangement of my backpack and laptop bag. (Either that or I was having a heart attack and couldn't be bothered to notice.)

The destination -- my home for the next four months or so -- can be seen here. It's not much, but it'll do for now. The rent works out to about 105,000 yen (roughly $900) per month; it seems a bit on the high side, but admittedly I'm looking at this with an untrained eye.

TUESDAY -- Presentations galore. It was an educational day all around, starting with a commute to campus in the teeth of Tokyo's morning rush. This was a first for many of my fellow new arrivals as move-in the previous day was in mid-afternoon. There are about 50 international students at our dorm this semester -- roughly a 50-50 split between short-term (Study Abroad) and long-term (Japan Admit) students -- and we take up about 40 percent of the rooms here. The management seems happy to take TUJ's money, so we hairy, foreign barbarians must not have put them off too terribly.

As for the presentations, there were about 20 of varying length that covered counseling, IT, registering for classes, student code of conduct (no drinking on campus or in the dorm, even if you're of age), majors, activities, etc. Learning self-reliance was a big theme, especially in the talks that focused on life in Japan, wherein the phrases "you're on your own" and "we can't really do much to help you" appeared frequently. Clearly this is not the place to be if you're a student who needs their hand held to make it through the day. That may make the people at TUJ seem callous or indifferent, but I don't get that sense; rather, it's a frank admission of the reality at hand. We're basically townies attending a commuter campus that happens to be in the heart of Tokyo, and any attempt to recreate the stereotypical American university experience (sprawling campus, dorm life, etc.) in Minato-ku would've bankrupted TUJ long ago. It's weird, but the weird is why people come here.

WEDNESDAY -- Placement testing. Uuuuuuuuggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh. University policy requires all new students to take placement tests, regardless of any transfer credits. When's the last time you dusted off your college algebra? Yeah, been a few years for me, too. The English test came first, and while I didn't receive specifics as to how I did, it seemed to go well. The first part covered rewriting passages, reading comprehension and other aspects of conventional English, which is right in the wheelhouse for a copy editor. The essay portion went OK, too, as the proctor picked the one out of the four possible selections for which I'd already built up a head of steam.

Then, after the lunch break, came the math test. You can imagine how well that went. Again, no specifics on how I did, but the rough report I got showed a steep drop-off toward the latter parts of the test. Fortunately, I caught a break here. Approved transfer credit trumps placement test scores, so the A I received in college algebra at Central Community College back in 2013 satisfies the math requirement to graduate from TUJ. Huzzah!

THURSDAY -- Registration. This day brought the first major snafu. I transferred in 66 credit hours toward the 123 needed to graduate, meaning this is about the time I should start taking upper-level courses. The credits I have tick most of the necessary general education boxes for TUJ, aside from one "Intellectual Heritage" humanities course (which I'm taking this semester) and one covering Diversity and Race (all of which filled up before I could register).

However, the English composition course I took at CCC got bumped down to a lower-level elective instead of fulfilling TUJ's Analytical Reading and Writing requirement. This is important because, without that, I'm barred from taking any upper-level courses (2000 and above). I'm appealing this, of course, but in the meantime I have a decent schedule that still covers one of the four semesters of Japanese, the Intellectual Heritage course, and one course that could go toward one of the minors I'm thinking of pursuing. In happier news, the mandatory US financial aid session that followed brought confirmation that I should be able to use federal financial aid toward the Summer 2015 semester. This is a great relief, or at least it will be once I secure those funds.

That evening, I returned to campus to hear a lecture hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, which is part of TUJ. The speaker was Michael Cucek, who is apparently a regular at ICAS, and his topic was Japan's 2016 political outlook. It was a pretty fun evening, and while I'll spare you all the details, Cucek did present a compelling case that the next seven months could be some of the most interesting in Japan's electoral history. Consider that:
  1. The possible double election (upper house and lower house) would be just the third in Japan's history.
  2. Japan has its first major change in suffrage since women got the vote in 1946, with the voting age dropping from 20 to 18 (adding 2.4 million voters to the rolls).
  3. A 28-seat gain by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would guarantee the ruling coalition the ability to amend Japan's Constitution, but a mere eight-seat gain would allow the LDP to jettison its coalition partners and govern on its own.
  4. The main threat to the LDP's dominance is not the primary opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (polling at 8.5 percent to the LDP's 37.5 percent), but the 41.3 percent of unaffiliated or undecided voters.
FRIDAY -- Meet the bureaucracy. I can tell living in Japan is going to put my packrat tendencies to the test, mostly due to paperwork. Friday started with a visit to the Shinjuku ward office to register my residence card (a.k.a. the gaijin card) and sign up for the national health insurance system, both of which are required for students staying longer than a semester. As a student with no income, I qualify for a discounted rate of about 1,100 yen ($10) per month, though that will change a bit once the positive cash flow begins. This all ended with a heaping helping of paperwork and a brief presentation from one of the office staff, the highlight of which was learning that I'll have to renew my health insurance in April, which is generally when Japan starts its new fiscal year.

And then, for the big finish -- opening a bank account. Aside from packing, moving, and being away from family, this is easily my least favorite part of expat life. The red tape and paperwork fly thick and fast during this process, and this is exacerbated by FATCA, the bane of every American expat's fiscal existence. To help new students navigate all this, TUJ has an agreement with Shinsei Bank, a bank whose English-language services are better than most. After filling out two forms and supplying photocopies of several documents, I was told to place all the paperwork in a self-addressed envelope, stick that in the mail, and in seven to 10 days I should receive my bank book an ATM card. Why this couldn't have been done at a bank branch is beyond me. I know better than to expect what I experienced back home, where I could walk into a bank and leave with an open account and a bank card the same day, but mailing the paperwork when there were five bank staffers present at the session seemed odd. Something tells me this won't be the last time I have that feeling while living here.

TODAY -- Relaxing, mostly. I did go on a walk through the neighborhood and up the main street, making sure to stop at the nearest Yoshinoya (the first of many visits, probably). My to-do list tells me I still need to get a mobile phone, find a place to exercise, get started on doing my 2015 taxes, and buy textbooks for the coming semester. Oh, and find a job. That's pretty important, too.

I've been in Tokyo for a week, but everything still seems like a blur. Lingering jet lag and a lack of routine probably have a lot to do with that. On one hand, I'm eager to get started; on the other, there's still so much uncertainty I have a hard time feeling anything but uneasy. Of course, if this was one of my regular moves, by now I'd be settling into a newsroom and getting back into my old habits, but that's not going to happen here. A large part of the reason I made this move was to get out of my comfort zone and start blazing a new path for the rest of my life, so I'd rather get the unease and uncertainty out of the way now than put it off until my 40s or 50s and find myself stuck in the same old rut.

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