For many of us, spending time in a foreign country is about getting to know the local culture, being exposed to something different from back home, meeting different people and, as a result, growing as a person, thanks to all the unique experiences that we would be unable to get if we stayed in our own backyard. I used to pretty timid and not very outgoing, but ever since coming to Japan for the first time it seemed like that has been changing gradually. Now, how much of that really comes down to being in a foreign country, and how much of that is simply due to growing older (though not wiser) is hard to say, but I still would like to believe that spending time in a foreign country helps to at least accelerate growth and development of character in some fashion.
The problem with experiencing local culture and getting to know people in Japan is that the country is unfortunately not very welcoming to foreigners. Not that you will be discriminated against outright or attacked due to being a foreigner, but there will always be situations where you will feel left out due to being non-Japanese. First and most obviously, there is the language barrier, with Japanese being very difficult to learn (as I keep stressing) and many Japanese people also being unable to speak a second language. But beyond that, there is also a huge cultural gap on both ends, where the Japanese side thinks that the “Gaijin” (a kind of derogatory word for foreigner) are very weird, while the “Gaijin” think of Japanese behaviour and customs as arcane. Even those Japanese that specifically seek contact with foreigners, oftentimes tend to idolize them and put them on a pedestal, which can be a very lonely existence as well.
Which brings me to the actual topic of today’s article, homestays. As the name implies, a homestay means you will be staying at someone’s home, instead of renting your own room or apartment. What this usually means, is that you will be staying with a family in their family home. Reasons for this might be manifold, you might be participating in an exchange program, or maybe the family is looking for someone to teach English to their young kids, the list goes on. While there will definitely be an adaptation phase, where you will probably be treated in a manner that is more akin to a guest than to an actual member of the household if you manage to get along with your host family and stay there long enough, life will soon return to normal and you will be able to experience normal Japanese everyday life.
Most commonly, homestays are done by people of high-school age, and the number of people who feel ready to go to a country as foreign as Japan before even having graduated from school will probably be pretty low. But I would say, do not let that discourage you. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a homestay during my time as an exchange student in Japan (I was around 25 at the time), and while it was a very hard year in some respects, I feel like I gained a different sense of appreciation for Japanese culture and customs. Being able to practice your Japanese and getting used to speaking it daily is just an added bonus. Due to Japan not being very welcoming, many people fall into the trap of hardly socializing with new people, spending their time instead with predominantly English-speaking friends in predominantly English-speaking neighbourhoods. I would argue, that living with a Japanese family is a good way of avoiding – or getting out of – this trap, dropping your inhibitions and becoming able to form meaningful friendships with many different people, regardless of their Nationality.