I spent three years living with a Japanese host family during my studies at a Japanese language school and then graduate school in Tokyo. I was very fortunate to find a good family whom I had met via a summer school some years before and my experiences are nothing but positive. There are some pros and cons to staying with a host family, and I have friends who were not as lucky as me, and so I thought I’d share a few thoughts to help anyone debating a homestay.
A limited number of language schools offer the option (usually only to short-term or summer school students) of staying with a host family during their time in Japan. The benefits are obvious: linguistic immersion and the opportunity to see “real life” in Japan outside of the classroom.
It is no secret that the general level of English in very low in Japan, and so you’ll be forced to use the Japanese you learnt in class immediately. This helps no end when it comes to improving but can also be stressful for beginners when a lack of vocabulary and grammar make saying even the most basic things taxing. This is made worse when you see other classmates retiring in the afternoon to dormitories where they can spend the rest of the day with others from their country or classmates of the same age. Moreover, while dormitories are usually located close the language schools, no school has hordes of Japanese families queueing up at their doors to sign up for homestay programs, and so more often than not you’ll have to travel quite a bit further each day. In my case, my host family were based in Urawa in Saitama, the prefecture north of Tokyo. This meant a door-to-door commute of over one hour in the morning to my school in Shinjuku, and also resulted in a train timetable-imposed curfew when out with friends in the evening.
Of course, there is a big element of luck here. From the start my host family gave me a key to the house and were flexible about times and dinners, busy as they were with their own daily lives. Other friends who enrolled in the homestay program had evening curfews and set times for dinners. Ultimately, there is always the fact that some families may have signed up for financial reasons, rather than the pleasure of knowing that they are helping someone else better understand the culture and values of their own country.
While I’m naturally biased in my view, the general consensus among friends who participated in short-term home stay programs was positive. And the thing that everyone seemed to take away more than the boost to their language skills was the cultural experience itself. After all, the didactic and structured environment of the classroom can only go so far in teaching you about everyday life in Japan, and cultural activities and outing like tea ceremonies and taiko drum performances, interesting as they may be, are really a different thing altogether.
The reality is that of all those attending summer courses, only a minority will go on to truly take their language studies to the point of fluency—or make a longer-term move to Japan further down the line. But while your language may get rusty over the years, the memories and experience you gain from even just a few weeks with a Japanese host family will not fade. Indeed, the relationship may turn into something well above an arrangement for accommodation.
For me this has certainly been the case, and even the words “host family” and “homestay” feel strange to me now when I think about my family here. The other point that rings true is that my time in a real life environment subconsciously prepared me for settling down in Japan; it gave me roots in the country which has made Japan feel like a second home rather than “abroad”.
So if you’re looking at summer courses and considering a homestay, unless you want to be as close to central Tokyo and free of restrictions as possible, I would say that what you can potentially gain from the experience far outweighs the minor stresses that come as part of the package.