IUC Series: Distance Learning at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies

This article compiles information and reflections on the switch to virtual programming at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies located in Yokohama. Three students who experienced the 10-month program fully online share how the IUC experience has changed and how they navigated distance learning for advanced Japanese.

Who are you, what do you do, and why did you choose to do IUC at this moment in your career? 

Benjamin Freedman (BF): I am a recent college graduate (Middlebury College ’19) working at the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York. Before the pandemic, I was conducting research at Keio University about religious accommodations for foreign visitors in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. My initial plan was to attend IUC in person to continue my research and build upon my language skills (I was already living near Yokohama at the time and was excited for another year in the city…unfortunately, I was evacuated back to the States in March 2020).

Elena G. Mailander (EM): I’m Elena G. Mailander, and I’m an MA/PhD student of modern Japanese history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I chose to do IUC early in my studies so that I could improve my language skills, mainly in order to take advantage of materials for my research that I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to understand until later on in my academic path. 

Daniel Morales (DM): Hello, I’m Daniel Morales, a Chicago-based freelance writer and translator. I contribute to The Japan Times and write the newsletter and website, How To Japanese. I’ve been doing Japan-related work here since 2013 at the Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago and at a trade association for property managers. I decided to make a go of it with freelance work and put in an application to IUC to strengthen my foundation with the language before doing so. I’d known about IUC for a long time but had assumed it was targeted at academics. I attended a networking event hosted by the Pacific Northwest JET Alumni Association and learned that the program also takes applicants in professional careers, which inspired my application. I’d be lying if I said the pandemic was not a factor – I was ready to make a change, and IUC has been an incredible experience.


Can you provide a brief summary of how IUC was affected by the pandemic and moving online?

BF: Needless to say, it’s difficult to replicate an in-person experience through online courses. However, I feel as though IUC did a fantastic job. Classes were rigorous and demanding, and the instructors did their best to create social spaces outside of class for students to get to know one another (club activities, Remo events, etc.). Losing the immersive aspect of the program was unfortunate, but there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.

EM: The IUC was affected by both the spread of the pandemic and the Japanese government’s decision to close the borders; for my program (2021-22), a majority of the students are stuck outside of Japan, and everyone (located in Japan or not) has been attending classes virtually over Zoom. I’m sure there were some adjustments the Center had to make at first, but classes have been running smoothly so far. 

DM: From what I know, IUC moved online during the spring of 2020 as the pandemic worsened around the world. It kept things online through the 2020-2021 year and has done so for 2021-2022 so far…although we came painfully close to making it into Japan – literally 24 hours before we were supposed to arrive on December 1, the country closed the borders. There’s still a chance that we will make it over there this spring, but as I’m writing, the country will likely extend the immigration restrictions through February. It seems that Omicron will make in-person courses difficult even if we do get to Japan.

The courses are all run through a combination of Google Classroom, Google Documents, and Zoom, which makes them  pretty seamless, to be honest. I’ve been seriously impressed with the platform they’ve been able to provide.


What was the course structure like during the 10-month program? What kinds of classes were you able to take, and do you have a sense that it differed from the typical offerings?

BF: The first two quarters emphasized advanced grammar concepts and practical uses of Japanese, while the second two quarters gave us more flexibility to decide our specialization. Despite not having any legal background, I decided to sign up for the Law track — which turned out to be very rewarding! We read foundational legal documents and had fascinating discussions about cultural differences around legal theory. I also took an elective about Taishu Bunka (which was probably my favorite course in the whole program) and a few business electives.

There were a number of exams before and during the program (funnily enough, the only time I’ve ever set foot in the actual building was for the entrance exam in February 2020). There was a standardized assessment at the beginning and end of the program, tracking how much progress we had made. However, there wasn’t an exit exam required for graduation.

EM: I have been able to take classes focused on core Japanese grammar and usage, as well as classes that drew from primary sources (like newspaper articles, news programs, etc.) to practice listening, reading, and understanding. Next semester, we’ll focus on topic-specific Japanese: Japanese history, older grammar, and so on. I do get the sense that things are a bit condensed, and I don’t think we have had as much time to interact with our teachers and peers outside of classes, for obvious reasons. There was an entrance exam, but it wasn’t graded: it was an assessment of your knowledge, to evaluate what aspects of Japanese you need to work on most.

DM: We finished the first two quarters in December and are in our winter break as I write. We had two courses in the first half of the year:

  1. A grammar/language course in which we went over grammar, conjunctions, and etiquette phrases. 5 days a week.
  2. An “applied” course in which we read news/cultural articles, had discussions, and wrote essays. 3 days a week.
  3. We also had the option of attending discussion sections with teachers once or twice a week that included topics provided by teachers, “Tanka Table,” and “Kanji Seminars.” 2 days a week.

In the third and fourth quarters, we will have:

  1. A subject class (History, Literature, Law, Politics, etc)
  2. A themed “applied” class (Popular Culture, Modern History, Business Culture)
  3. A “skills” class (Speaking, Reading, Writing, Workplace Japanese) 
  4. The continuation of the grammar course. 
  5. There’s also once-a-week electives on Bungo, Kanbun, and Japanese business.

This is on top of the self-paced SKIP kanji program (all regular-use kanji divided into 156 lessons that we have quizzes on) and individual projects, which we have not covered so far.


What was your daily schedule like during each quarter? How was this affected by using a virtual environment? Where did you Zoom into IUC from over the course of the year?

BF: I participated in virtual classes from my hometown in Michigan. Because of the time difference, classes would start at 7:00 p.m. for me and end around 11:00 p.m. Consequently, I would typically stay up very late (usually 2-3 a.m.) to both relax and study. After classes, I usually played video games for an hour or two then did homework late into the night. I would sleep in quite late (10-11 a.m.) and study for most of the day, which I found to be a suitable schedule.

EM: I would wake up in the morning, shower, have breakfast, and then get to doing or finishing my homework. For my time zone (PST), classes occurred in the afternoon/evening. So if I had something I wanted or needed to do (exercise, grocery store runs, etc.) I had to do it before class. So far, I’ve been Zooming in from the dining room of my parents’ rented house. There’s no door, which makes noise contamination a constant concern. 

DM: I’m in the Central time zone, so courses were Sunday through Thursday from 6:00-10:00pm at first and then 5:00-9:00pm when the time changed. I found myself going to bed at around 11:00pm-12:00am, waking up between 7:00-9:00am and…basically studying all day. I Zoomed in from my apartment in Chicago except for a few days at the end of the term when I Zoomed in from my hometown of New Orleans and got a better sense of what the program was like for many of my classmates who were living with family. If at all possible, I would recommend trying to find your own space in order to reduce distractions.

Weekends were really critical in my experience. Fridays were completely free and felt like bizarro Saturdays, and because we had classes Sunday night, Saturdays felt like bizarro Sundays. I tried to get as much done on Friday as I could so that the weeks didn’t feel so packed. 


What was most challenging about the virtual format? Most rewarding?

BF: Adjusting to virtual classes was challenging at first. I often wanted to participate in class, but felt impeded by the dynamic of Zoom – having to physically unmute to answer made me more self-conscious, and it wasn’t always clear who else in class was paying attention or trying to actively participate. 

Conversely, the one rewarding aspect of Zoom classes was being able to access a wide variety of resources during class. I always had an online dictionary open in case there was a word I didn’t understand, and the instructors skillfully made use of Google Docs so that we could see the kanji for complicated words as they were being spoken.

EM: I would say the most challenging things have been the lack of immersion and the difficulty in meeting/making friendships outside of class. Everyone gets Zoom fatigue eventually, after all. In terms of rewarding things, I know this hasn’t been the same for everyone, but because I’m staying with my parents, I’ve been able to save some money.

DM: The time difference itself was probably the most challenging aspect of virtual courses. I made sure to get some sort of nap in on most days in the early afternoon, or at least close my eyes even if I couldn’t sleep, otherwise it was difficult to get through the evening classes. After Zoom classes, I tried to get in a quick workout and then either do some pleasure reading or study a little more before bed. Having a light meal before class was also important for me, so I did a lot of meal prepping to make my life easier.

I do think the other challenge is making sure you’re speaking Japanese as much as possible. IUC offered to pair us with conversation partners, which was great. In the second quarter I had a partner on the U.S. East Coast, which made the timing a lot easier. Finding speaking opportunities was the most difficult part of the course, skills-wise.


If you were stuck outside of Japan, did you do anything to compensate for the lack of “immersive” environment?

BF: Honestly, not really. I participated in a few language exchanges over Discord, but they were less helpful and interesting than class itself. I stayed in touch with friends from Japan, but I didn’t go to any great lengths to create an immersive environment outside of class.

EM: So far, I’ve tried to spend extra time listening to Japanese news or music, and reading Japanese articles and books. I challenge myself to learn about things in Japanese, rather than in English, for example. I know it isn’t the same, but it’s a start.

DM: I tried to “do” as much Japanese as possible. I listened to NHK Radio News podcasts several times a day (estimated 30-90 minutes daily) while doing errands/chores. I also watched TV on TVer using a VPN, on Netflix, and wherever else I could find shows to stream. Initially I tried to do some outside reading, but I quickly found that our workload became too much to sustain that.


Do you have any advice for people who have applied to the virtual IUC program or may have to in the future? Any final thoughts?

BF: I would highly recommend students to take advantage of the resources available through IUC. The instructors were always happy to meet outside of class to discuss a wide range of topics: pitch accent training resources, preparation for presentations, Japan-related career advice, etc. I received fantastic mentorship about job applications from Giles Richter, and his support helped me get my current job.

I also want to give credit to everyone at IUC for doing the best they could in a truly miserable situation. I don’t think anyone was happy with remote classes, but the instructors still tried to make every lesson maximally engaging. And although I was disappointed I couldn’t be in Japan, I did improve a considerable amount over the course of the year.

EM: The teachers and staff of the IUC have honestly been so helpful, supportive, and kind during this entire time. I know they realize that the virtual IUC isn’t quite the same, and they’ve been going above and beyond as a result. So if you will be doing the IUC virtually, keep that in mind. Also, set a schedule and stick to it as best you can: it will help you stay focused. If you’re living with others – relatives, roommates, or so on – set clear boundaries, especially concerning when you are and aren’t available. If boundaries don’t work, find a place you can go to focus: I spend a lot of time at coffee shops and the local public library. It’s on you to make the most of the program, so don’t hesitate to prioritize yourself and your studies (as well as your physical and emotional well-being). Do attend the danwa table sessions, as they’re a lot of fun! Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to your teachers, classmates, or the IUC alumni groups if you’re struggling. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more supportive group of people. 

DM: I would absolutely recommend doing IUC virtually – don’t wait for it to return to in-person or let the virtual aspect hold you back. Just do it. I’d even suggest that IUC could create a smaller virtual cohort in addition to its in person offerings once things are back to normal. I think this would be an incredible way to provide access to students who might have trouble attending IUC in Japan even with substantial financial support.

If the program does continue virtually, I’d recommend trying to secure as private a space as possible for studying. Imagine yourself pacing up and down your room practicing a speech in Japanese out loud – in what kind of space would you feel most comfortable doing this? 

This isn’t necessarily for virtual students only: I would recommend brainstorming topics you want to learn about before entering the program. With which topics do you want to gain fluency in Japanese? You will be asked to produce a massive amount of example sentences, speeches, presentations, short written responses, and longer essays, and if you go into the program knowing which topics you want to discuss, you can focus on using the grammar patterns and writing the essays and not on which specific content/topics you will use to fill in the grammar patterns…if that makes sense. You can align this with personal interests, research interests, or things that are in the news/align with the topics you’re discussing in courses, so there’s a lot of flexibility, but I think having a strategy going in would be helpful.

While it is presently unclear how long Japan’s border closures will continue or if the IUC (or other programs) will continue to offer virtual courses after the pandemic has ended, I hope these provide a little insight into what that experience can be like. Thank you to our generous writers!

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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