Hosting Japanese Exchange Students

Education things

Japanglish SignThe Japanese folks that study in America all end up improving their English drastically, even in short amounts of time. Here in Japan, even though the people are clever, the education system is so incredibly broken and ineffective that they never reach their full potential until they go overseas. Japanese education involves a teacher telling the students fact, and the students taking down notes. There is no practical application of any knowledge, just rote memorization.

When the student shows up to stay with you, ask them “How are you?”. They will probably respond with a canned “I’m fine thank you and you”, which they’ve been drilled to do, yet if you were to ask the average American “How are you?”, you would hear dozens of different responses ranging from “I’m doing great!” to “Things aren’t going well today”. At first, they are going to be overwhelmed and slightly put off that we don’t use a single phrase to answer questions, and for a variety of reasons probably won’t be the ones asking questions. You can really help them learn quickly by having them ask you the same things you ask them, and having them repeat answers. It seems a little ridiculous, but this will likely be one of their first times using English outside of a classroom setting, and they need to hit the ground running.

I have to knock on Japanese due to pronunciation as well. This isn’t the fault of Japanese people or an inability to form difficult sounds, but once again on their education system. English has a lot more sounds than Japanese does, yet Japanese textbooks represent these foreign sounds with their own limited alphabet. Something like “I have been to the store” ends up sounding like “I habu been tsu za sutoah” since their phonetic system lacks TH, Z, hard R, and L. Japanese students can learn TH easily enough just if they would stick their tongues out. V is more difficult, but they know how to do it. R and L are especially hard since no sounds in Japanese force the tongue into the proper positions. “see” will also often become “she” if they aren’t careful.

Also, Japanese word order is pretty much opposite of English. Due to the education system focusing on memorization, it’s going to be a little while before the student learns to stop translating in their head and just start speaking without too much focus on accuracy. If they hope to become fluent, they need to forget Japanese and just use the English that they know. Asking a lot of “A or B” questions to them forces them to not just say “yes” or “no”, but also forces them to respond quickly to your questions without needing to formulate the grammar on their own.

If they say something weird that doesn’t quite make sense, ask for clarification. There are a lot of English words that have been adopted in Japan that don’t carry the same meanings. Things like “renewal” meaning “renovation”, “pants” meaning “panties, “front glass” meaning “windshield”, and “shoe cream” meaning “cream puff”. If they say something weird, acting shocked will embarrass them and help them not make the mistake again, but being teenagers, they will respond better to you asking for clarification and correcting them.

Food things

The McGangbangJapanese love rice. Love it. They eat rice practically everyday and buy rice cookers that cost upwards of 1000 dollars for use at home. From my interaction with Japanese exchange students back in university, they will really start to miss rice after a week or two without it. You could really cheer them up if you were to get a cheap rice cooker and some Calrose rice. Japanese believe that their rice is the best in the world, but the stuff that comes from California is practically the same thing, so you won’t have too much difficulty in finding something that gives them a taste of home. Don’t worry too much about preparing Japanese food for them. Most of the ingredients cost a lot more, or are hard to find in America. If they have the opportunity to eat some rice every once in a while it should stave off their homesickness a bit.

As Japan’s perception of American foods is usually limited to what’s served in McDonald’s, they’ll be surprised that in addition to awesome hamburgers, America also has ribs, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and casseroles. I have never met a Japanese person who doesn’t like a real BBQ. In Japan, having a BBQ means renting equipment and then cooking yakisoba or curry.
American dessert is too sweet for most Japanese tastes. Japanese “spicy” is American “mild”. Americans drink a lot more milk than Japanese do. Japanese portion sizes are made for human consumption, and American portions are made for fatties.


After traveling halfway around the world, and likely unable to sleep due to a mixture of excitement and fear, the best activity for an exchange student on their
first day is without a doubt, sleep. Crossing over multiple timezones absolutely wrecks sleeping patterns, and then extending the day doing activities will
probably be too much for them, and they won’t be in a position to say “I need sleep”. If possible, have the first few days free of major activities and allow them to adjust
to their new sleeping schedule.

Handshaking exists in Japan, but it is as awkward and forced as an American bowing. Americans have rules about what a “good” handshake is; it must be firm, and eye contact must be made.
Likewise, Japanese have rules how to bow; how deeply the incline, and placement of hands convey different levels of respect.

In general, Japan has a no-touching rule in their culture. You don’t often shake hands, and hugging a friend is quite rare as well. (This no-touching rule goes out the window
on trains, where you can spoon a total stranger without repercussion)

An exchange student arrives and their role falls somewhere between family member and guest. They cannot be expected to perform upkeep around the house all the time, but on the
other hand, you aren’t required to submit to their every whim. Treat them as you would treat a good friend who is staying with you for a prolonged period of time.


pokemonzI can safely assume that you have millions of things in your area that will interest a Japanese exchange student. Even the most mundane things to you are going to be awesome for them. When I first visited Japan as a teenager, one of my favorite things to do was to go to supermarkets. It’s something that should be familiar, yet ended up being so strange, new, and exciting that I absolutely loved it. There were no sprawling aisles of cereal, or massive walls of dairy products. Instead, you get an entire aisle dedicated to vinegar and fermented food, and all kinds of wacky vegetables.
Little details, such as the prices of movies, or the sizes of Coca-Cola bottles are all going to be surprising and fun for them. Everything that you do, every activity that you do with them, every single thing that you teach them is going to leave a lasting impression on them.

Our family hosted 3 exchange students, one from Germany, one from China, and another from Taiwan. The Taiwanese guy would go into his room, and study…. by himself…. all the time. The girls from Germany and China would hang out with their friends and saw their English abilities improve by leaps and bounds, whereas the Taiwanese guy whose ability was initially higher when he first arrived, hardly improved at all.
Be a bro. Invite them to everything you do. Have people ask them questions. Introduce them to people. See if they have any questions, and answer them objectively.

Also, thank you for hosting them. You are really going to make a difference in their life.

2 thoughts on “Hosting Japanese Exchange Students

  1. We have hosted 3 students from Japan over the years and they truly are wonderful to have around the house. I couldn’t agree more with you about the white rice (wow! They really love it!), but I think that their pronunciation and speaking ability was completely suitable for life in the States. I didn’t notice anything that you mentioned except for some R/L confusion, but even then the pronunciation was understandable.
    If you would like to talk about my experiences hosting, please get in contact with me. 🙂

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