zemi (ゼミ)

As I explained in a previous post, in Japanese universities you have something called a zemi. Its basically a seminar of around 10 students studying/researching an area of their major the professor is particularly interested in. So in the business faculty you can take zemi on corporate finance or strategic management for example, and in the faculty of law you can take zemi on family law or french law and so on. These seminars usually begin in your third year of college and finish when you graduate. This means that if you pick a crappy zemi (translation: crappy professor), you’re not going to have a good time at all. Very few people change their zemis because the professors take it as a personal insult that you don’t want to study with them (even though they probably suck for some reason or another). This is bad for obvious reasons; what if the professor isn’t what you expected, what if you don’t like the zemi content after all, what if you don’t get along with your zemi-ten or fellow zemi students (as they call them at Hitotsubashi)…Plus, your zemi becomes a big deal in your academic life; you might meet once or twice officially and for a long time (typically three or four hours straight), and you meet outside of class too, for group projects etc. You typically have a ton of work to do for the class. The zemi is also where you write your senior thesis, or sotsuron (卒論).

So it is understandable that the zemi selection process is a big deal for all the third years. When they apply, they list three or four zemi in order of preference. They then have to go in for interviews with the professors. The professors can do the interviews in many different ways; they can do it one-on-one, or, if they’re really tough they can have all the fourth years (the previous year’s third years) also interview the students. Just imagine walking into a room where you have the professor and ten to twelve of your senpais seated in a semi-circle and they all start interrogating you. Remember, the hierarchal system is firmly in place, so the senpai can and will be aggressive/patronizing/just plain mean to try to weed out the students they think are not good enough. I’ve only heard of a few instances when this has actually happened, but I don’t really see the need for it at all.

When it comes to the selection process, there are usually two ways used. One way, is to pick students who have the best grades (that should be fun). The other way which is more commonly used is to choose students who vary in personality and ability to make for an interesting two years. Luckily, my zemi was like this. I was in a zemi for corporate strategic management and we had a good mix of people. I made really good friends with some of them, and some of them I couldn’t stand. Two people I got along with were these two guys; one of them a goth, and the other a guy who obviously grew up listening to alot of hip hop (he’d bob his head when he’d speak to the professor, who was fascinated and appalled at the same time).  Funny thing was that they’re best friends. There were also a few girls in the zemi I got along with. There was however a girl I couldn’t stand, who on the first day of class told me and the other girls in a conspiratoral whisper that she “comes to school on a motorbike”. The other girls were very impressed by all this… but then she added that she doesn’t want us to tell anyone because she wants to maintain her kawaii or “cute” image and didn’t want to be thought of as unfeminine. Unfortunately, she was completely serious. There were some other guys who had never met/dealt with a foreigner before and were very intimidated. It’s understandable, but towards the end, I really wanted to scream everytime they averted their eyes or whatever when I talked to them…it was really frustrating.

Anyway, while the zemi was okay and the professor great, I didn’t really enjoy the subject matter since I had already taken the subject matter as a freshman. Moreover, we were reading an english textbook and our weekly assignment would be to translate an entire chapter. Its a ‘teaching’ method that many Japanese professors use in their zemis. It was a great chance for me to improve my Japanese but I wanted to learn something new too. So I joined a fuku zemi or second zemi to study innovation management. I had always found the subject matter extremely interesting, and the professor had studied at MIT. It also turned out that he was my first zemi professor’s senpai and they had studied with the same professor and even written a book together. I had made the right decision because there are no seminar-style classes at Wharton on innovation management and the professor and zemi-ten were just great.  

Bottom-line: if you are ever in the situation where you have to choose zemi, ask around and see which professors are good and which are terrible. Some zemis are known for being really chill and some for being very challenging. It depends on what you’re looking for.


welcome to hell: japanese banks

So if you’ve never had the japanese banking experience, you’re in for a real treat. First of all, they’re only open five hours a day (from 10am to 3pm) and never on weekends – thus the working week for a Japanese bank teller comes tooooo a grand total of 25 hours a week…

Oh and never mind that the ATM machines are cleverly located inside the bank and also have their own ‘business hours’. As a result, if you wanted to withdraw money during the weekends or when the ATMs are ‘closed’ you have to go to the ATM machines at a convenience store and pay a fee. 

It gets worse: as it is Japan, there is of course, online banking…however, you have to pay to use it. @$#?@?!?!

Lets just say that customer service is not their forte.

Also, a quaint little feature of the banking system in particular and the legal system in general is that most people still use their hanko, or stamp/seal instead of a signature to verify important documents. This is freakin 2007. How do you expect to be taken seriously if you’re still using seals??

Anyway, I opened my account at Sumitomo in February and although I got my bankbook immediately, by June I still hadn’t received my bank card. There were (as you would expect) multiple visits to the branch during which I displayed varying degrees of anger depending on the weather that day, but to no avail. In the end, I had to keep going to the bank tellers to withdraw money with my bankbook.

Now, this is where things get exciting. When you want to withdraw money you fill out a form with your signature (or seal) and secret number and submit it together with your bankbook. The teller checks the book and the number and then, get this, compares your signature to the sample signature you gave them when opening your account. Of course, if you’re using a hanko she compares hankos. Now, since when are bank tellers handwriting experts? And notice that they don’t ask for freakin ID? ID!! You’d think it was common sense. But nooooo.

Once, the teller thought the signatures didn’t match. I very patiently told her that I could show her ID if she’d like. What did she do instead? She called her girlfriends (other tellers) over and they had a ten minute discussion about whether or not my signature was legit? I honestly thought I was being punked.



So as I mentioned a post or two ago, we don`t have internet in the international house at the moment. They had promised us that it would be ready by the end of last month, but of course that counted for nothing. We`ve tried opening individual contracts with internet companies but were told that we couldn`t (goodness knows why). Not only is it a total bummer that you can`t check your mail whenever you want to, but its a real disappointment- I mean you come to freakin Japan, and you go to its best business school and voila no internet.

All this being said, its definitely been entertaining watching the administration squirm as we complain (we are not japanese, we are obnoxious gaijin, we`ll let people know when we`re pissed). The first instance was at the i-house welcome party which was mysteriously held a month after school started. We had a nice relaxing evening – they brought in two koto players which was neat and gave a few speeches; nothing too exciting. But then, one not-so-bright administrator brought up the subject of the internet and it just so happened that he was unlucky enough to have Ben, a guy from australia who is especially pissed off about the whole thing, sitting right smack in front of him.

It was pure entertainment. The administrator goes “we are working as hard as can to close a contact as fast as possible” and Ben interrupts him “when?”

The poor guy wasn`t expecting this of course:

Administrator: as soon as we possibly can.

Ben: when?

Administrator: I can`t possibly tell you exactly…

Ben: what day? when?

This went on for a few minutes and is a good example of a feature of Japanese culture that can frustrate you to no end – you can never get a straight answer, especially when you want it the most (Ben never did find out when).

Next there was a welcome party held for all then incoming exchange students, not just the people at i-house. This was hosted by all the big shots at the university: the pres, the vice-pres etc. As it was sponsored by Toyota, there were many big shots from over there too.

Tangent – After we had a group kanpai (toast) and everyone was mingling, I had the singularly unpleasant experience of meeting the ex-president of toyota u.s.a.. I was standing with a guy from germany and a girl from taiwan. He comes over and brings with him a little man who I suppose is his sidekick. Pres. introduces himself to me and tells me that he lived in the states in English. His sidekick then adds “he was president of toyota usa you know”. Good for him. Pres. then introduces himself to the german guy. Brownnoser san then adds “he created the lexus brand”. I must add here that the big boss actually beamed (yes, beamed) with every word that came out of the shrimp`s mouth. This continued for a few minutes and in all this he didn`t see it necessary to introduce himself to the taiwanese girl – a glaringly obvious slight. In the end I introduced her myself and she was bestowed with a slight incline of the head and a grunt. Charming. End of Tangent.

Of course in a bureaucratic system sending the message straight to the top is always more effective than a bottom-up strategy. Since all the big shots of the university were there having a good time on toyota`s budget, we thought it would be a good idea to let them know that we were surprised, that unlike our universities back home and contrary to our expectations, hitotsubashi`s international house is not hooked to the internet.

Needless to say, it did the trick.

部活動紹介 (bukatsudou shoukai )

The weekend before the class orientation week began Hitotsubashi had its bukatsudou shoukai, which roughly translates to club activities introduction. Its basically a chance for incoming freshmen to get to meet members of different clubs and begin to think about which to join. From a club`s point of view this event is very important so they all put in a lot of effort to try and entice the froshies. For example they make huuuuuuuge placards advertising their club and pass out fliers at the gates of both campuses. They also exhibit some of their club`s activities: so the karate club held a few demonstration spars, the dance club had a dance off, the cheerleading club did their thing etc. Its a really busy time for most students but a lot of fun I would imagine.

For those of you who don`t know in Japan there are two types of clubs: bukatsudou and circles. Bukatsudou are really intense and usually have manadatory practice four times a week. Circles on the other hand are more relaxed with two or three practices and you don`t have to go to each and every one. For exchange students joining a club is  a great opportunity to meet people and make Japanese friends. If you`re not a sports person never fear, there all sorts of other clubs like ikebana, cooking, MUN etc.

I went to the shoukai with three of my exchange student guy friends, all of whom are extremely tall and buff. As a result the moment we walked into the centre of campus we were literally attacked by all sorts of clubs. The fact that you are a foreigner makes you interesting to most Japanese students, so you are in high demand. Be forewarned however, some of the more traditional clubs may not be too enthusiastic about letting exchange students join for various reasons, one of them being that exchange students are sometimes perceived as slackers when it comes to serious training. In general, if you decide to join a serious bukatsudou just be sure that you are one hundred percent committed (as in you will go to every practice, even the ones during the holidays) or you might annoy your fellow club members.

After the shoukai, the clubs e-mail all the freshmen who signed up and get them to come to nomikai s (drinking gathering, usually at an izakaya) /hanamis (sakura viewing)/preliminary practices etc as a chance to meet all the club members on their turf and get a feel for things. This goes on until May by which time freshman should have made up their minds as to what club to join.

japanese internet cafes

The internet in the kaikan has been down since January according to some people, and won`t be up again until the end of April. So much for my glowing report – I knew there had to be a catch somewhere. If you compare this to the technological infrastructures most U.S. schools are equipped with….well. Since most of us living in the kaikan come from places where net usage is like breathing, we`ve all been going to the local internet cafe.

If you have never been to a Japanese internet cafe, every user has their own spacious (private) cubicle. This obviously enables customers to do certain things they wouldn`t normally do in public. I was presented this theory by one of the guys from the kaikan, and me being the naive bunny I am couldn`t believe it. A few days later, another guy friend told me that since he`s pretty tall (6ft+) he can see over the tops of the doors of the cubicles and more often than not, there`s something dubious playing on the screen. Now that I think about it, its no wonder that the guy in charge of the place really scrubs the cubicles down after certain customers leave. One word: eww. While I am not criticising the viewing of such materials…go do that stuff at home fer godsake!!

assist and magic lamps

Hitotsubashi has a really neat student organization called ASSIST; as the name suggests they help incoming exchange students with everything from moving in to government paperwork to registering for courses and so on. If I am not mistaken Penn doesn`t have anything like this, or if they do its not as prominent as ASSIST. These guys are really helpful and friendly and more importantly, patient to a fault – I myself can`t stand waiting around at the municipal office for my own paperwork; it must really suck for them. After meeting students on the the day they move in, the ASSIST person assigned provides students with his or her cell phone number, in case they have any questions later on about the university/japan/whatever. For exchange students this is a great opportunity to make Japanese friends, which can be really difficult if you are living with other international students/you`re Japanese isn`t that great. The group is also throwing a welcome party for exchange students in a couple of weeks, which is something to look forward to.

There are lots of organizations/programs like ASSIST that support exchange students and help them get used to Japanese life. One of the bigger ones is Magic Lamp run by a nice old lady called Arai san. This lady is superwoman without the tights. Just yesterday, she came buy with two of her friends with a car load of futons/covers/blankets for the newcomers to the international dorm or kaikan. These things are generally very expensive in the area so Arai san gets the community to donate them to students. You can basically just go to her place and ask for stuff and she will help arrange for it which is ridiculous.

I felt ridiculous when I went over with a group of Thai girls and met with her. When I told her that I`m originally Egyptian she kind of went bonkers on me (in her defence, I`m probably the only Egyptian in Kunitachi at the moment) and asked me to cook for her International Cuisine club sometime. I told her I`d make her some molokheya, a plant that the Japanese, I was surprised to find, also eat. But whereas Arabs eat molokheya as a soup/sauce with rice or bread, the Japanese eat  モロヘイヤ as part of a vegetable dish. When her dog sauntered into the room, Arai san was thrilled to point out that her dog is called Cleopatra, because `she is so beautiful`. She expected me to swoon – I did but for a different reason altogether. No offense to her, but by no stretch of the imagination can her dog be considered beautiful.  Amazingly, the others didn`t seem to think anything was wrong, so I refrained from making any comment and had a private giggle instead.

 After an hour or so of conversation, I arranged for my futons to be delivered and also applied for a Kunitachi host family (I won`t be living with them) to support me during my stay at the suggestion of ex-Hitotsubashi exchange students. Anymore support and they`ll be taking my classes for me. Its great.

international house

I moved into Hitotsubashi`s International House on the 29th. It was really sad leaving Junko, but I`m probably going to visit her from time to time. She helped call up a moving company to help me take my things from Mitaka to Kunitachi, and the `company` turned out to be an seventy year old man with a pick-up truck *sigh*. Not suprisingly, he was pretty strong and helped me carry my things up to the fourth floor of the dorm.

Despite not liking it at first, i-house is actually great compared to your average dorm at Penn. Sure the rooms are pretty small (this is Japan after all) but there are all sort of shelves and storage spaces to put your stuff, not to mention the fact that you have your own toilet and sink. One thing that really stood out was how clean the place was – just thinking of the grimy halls of the Quad…bleh. All this and the rent is about a quarter of what it is in Penn. Its too good to be true. I can`t help but feel that that the Hitotsubashi exchange students studying at Penn right now are getting the shorter end of the stick on this one.

I-house is a four storey building with the office and general common room on the ground floor, and a kitchen and tv room on each of the other floors. All in all there are about 60 residents in i-house, so everyone knows everyone. They come from all over the place; some are just exchange students like me, some are taking a six month intensive japanese course and some are research students, and thats what makes i-house such an interesting place to live. For example, the main language used in i-house is Japanese because not everyone comes from English speaking countries/backgrounds, so you are forced to use nihongo and it makes the experience more valuable of course.