People in Japan: Siao Shuen


Those travelling to Shinjuku would discover an array of towering buildings and massive amounts of human traffic. Unbeknown to many, beyond the crowds of people milling through the railway station lies the main campus of Waseda University. That’s where Siao Shuen is currently majoring in the liberal arts.

Apart from her studies, she finds time to play floorball and jazz. “I do translations for a part-time job too,” she laughs. Bunka asks this cheery multilinguist how university life is like in Tokyo.

Describe your daily routine.
Siao Shuen: Classes take up 4 to 6 hours a day though it depends on the college and faculty you’re in. For example, Science students have lab sessions that take up a whole day. CCA, or Circle, as they call it here, takes up 3 to 4 hours – twice a week for me – but there are also clubs that only meet on a monthly basis as well as varsity teams that train every day.

Siao Shuen Routine

It’s pretty common for undergraduate students to work part time as well; I work 3 to 4 hours every alternate weekday. I’m also in the student association here (Singapore Students Association Japan), and we hold events once a month, usually on weekends.

Which city in Japan do you live in and how is like living there?
Siao Shuen: I’m currently living in Tokyo. People studying or working here probably have a very different experience from others living in the more rural areas, or even other major cities like Osaka and Nagoya.

One noticeable difference between Tokyo and Singapore is that people generally dress well for any occasion, even for a quick trip to the neighbourhood supermarket. Tokyo has a vibrant nightlife with many Japanese pubs and bars open till late. Trains on the major lines are mainly crowded during peak hours, the kind you’ve probably never experienced before where the station staff have to push customers in (it’s REAL). Another thing that surprises many is how costly transport is here – taking one stop on the train will set you back ~$1.50 and ~$2.50 on the bus in Tokyo.

State one advantage and disadvantage of working in your city.
Siao Shuen: As a student, the advantage is that you would usually have some free time because the academic expectations are generally lower than in Singapore, or what you might expect to see in the US or UK. In exchange, a lot of initiative is required for you to make full use of your time here.

There are plenty of things for you to do in your free time, with entertainment facilities for people with all sorts of interests. Leisure activities are mostly cheap here. One of the more popular ways to kill time or hang out with friends is singing karaoke since it only costs 50 cents for every 30 minutes on a weekday afternoon.

On the contrary, foreigners are generally disadvantaged in Japan. It’s much harder to find a new apartment, apply for credit cards, and other various things we may take for granted back at home. You may find yourself rejected from some things for no other reason than that you are a foreigner. I assume this is part of living abroad in any country, but perhaps especially so in Japan, where you may stick out like a sore thumb when you don’t look like a typical Japanese.

What tips would you give expats/tourists who are new to Japan?
Siao Shuen: The Japanese are still rather uncomfortable with the English language, so if you’re asking for directions, it might be easier to show them the Kanji or English word instead.

There are not many WiFi spots outside of key areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya so you might want to get portable WiFi. If you’re a tourist planning to travel a lot, consider getting the JR pass as it makes transport pretty affordable. Also, try using the app/website “Tabelog” (食べログ) to check out user ratings of eateries in the vicinity.

Tell us something interesting that most people wouldn’t know about your city.
Siao Shuen: Tokyo is split into the “23 wards” and other municipalities. Most people are familiar with the 23 special wards such as Shinjuku and Shibuya but not so with the other towns. Tokyo also has numerous islands that are open for visiting.

What activities would you recommend to tourists visiting Japan?
Siao Shuen: Hmm, maybe participate in festivals if there happens to be one? Also, there are activities that can only be done in particular seasons, for example, ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) in Spring, momijigari (autumn leaf picking) in Autumn, skiing/snowboarding in Winter as well as seasonal fruit picking such as strawberry and grape picking.

What advice would you give to someone learning Japanese?
Siao Shuen: It depends on what you prioritise in language learning. If you’re learning to be able to use the language conversationally, watch and listen to Japanese variety shows or the lighter news programs. If you’re looking more towards mastering the reading and writing, read as much as you can. Manga and TV programs personally helped me a lot. I didn’t find listening to songs very helpful even though quite a few people recommend it. There is no “best method” that fits everyone but I’d say that the most important thing that applies to everyone in language learning is interest, so try to find something about Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese media that you may like in order to sustain your interest and motivation.

Learn Japanese words!

在住者 (zaijuusha) – resident
部活 (bukatsu) – club activities
居酒屋 (izakaya) – Japanese-styled bar
市町村 (shichooson)  – municipalities