Usually when you study abroad in Japan through your home institution as an undergrad, you get asked the big question: dorm or homestay? Most Japanese universities affiliated with sister institutions (for example, Gettysburg College is affiliated with Kansai Gaidai, and Temple University) have some kind of homestay option for you to experience life in Japan with a Japanese family. These families are given a stipend to take you into their homes and introduce you to Japanese culture and language, hopefully providing a more culturally rich and linguistically intensive experience during your stay.
But if you aren’t affiliated with a college or university, how should you go about searching for somewhere to live? This was a question I asked myself when I decided to attend the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies (IUC) in my second year of graduate school at Ohio State University. Though Ohio State has a number of affiliated programs with universities, the IUC is not an accredited institution, but a language training center, meaning that homestay was not an option. In fact, it is strongly discouraged by the Center; they want you to focus on research and language acquisition, not becoming accustomed to Japanese culture and lifestyle through a family that could potentially be distracting to your studies.
Then why do unaffiliated homestay?
For me, homestay was a choice I wanted to pursue in spite of this for a number of reasons:
1) because I had had my fill of research-oriented Japanese learning. My reading and writing in historical scholarship were quite good, but my spoken and daily conversation in modern Japanese were shaky. It was weird and disappointing that I could read 12th century texts and scholarship on 16th century history, but I couldn’t understand everyday television shows and lacked vital modern vocabulary.
2) because I missed out on the chance in undergrad to do affiliated homestay, and I always, always regretted it. A semester in international dorms was fun, and it had its perks, but I was always sad that I missed perhaps my only chance to have a host family in a foreign country.
3) because financially, it made the most sense. While the IUC and other places may offer discounted housing, I had no savings and was only on a Foreign Language Area Studies summer fellowship, which meant I had a $2,500 stipend for the summer for travel expenses, food, rent, textbooks, etc. That is barely anything! The possibility of paying for key money, security deposit, food costs, furniture, kitchen supplies, and more out of pocket was simply not feasible.
4) because many homestays will offer to cook breakfast and dinner for you as a part of their rental fee. For a student who has very little money and who plans on focusing primarily on studying, this was a huge plus. If I could find a cheap homestay, I just might survive my time in Japan.
Finding an unaffiliated homestay
Finding an unaffiliated homestay meant using everyone’s trusty friend: the internet. Now this didn’t take any special searching or digging. Honestly, I just typed ‘homestay Japan’ into Google and the first site that came up seemed to be the most trustworthy one I could navigate with the least amount of effort. I used http://www.homestayweb.com/, and I actually highly recommend it if you want to be in complete control of the homestay selection experience, because most of the other resources I list in our Life Abroad section have some sort of company or organization that acts as the go-between to negotiate your arrangement. If that’s what you’re looking for, of course, all the power to you (click here to go to a list of such sites).
However, I wanted to make direct contact with the families and choose the right one for me, without the hassle of applications or service charges, and Homestayweb let me do that. In addition to posting an advertisement on the message board area, I could search homestays by area (in my case, Kanagawa prefecture), and take a look at people who had put up their own profiles offering rooms in their homes to foreign students. I highly suggest you be proactive and email as many people as possible!
Here is what comes up when you search by area:
It’s pretty self-explanatory. Note that these first three include photos, which is often not the case. When I emailed people I asked them for photos of themselves and their home and offered photos of myself as well. Take special note that these prices are weekly prices in yen, and you’re expected to pay as such!
A typical profile looks like this:
Some people don’t put up much information at all, and others are quite detailed. Of course, this in no way reflects the quality of your future homestay. Not every family has a good grasp of English.
Being careful about choosing a homestay
This goes without saying. Remember, Homestayweb is not responsible for any interactions with you and a potential homestay. There isn’t a filtering method as with many homestay services that interview the people you sign up with. In my experience, some people were single, looking to fill a room or have a guest to talk with. I remember one of the people I contacted ended up being a 20-something guy who wanted to rent out part of an apartment one of his male friends was the other occupant of. But most were families. You never know quite what you’re going to get, and if you’re contacting people from America, you can’t meet them ahead of time (though you probably could Skype!). If something sounded fishy when I read an email, I politely declined.
Is this a homestay? Or a sharehouse/guesthouse?
One thing I noticed was that here and there sharehouses/guesthouses (similar to hostels, places renting out multiple rooms to many foreigners) sometimes try to pass themselves off as homestays. Ask lots of specific questions about daily interaction, people within the house, if other homestay students will be there, etc. Some people genuinely want to have foreigners experience life with their family, others are just out for a profit. I had a friend in the summer program of the IUC who ended up in a sharehouse which was her and 6 random men (both Japanese and foreign). Talk about uncomfortable!
Who is a good fit for me? What are they looking for?
This is VERY important. What are your host family’s goals, and what kind of family are they? How long of a stay do they want to do? What kind of person are they looking for (**most families will say female-only, ages 18-24, so take note!)? You’ll notice that a lot of people with young children want to have homestay guests. This is more often than not because:
1) they want you to teach their young children some English
2) they may be a housewife at home and want company
This sounds terribly stereotypical, but I’ve found a lot of the time it’s true. And if you don’t mind working in some English lessons here and there for the kids, it’s not much of a problem. There’s a good deal of people on this site with children ages 1-7. But my recommendation? Do not enter a house with children under 3 years old. Maybe this is my personal preference. Maybe you love babies! Regardless, this may mean that there is a child in the house that could be constantly crying and need attention, or that the host family has stricter than normal rules.
When I had a homestay in Yokohama during the summer, there was a 2 year old in the house. This meant lots of crying, lots of distracted Mommy, and since the father was rarely home because of business, the mother wanted me home by 10pm every night or she’d lock me out. Since there were four layers of security between her and an intruder, and because I was a 23 year old graduate student, I was shocked that she felt that way, but being the guest in the house, I couldn’t complain. My host mother was also a housewife, and barely left the house. I never saw her with any other friends, and she even had all her food delivered to her door. Kind of strange, and something I couldn’t have anticipated complicating my stay.
On the other hand, my second homestay during the academic year was a family of two working parents with children ages 4 and 6, and let me tell you, those kids were a blast! Just old enough to be outgoing and have a conversation with you, and be really interested in learning some entertaining English words. It was great fun being the big sister they wanted to play with all the time, and there was a lot more freedom in the house in general. The family wanted to go on vacations and have me spend time with them, but also respected that I was a student and an adult, so I was given a key to the house and asked to let them know my schedule and if I would be out late or past the last train. It was a fantastic experience and the homestay I had always wanted.
Of course, every home is different, and depending on your own goals in doing homestay, a certain type of family might be right for you. Additionally, your goals might be best served by going through a service rather than somewhere completely independent like Homestayweb. My advice is: whatever you choose, investigate it thoroughly! That’s the only way to find a good fit and stay safe.
I’ve gathered a lot of links for homestay and housing services, so be sure look at our “Life Abroad” tab, or just click here to check them out.
Photo 1 by TheBusyBrain