The ins and outs of arranging homestays
Studying abroad in your teenage years – this experience of being far from your homeland on yourself for the very first time, experiencing a brand new culture, lifestyle, and quite often language, can be a life-changing adventure. For many people who did overseas homestays in their youth, the memories of those days and the knowledge they had gained through it may often bring fond memories of the experience – or even can define future careers or dreams.
The process of arranging such homestays, however, is complex, involving not only much preparation and speedy organization, but also involves various cultural issues that are rarely spoken about. Japan, where such homestay programs are still highly popular, is certainly not an exception.
Japan Today visits the office of World Youth Service Society Japan (WYS), a NPO based in Tokyo which specializes in arranging overseas homestays both inbound and outbound, to hear more about Japan’s overseas homestay programs from Senior Director Nobuo Arita who has been working in this field since 1976.
What kind of organization is WYS?
World Youth Service Society (WYS) was established in Canada in 1980 as a youth exchange organization at secondary school level. The Tokyo office was opened in 1991. In 2008, we changed to a Japanese NPO. WYS specializes in arranging homestays – both inbound and outbound. We act as an agent for high school students who wish to go abroad from Japan and such who wish to come to Japan. We don’t get grants or subsidies and rely on program fees from Japanese students or partner organizations in other countries.
What is your main program?
Our main program is high school exchange. We send around 80 Japanese students, aged 15-18, to 13 countries – U.S., Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and South Korea. We accept almost the same number from 20 countries, from 20 countries – from the U.S. to Europe, Mexico, Finland and many more. All students, both inbound and outbound, are also exempt from paying school tuition and they live with volunteer host families for the duration of the program. Abroad and in Japan they are responsible only for their own expenses.
WYS is one of the very few organizations in Japan which both send and receive students to and from Japan. We have established this as one of our policies because we believe that if we cooperate with our partner organizations around the world on the same level, we will be able to achieve a high level of mutual understanding. If we have this understanding, we will be able to tackle all problems together more efficiently, which as a result is more beneficial for the students.
I heard that you are currently not sending students to Canada. Why is that?
An exchange student program is by definition a non-payment program. However, since around 2000, Canada gradually began prioritizing placements of study-abroad students who go to Canada on payment programs. This is because such programs also provide a good allowance for the students’ host families, unlike exchange students who usually stay with volunteer host families. As this became the trend, it became difficult for foreign exchange students to go to Canada on a non-payment program, because it is harder to find volunteer families. That is why we are currently not sending any students to Canada. We hope, however, to restart that in the future.
How long is the program?
Outbound Japanese students take part in a program for one academic year. Foreign students are accepted for 5-month and 10-month programs.
Which countries are the most popular for Japanese students?
New Zealand and the U.S. I think that more students want to go to the U.S., but some parents express concerns over safety issues, and encourage their children go somewhere like New Zealand.
How do Japanese students prepare for their homestays?
First, we send brochures each April to 2,700 high schools in Japan. Students have to apply with the principal’s recommendation. Many access us through our homepage. We have seven recruiting and screening sessions each year in 24 cities in Japan. These involve an English test, what we call a “common sense” (general knowledge) test and interviews. When we are screening candidates, their motivation for studying abroad is very important. Their health condition, such as allergies, and food preferences, is a big issue, too, because it becomes a burden for the host families if they have a student who needs a special diet – you may guess that placing such students becomes more difficult, both for inbound and outbound.
After we have selected the candidates, we hold an orientation session of two nights and three days in Tokyo, during which we explain to all students what they need to be cautious about, how to behave with their families, how to behave at school, and so on, followed by several other similar orientation sessions before they leave Japan. We require all students to have a certain level of English and help them improve until they leave.
What happens if there are problems when they go abroad?
If there are problems, the partner organizations in each country deal with it while keeping us informed about the situation at all times. All partner organizations have counsellors in areas where students are. Students are generally not allowed to change host families at their will and one of the reasons for this is that we wish they will find ways to manage different situations, understand other cultures, house rules and habits. That is why we and our partner organizations always tell students to communicate with their host families (and vice versa) about all issues they may have.
If students want to change host families due to some problem, they contact their counsellor, and also us. We tell them to try a different approach first and if it goes well, then everything is fine. If there is no improvement, we ask both the host family and the students to have a good conversation once again, telling each other directly what the problem is. If that doesn’t work, which isn’t usually the case, then sometimes students end up changing their host families under the guidance of their local coordinator and us.
For example, if students are homesick, it is not a good idea to contact their parents or friends in their own countries too frequently, because that will only make them more homesick. It’s better to work it out with the homestay family or teacher, who are trained and advised to help students pass through this period of being homesick, which usually happens about three months after their arrival. I’m happy to say there are very few cases in which students gave up and came back to Japan.
What about inbound students?
There are some issues to deal with. Japanese host families generally prefer to accept students from English-speaking countries, but we would like them to accept students from all over the world. That is why we are in need of volunteer host families who would wish to host students from various countries. At present, the situation is not perfect regarding this matter.
As to the selection process, it is the same as for our outbound students – we check their grades, recommendation letters from teachers, questionnaires, pictures describing their lifestyle, etc. After we accept them, we begin searching for schools and host families that are eager to host them. We usually have no problem finding schools, because most schools are very interested in having exchange students. It is actually more difficult finding host families. For families who are interested in accepting foreign students, we visit each home and have private orientations.
Do you need more host families?
Yes. We have so many students who wish to come to Japan and experience the culture. However, in order to increase their number, we need to increase the number of families who are willing to host the students for either the entire program or for at least several months. What we wish families to know is that welcoming a student at their homes is needless to say a challenge, but there are also immeasurable benefits. In the past, we have had families who established very close bonds with the students, and have continued to keep in touch even after the students go back to their home countries. As a result of staying with a Japanese host family, many students go back to their countries having knowledge of Japan that just a stay as a tourist can never give them. We are very grateful to the host families for passing on that knowledge.
What concerns do Japanese host families have about foreign students?
At the initial stage, families usually do not have many concerns. That is because we make sure to prepare students about what to expect in Japan, the way of living here, Japanese customs, and so on. For example, we ask students to write in their applications whether they are picky eaters, whether they would have issues adapting to a family with pets, with many children, or with families whose members smoke, and consider their preferences when placing them with host families. Some issues usually arise after the arrival of the students – for example, some families get concerned that foreign students do not spend enough time studying Japanese, or that they use their computers for more than the allowed time, or that they do not initiate quality-level communication with the family.
The biggest problem for some families is students’ motivation – families expect them to be open to new experiences and knowledge, but sometimes this turns out to be difficult for some students. Apart from that, it is rather funny, but some families express discontent that foreign students leave the toilet door open – but host families abroad, on the contrary, complain that Japanese students leave the door closed. Culture is quite interesting at times. We believe that those difficulties are largely due to the still lack of mutual understanding of different cultures. That is why we hope that having more and more students coming to Japan and going abroad from Japan, will help overcome these cultural misunderstandings.
Can families, where one spouse is non-Japanese, be host families?
Certainly. We have 3-4 families like that. In fact, we believe that such families would offer great guidance for students, because they have most probably experienced struggling and studying abroad already and have learned a great deal from it. We, however, ask them to use Japanese and to introduce students to the Japanese culture, because that is the students’ purpose of being in Japan.
Did numbers drop after the March 11, 2011 disaster?
Yes, the number of inbound students dropped to about 40-50, but numbers are back up now.
Do you plan to expand the program?
I would like to increase student numbers in future. The number of Japanese going abroad to study is falling. I think many young Japanese find it easier to study in Japan under a system they are well aware of. Studying abroad is challenging, so many young people are unfortunately avoiding it recently.
Did you experience a homestay when you were a student?
Unfortunately, no. When I was a student, not many Japanese went abroad for homestays. It wasn’t popular in those days.
For more information, visit http://www.wys.gr.jp
For inquiries, please call 03-5651-0339 or e-mail WYS at firstname.lastname@example.org English available.