Editor's note: Linda Marlind of Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology recently completed a year's work experience, combined with language and cultural training, in Japan through the Vulcanus programme that is aimed at European science and engineering students. She shares her experience of applying for, and participating in, this scheme.
Everything seemed to happen so fast. One minute I was hanging out with my family and friends in Sweden, and the next I was in the middle of Tokyo, lost in a world full of sounds and sights I didn't understand. People were running in every direction, and I was feeling very stupid standing in front of the subway map--all the stations were neatly marked in Japanese! I have travelled all over the world but I had never felt so lost before. Suddenly the prospect of living in Japan for a whole year seemed rather overwhelming.
Things changed quickly though. Now I easily find my way around, I even feel comfortable driving a car here. But let's start from the beginning:
I am studying chemical engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg but I have always been interested in foreign countries and have travelled throughout my life. Before I started my university studies I took a year off and travelled around the world; not to Japan though--it is too expensive. ... I did meet some Japanese travellers however and my interest in Japan grew and grew.
After my third year at Chalmers I knew that I needed a break to keep my motivation going, so I started looking for something meaningful to do for 1 year. Japan, with its highly industrialised society and very interesting culture, was especially appealing. I found out about the Vulcanus programme  through a job fair at our school and it was just what I was looking for! Just the right balance between language studies and internship and it is aimed only at engineers and scientists so the chance of getting a challenging internship is big; who wants to serve coffee for a year?!
The 10-page application wouldn't have been too difficult if it hadn't been for the motivation letter, explaining why I wanted to take part, and what I had to offer. I find it somewhat hard to brag about what I can do and how good I am. Luckily I have a sister who thinks I am great and with her help I managed to overcome my shyness and actually put together a pretty good letter. Grades and CV are important but they tell very little about how you are as a person, so I think it is vital that the personal letter shows that you are an easy person to work with and that you are motivated to tackle all the problems that can and will accrue during the year in Japan.
For example, one problem that you definitely will face is how differently a Japanese company works compared to a European one. On the surface it might look like any other modern company, but you can't take away the cultural differences that influence both the whole company structure and how you interact with your colleagues. Mostly it is very interesting to learn how another culture works but sometimes it can be very frustrating.
The Vulcanus year in Japan starts in the beginning of September with a 4-month language course in Tokyo together with the other selected students from all over Europe. There were 17 of us in my group but it varies from year to year; this year I believe that closer to 30 students will get the chance to enjoy a year in Japan. The course is very intense but good because you are lost without the language. The teachers are great, they are there to help you and you truly feel that they love teaching us strange gaikoku-jin (foreigners).
About every second week the class is replaced by a 1-day seminar. Not only are these a very nice break from studying, but also they are often incredibly interesting. The EU-Japan centre invites different people that have a profound knowledge of the Japanese way of life, both foreigners and natives. They talk about various things: Japanese history, the Japanese economy, and innovation in Japan to mention just a few.
If you study hard I think you can learn quite good Japanese, but for me learning about Japanese life was more fun. ... I didn't spend as much time studying as I was supposed to. Of course it would be great to be able to speak better Japanese but I wouldn't have wanted to give up on all the fun things a metropolis like Tokyo can offer.
A few of us went home to spend the much-needed Christmas break with our families, but most students stayed to enjoy their spare time in Tokyo. At the beginning of January we all started to work in different companies, situated all over Japan. Luckily my best friend in the group and I ended up very close to each other; I live in Kanagawa, about 1 hour southwest of Tokyo. Also, two of the other students that I get along with very well are working in the same company as me. Some in the group were not that lucky. One guy is living all alone in the middle of nowhere, not even close to a post office so he has to stack his letters in a pile ready for the occasional time he takes the bus to the nearest town!
When we were selected we were given a project theme from a company, a few sentences on a piece of paper. It doesn't tell you a lot about what you are going to do for 8 months, but it gives you an indication of what the company wants you to focus on. Naturally it is up to the company to decide the framework for the project, and understandably the company can't put together an internship that fits you perfectly, but I think most of us had the possibility to mould the project theme to suit us better. The quality of the internship varies a little bit between all of us but I think most people are pretty happy.
As for me I am very lucky. My internship is at the Canon Research Center in Hon-Atsugi. My co-workers are great and my project is very interesting. I am currently investigating how the properties of printing ink changes with the addition of polymer surfactants.
Even though there are few women at my workplace and Japan isn't famous for being a gender-equal country, I don't feel that people at my company treat me very differently from the men, except maybe that I am invited to more nomikai (drinking-meetings) than my fellow male Vulcanus participants. It is actually more noticeable when I meet people in town. When I say I study chemical engineering some people's chins drop and they don't know what to say. I have met people that still think that women are expected to quit their jobs when they get pregnant and thus don't understand why you bother to study hard!
As a student I have had my nose in a book for the last few years and sometimes found it hard to motivate myself to learn about this or that, but after actually doing a real project and not just something my teachers have told me to do I feel much more inspired to continue my studies. Maybe I am not going to use all the specific courses I have studied but all together my studies have given me the means to think logically and not to be afraid of dealing with a problem even though it might seem impossible in the beginning. This year has made me more determined about what I want to do with my life and has given me the opportunity to experience working abroad even before my graduation. I definitely want an international career and I think this year has given me an advantage in my future hunt for a good job.
The Vulcanus year will soon be over and I am looking forward to coming home. I have enjoined my time here, but 1 year is definitely enough for me. Of course I think about coming back, but maybe only for a limited time. I don't see myself living the rest of my life in Japan, but hopefully my future career will allow me to stay in contact with both my professional and private contacts here in Japan. The hardest part for me has been being away from my family and friends for so long, but of course the experience differs a lot from person to person; some people in the group would do anything to stay longer. So don't use this as a guide to how life is in Japan. I can only tell you one thing for sure, you will never know what Japan will hold for you unless you come here!