If you wish to study in Japan, speaking Japanese is NOT a requirement. There are many programs out there for people who know little or no Japanese. Especially for Engineers! Engineers can get internships in Japan via the internet or the Cornell CO-OP program.
As for other people, its good to have a minimum of 1 year. Preferably 2 years of Japanese before going to Japan. Just remember, Cornell is the TOP school for learning Japanese. In all my years in Japan, our students always rank high compared to other students with an equivalent time of study. One year of Japanese in Cornell should be enough to survive in Japan. But most programs recommend two years. After 2 years of Cornell Japanese, you will have no difficulty in Japan.
As for me I had 4 years of Japanese before I went to Kyoto. But the first time I went to Japan (Hokkaido) I had only 2 years of Japanese and was more prepared than almost anyone else. They places me in the 4th year class and that's when things took off for me.
Staying in Japan for a year will put you probably 1 year or two ahead in Japanese, and after that any Japanese class you take will be simple. That's what my 2nd year Japanese class lecturer told me.
Right now I am interviewing for a job in Japan. They are almost all in Tokyo. None in Kyoto. If you don't study abroad in Kyoto now, you may never get to see it again except on vacations.
If you can get into language house its a great place to learn Japanese. It would probably be ideal to be a second or third year language student while living in language house. I took 2nd year Japanese in the summer (FALCON) in order to be accepted to language house back when there were stricter requirements for admittance.
This is what I did. I took Japanese 101-102. Then I took Summer Falcon 203-204 in order to get into language house. I only got a B- in Falcon so they made me repeat 2nd year again in the fall. So I took 201-202-203-204 again Sophomore year while living in language house.
As for FALCON. It will drive you insane in some manner. The effect will wear off if you only take summer FALCON. But I know no student who has taken Full-year FALCON and not suffered some (sometimes only small) psychological damage. Unless you are very good at languages, or desperate to learn Japanese quickly, don't do FALCON. 2nd year summer FALCON is rough, but you learn Japanese fast and its a good experience.
The next summer I traveled to Hokkaido to do the HIF language program, since I thought that because I was an engineer I might not get another chance. The next year I continued living in language house and took 301-302. And the year after I skipped 401 and went right on to 402. That summer I went back to Japan to study engineering at Kanazawa and the Business culture in Niihama on a program called EAGLE for engineers. I continued over the next year in Kyoto in KCJS.
There are 100s of other ways to learn Japanese. Mine was haphazard and nothing like I had planned. I've never heard of a bad program in Japan yet from any of my friends.
For KCJS, the Tamaki foundation gave me about 18,000 dollars and The Japan foundation gave me 3000 dollars. The rest I got through loans, and Cornell grants. EAGLE was a scholarship program, and I had left over money from that as well. The rest same from part time work before and during my trip to Japan. KCJS costs LESS this year than in previous years (like mine). And the Tamaki and Japan Foundation money is waiting for people like you to use it.
My other programs (HIF and EAGLE) were primarily language course with a culture course and fun activities. KCJS is school. But it has all the components that made HIF and EAGLE fun also. In all these programs there are fun field trips, parties, homestays, make your own Okonomiyaki/Curry Rice/ Sushi parties, etc.
Every city has their "famous" Masturis (festivals) which you will go to. Every city has some historical sites, shrines and temples to learn about. They are all different and all part of the CHANGING culture of Japan. The Japan you see next year or the year after will be subtly different from the Japan you saw in Kyoto. And utterly different from Japan 5 years ago. When I first went to Japan in 1994, Convenience stores were rare oddities, but now they are so important, they are printed on maps! They are a integral part of Japanese life. Be prepared in Japan for the unexpected.
Everyone should experience Japan as it suits them best.
LIVE IN THE LANGUAGE HOUSE. IT is THE BEST WAY to learn Japanese before you go to Japan. Living there enabled me to eat, sleep and dream in Japanese. It was great.
If you can't do the semester study abroad thing, remember that summers are always free.
Carefully choose your major and classes to best accommodate studying Japanese. One reason I am an AEP major and not CHEME, or some other type of engineer is that AEP has a very compatible schedule with Japanese language.
If you have time, there are ways outside language house to supplement your Japanese courses: Cornell Japanese Anime Society (Sat 8:00-), JUSA language tables (None right now), JUSA parties, JUSA meetings (WED 5:00), LEP program, Language house dinners.
Most importantly, take ANTHRO 345 before going to Japan or if you are wary of as 300 level class take ASIAN 211. Its important to begin to really understand Japanese culture to adapt to it.
Women are treated differently in Japan. They are sometimes discriminated against as well, but it is very important to be able to see the difference between DISCRIMINATION and just DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY. Sometimes, women are not being discriminated against and to the foreign eye it looks like discrimination. Its not a fine line. Be careful about this. Women are harassed in Japan, but being married, being an OL, pouring coffee in an office, raising children, and walking behind men is not discrimination all the time. These are set things in Japanese culture, but may change in the future. Discrimination does exist. One of the worst forms of discrimination is men touching women in yucky ways on crowded subway trains (Chikan). Finally one of these Chikan cases has made it to court, and maybe the practice will one day stop. Ask any Japanese female for the details, and their point of view. Everyone sees things a little differently.
In Kyoto, there are a TREMENDOUS range of opportunities open to you not available anywhere else. Tea ceremony, Noh, Karate, Wood-block printing, Buddhism, Japanese architecture, Japanese gardens, Japanese college student life, Nature vs Urban and any other topic can be studied at its very heart. While Tokyo has the majority of people in Japan. And other places have beauty. I think the cities of Osaka and Kyoto are really the heart and soul of Japan. At least from the HISTORICAL perspective.
For modern inventions and industry, go to Tokyo.
Hope this helps answer your questions a little..
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