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Under the Same Roof:
Dormitories and Diversity at Keio

Many international students come to Japan excited to begin their studies but are faced with the intimidating task of finding accommodation in Japan, where leasing a place to live can be difficult, especially for international students coming to Japan on short-term programs of one year or less. At Keio University, student housing and dormitories are provided for both domestic and international students to remove the stresses of finding housing alone and reduce the financial burden for students with a lean purse.

Each year, Keio University secures more than 350 rooms exclusively for international students for a period of up to one year, including two international student dormitories and four dormitories for both Japanese and international students. Student housing provides students with many more opportunities to socialize and experience diversity than living alone may afford. At the dormitories with both Japanese and international residents, Japanese students double as resident assistants (RA) who live together with students from around the globe and provide them with support in their daily lives. This gives all residents the chance to build strong friendships across cultures, and the diversity serves as a catalyst to broaden residents' perspectives. For more information on student housing available at Keio, click here.

In this feature, we take a look at Tsunashima Student Dormitory, one of Keio's newest housing additions. Located just one station away from Hiyoshi Campus, Tsunashima opened its doors in March 2012 to Japanese and international students in a quiet residential neighborhood of Yokohama. As of 2014, international students representing twelve countries--including the U.S.A., China, and Korea--occupy 40% of the rooms. Each of Tsunashima's 124 rooms is single occupancy and comes fully furnished with a bed, desk, chair, washing machine, air conditioner and refrigerator. While most residents enjoy the privacy that comes with having their own room, many also value opportunities to interact with other residents in the central cafeteria. Residents at Tsunashima have the option to share breakfast and dinner, which are both cooked and served by dormitory managers Mr. and Mrs. Shimada, who double as live-in chefs.

Left: Tsunashima Student Dormitory, five minutes from Tsunashima Station
Center: Footpath and green space alongside the Tsurumi River just a one-minute walk from Tsunashima
Right: Dinner at Tsunashima (Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Shimada)

In this feature, Keio Global interviews three residents of Tsunashima: graduate student Victor Cuesta, resident assistant and Faculty of Law student Aika Kato, and dormitory manager Mr. Shimada.

Aika Kato
Resident Assistant
Third-year Student, Faculty of Law

Victor Cuesta
First-year Master's Student
Graduate School of System
Design and Management (SDM)

Isao Shimada
Dormitory Manager & Chef
Tsunashima Student Dormitory

Aika Kato (Faculty of Law)
Resident Assistant
Tsunashima Student Dormitory

Aika Kato
Tsunashima Student Dormitory Resident Assistant (RA)

Aika Kato is a native of Miyazaki Prefecture and a third-year political science major at the Keio Faculty of Law. While many students from Kyushu choose to pursue higher education on their home island, Aika took the leap to Tokyo and entered Keio University, promptly taking up residence at Tsunashima Student Dormitory. "I chose Tsunashima because of its international dimension and reputation for being clean, safe, and close to campus," she tells Keio Global. We sat down to ask her about dorm life and her work with international students as a resident assistant (RA).

Tsunashima Student Dormitory is located just one station away from Keio's Hiyoshi Campus in a quiet residential neighborhood. But this dorm is by no means secluded--a single train ride can transport you to Yokohama Station in under ten minutes or to Shibuya's pedestrian scramble in twenty. Aika says this convenience and proximity to campus was a key factor when choosing the dorm. But for Aika, just as important was the close-knit community. "You can always meet people in the cafeteria to chat, watch TV, or participate in dorm events," Aika notes. "And if you want some private time to relax or study, you can go back to the peace and quiet of your own room whenever you want."

Aika says she wanted to gain international experience at Keio: "I was friends with international students in Miyazaki and wanted to live in an international environment after I came to Keio. At Tsunashima, this is a facet of everyday life." After two years living alongside residents from across the globe and one month studying abroad in the US, she was approached by Mr. Shimada, the dormitory manager, about an opening for resident assistant (RA). Now a year into the position, Aika says she first thought about applying because of her admiration for a senpai who became fast friends with many of the international students living at Tsunashima.

Her duties as RA include having meals with residents and planning monthly dorm events, which range from Tanabata in July to Oktoberfest outings in fall and the festivities of the Japanese New Year in winter. She has become good friends with many of the 50 international residents at Tsunashima, 10 of whom she personally assists as RA.

But her job is not just fun and games; she helps students jumpstart their lives in Japan by helping them over the hurdles of daily life in a foreign country, from navigating red tape at city hall to finding the cheapest, freshest groceries in town. As the RA is there to lend students a hand or an ear, the position brings new experiences every day. "I try to enjoy whatever I'm doing. I notice students have more fun if I'm enjoying myself, too." Once, after going to great lengths to help a student out, Aika came home to find a note posted on her door with the words "Thank you for everything" in Japanese. These small moments are the happiest for an RA. "That warm, fuzzy feeling you get makes even the hardest jobs worthwhile," she says.

As for her studies, she says, "I originally intended to study local government, but I've found myself now researching international politics, with a specific focus on Japan-Korea relations." Perhaps due in part to her life at Tsunashima, Aika has chosen to travel a more global path than the one she initially set out on.

Victor Cuesta
Home Country: Mexico
Graduate School of System Design and Management(SDM)

Victor Cuesta
Graduate Student & Tsunashima Student Dormitory Resident

Victor Cuesta greets the Keio Global team with a beaming smile and a handshake inside the Tsunashima Student Dormitory cafeteria. Originally from Baja California, Victor Cuesta is currently working on his master's at Keio's Graduate School of Systems Design and Management (SDM). This marks Victor's third stay in Japan--he first went to Gunma Prefecture on a high school exchange and later to Sophia University as an exchange student. Having experienced a homestay with a Japanese family and living alone in Japan, he gives us a couple of reasons why he chose to live in a dormitory this time around, namely the sense of community and reasonable price.

"I know everybody," he tells us as we sit down. "I try to talk with everyone I can. Here you have a good mix of Japanese students and international students," he continues as a few friends from Canada, Japan, and Sweden gesture cordial nods as they walk by, each holding trays of the daily special. He tells us that the meals here are amazing, courtesy of dormitory managers Mr. and Mrs. Shimada.

The sense of community is one major factor that convinced Victor to choose dorm life over living alone. Residents share two meals a day--breakfast and dinner--and can be found socializing or studying in the central cafeteria at any hour of the day. Additionally, residents at Tsunashima have active groups on social media which serve to build a thriving international community as participants can casually propose events and get-togethers like birthday parties or karaoke nights. As for the world offline, he tells us about an event put together a few days before by Aika and other Tsunashima RAs to decorate the dorm entrance with sasa bamboo for Tanabata festival.

On the weekdays, after studying at Hiyoshi Campus for most of the day, Victor travels one station home around 7 p.m. to have dinner, which is made fresh by Mr. and Mrs. Shimada between the hours of 6-10 p.m. After dinner, he usually stays in the cafeteria to talk with other residents until about 10 p.m. A veteran resident in Japan, Victor knows the difficulties of socializing in a foreign country, so he appreciates the ease of making friends at mealtime. "You really have to make an effort to get out and meet people if you live alone," he says. But going out can be costly, in terms of both time and money.

"I did all the calculations before I came," Victor divulges. "Tsunashima is at least 30,000-40,000 yen cheaper each month than if I were to rent an apartment." International students receive generous subsidies from the university to alleviate the costs of coming from abroad. Rent is set at 77,300 yen a month for a fully furnished room and two homemade meals a day. Victor mentions that rooms on the fourth and fifth floors even come with a view of Mount Fuji on a clear day. While Victor's room on the second floor may not have a view of Japan's most famous peak, Tsunashima's combination of community, cuisine, and convenience more than make up for the lack of scenery.

Isao Shimada
Dormitory Manager & Chef
Tsunashima Student Dormitory

Isao Shimada
Tsunashima Student Dormitory Manager

Isao Shimada is a chef by trade, but he and his wife have served as the dormitory managers of Tsunashima Student Dormitory since its construction in 2012. Just before 6:00 p.m. on a Monday, he is clad in an apron and chef's cap as he serves residents their evening meal. Tonight is a belly-buster: a chicken fillet covered in a tomato salsa, greens with a side of egg salad, spaghetti aglio e olio, and fried calamari rings. But it still retains the trademarks of a Japanese meal--white rice, Japanese pickles, and miso soup.

The Shimadas' work revolves around food. They are in charge of preparing breakfast and dinner for the residents, of which just under half are international students. "We're all connected through food. I'm happiest when people tell me they've enjoyed my cooking," Mr. Shimada says. This month's menu even includes broiled eel, a delicacy said to increase stamina during the hot summer months.

But as the dormitory managers of Tsunashima, their roles extend far beyond the kitchen. In effect, they act as surrogate parents, making sure residents obey community rules and even taking sick residents to the hospital. They act as mediators, too, though on the topic of trouble, he says there isn't much. There are still the typical dormitory issues, such as an occasional loud neighbor, but apparently a handshake and a warm-cooked meal from Mr. Shimada are the only modes of persuasion residents require to right a wrong.

Mr. Shimada was eager to share what he considers to be the merits of living in Tsunashima. "The dorm is new and clean, but by far, the biggest merits are the meals included in the total price." The menus for breakfast and dinner are varied and well-balanced. This allows students to focus on their studies, free from the concerns and costs required to maintain a healthy diet. "Tsunashima is both safe and convenient," he adds, explaining that residents must unlock three doors to get into their rooms: one at the entrance, one on each floor, and a final lock to their room.

Students can easily walk home to Tsunashima from Hiyoshi Campus if the trains stop running, and food and water are always on hand in case of an emergency. All of the residents are Keio students, which means students can help each other decide what classes to take or which student circles to join. As we near the end of our interview, Mr. Shimada smiles and says, "Everyone gets along great here. After all, we all live under the same roof."

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