Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cultural Musings Part I (of many)

I’ve been doing more reading in the culture book (see an older post) I checked out from the library here. The book analyzes culture biologically and psychologically as a whole but I surprisingly came across a chapter that specifically compares certain aspects of American and Japanese culture. It resonates with the feedback I’ve gotten from two Japanese males about their society. I want to quote it all because it’s such a good story and there is no way I can possibly remember every detail when telling it to everyone back home.

“I can think of few countries Americans are likely to visit and work in in significant numbers where it is more difficult to control one’s inputs and where life is more filled with surprises than Japan. Clearly, the above observation does not apply to short visits and the like, because all over the world suitable environments have been created for tourists that shield them from the reality of the life of the people. Tourists seldom stick around for long, and they are happier insulated from the full impact of the foreign culture. Businessmen, educators, government officials, and Foreign Service personnel are something else again. It is to this group that my thoughts are directed, because they stand to gain the most from understanding cultural processes in living contexts. Understanding the reality of covert culture and accepting it on a gut level comes neither easily nor quickly, and it must be lived rather than read or reasoned…For no matter how well prepared one is for immersion in another culture, there is the inevitability of surprises.

A few years ago, I became involved in a sequence of events in Japan that completely mystified me, and only later did I learn how an overt act seen from the vantage point of one’s own culture can have an entirely different meaning when looked at in the context of the foreign culture. I had been staying at a hotel in downtown Tokyo for 10 days and returned to my room in the middle of an afternoon. Entering the room, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Out of place. Different. I was in the wrong room! Someone else’s things were distributed around the room. I checked the key again. Yes, it was really mine. Where were my belongings? Baffled and mystified, I took the elevator to the lobby. At the desk I was told that indeed they had moved me. I was given the key to my new room and discovered that all my personal effects were distributed around the room as almost I had done it myself. This produced a strange feeling that maybe I wasn’t myself. How could somebody else do all those hundred and one little things just the way I did? Three days later, I was moved again, but this time I was prepared.

I then traveled to Kyoto and stayed in a wonderful little country inn on the side of a hill overlooking the town. After we had been there for about a week and had thoroughly settled into our new Japanese surroundings, we returned one night to be met at the door by an apologetic manager who was stammering something. Our interpreter explained as we started to go through the door that we weren’t in that hotel any longer but had been moved to another hotel. What a blow! Again, without warning. The taxi took off into a part of the city we hadn’t seen before. No Europeans here! The streets got narrower and narrower until we turned into a side street that could barely accommodate the tiny Japanese taxi into which we squeezed. Clearly this was a hotel of another class. I found that by then, I was getting a little paranoid, which is easy to do living in a foreign land. As it turned out, the neighborhood, in fact the whole district, showed us an entirely different side of life from what we had seen before, much more interesting and authentic.

It was my preoccupation with my own cultural mold that explained why I was puzzled for years about the significance of being moved around in Japanese hotels. The answer finally came after further experiences in Japan and many discussions with Japanese friends. In Japan, one has to “belong” or he has no identity. When a man joins a company, he does just that - joins himself to the corporate body - and there is even a ceremony marking the occasion. Normally, he is hired for life, and the company plays a much more paternalistic role than in the United States. There are company songs and the whole company meets frequently (usually once a week) for purposes of maintaining corporate identity and morale.

It was my lack of understanding of the full impact of what it means to belong to a high-context culture that caused me to misread hotel behavior. The answer to my puzzle was revealed when a Japanese friend explained what it means to be a guest in a hotel. As soon as you register at the desk, you are no longer an outsider; instead, for the duration of your stay you are a member of a large, mobile family. You belong. The fact that I was moved was tangible evidence that I was being treated as a family member - a relationship in which one can afford to be “relaxed and informal and not stand on ceremony.” This is a very highly prized state in Japan, which offsets the official properness that is so common in public. Americans don’t like to be moved around; it makes them anxious. Therefore, the Japanese in these establishments have learned not to treat them as family members.

In the United States, the concern of the large middle class is to move ahead with the system, whichever part of it we happen to be in. With perhaps the exception of the younger generation just now entering the job market, we are very tied to our jobs. We are only peripherally tied to the lives of others. It takes a long, long time for us to become deeply involved with others, and for some this never happens.

In Japan, life is a very different story, one that is puzzling in the extreme to Americans who interact regularly with the Japanese. Their culture seems to be full of paradoxes. When they communicate, particularly about important things, it is often in a roundabout way. All of this points to a very high-context approach to life; yet, on the other hand, there are times when they swing in the opposite direction and move to the lower end of the context scale, where nothing can be taken for granted - “Be sure to put brown polish on the shoes.” This was discovered by American GI’s during the occupation.

The Japanese are pulled in two directions. The first is a very high-context, deeply involved, enveloping intimacy that begins at home in childhood but is extended far beyond the home. There is a deep need to be close, and it is only when they are close that they are comfortable. The other pole is as far away as one can get. In public and during ceremonies, there is great emphasis on self-control, distance, and hiding inner feelings. Like most of Japanese behavior, attitudes toward showing emotion are deeply rooted in a long past. At the time of the samurai knights and nobles, there was a survival value in being able to control one’s demeanor, because a samurai could legally execute anyone who displeased him or who wasn’t properly respectful. This standing on ceremony extended to all levels; not only was the servant expected to be respectful, but the samurai’s wife was to show no emotion when she received the news that her husband or son had been killed in battle.

Through all these experiences, I was eventually able to discern the common thread that connected everything, which began to put Japanese behavior in context. In Japan there are the two sides to everyone- his warm, close, friendly, involved, high-context side that does not stand on ceremony, and the public, official, status-conscious, ceremonial side, which is what most foreigners see. From what I understand of Japanese culture, most Japanese feel quite uncomfortable (deep down inside) about the ceremonial, low-context, institutionalized side of life.”

My Japanese friend, Hirofima, feels exactly as the author describes. “Hiro” attended school in Otaru and studied abroad in Vancouver for a year to work on his English. He had an amazing experience and looks at his native culture much differently. He’s now graduated and works in Japanese sports marketing (I think I heard him say) but hangs out with the international kids all the time. He says there are some days where he doesn’t feel Japanese at all. He really dislikes how holding your significant other’s hand in public is frowned upon. Indeed, he is a really friendly guy. I first met him at midnight, the time I finally made it to my dorm my first night here. He brought me cookies and juice so I wouldn’t be both hungry and jetlagged in the morning and even let me use his phone and international calling card to call home and tell my stepdad that I made it okay. He’s driven me to the grocery store and around town so I wouldn’t have to walk 5 kilometers in the snow with groceries and even bought me a donut once because I said they looked amazing. Hiro is truly a nice guy that has done so much to help the international students here.

(Picture of my city!)

This is so long I’m almost embarrassed to post this. I wanted to share this story with as many people as possible so the time it took to type this is actually probably much less than me orally telling 20 people.

I’ve got lots more to write about but I’ll save it for another day. I will give you a little blurb about a future post by saying that I have a job interview for a part-time tutor position. I’ll explain what it is later. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s surprise post!!!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Poem for Cassi!

My friend Cassi sent me an e-mail the other day complimenting my blog and saying that it reminded her of this poem we found off of a random blog one time when we were doing some late-night cramming in Old Main. I literally just woke up 20 minutes ago and have to go meet my French friend for coffee in 10 minutes so everyone will just have to wait for tomorrow's mega-post. I've also got something extremely special planned for Friday (your time, not mine)! A couple A-Phi's know what's up but only a select few that are helping me with this. TOP SECRET

So Cassi - here is the poem you love so much! Miss you tons! Thanks for always answering your phone when I needed to vent about the whole Japan trip.

Sometimes, when life confuses, overwhelms and daunts us, we need to step back and look at the way we are living, the way we exist, in this world. The age-old adage ‘you only live once’ must be present in our mind always if we are to start savouring every last scrap of satisfaction that just being alive entails.

Wherever you are academically, on the career or property ladder, in your relationship etc. life is still full of wonders right now. This second there is something about your life that you could be enjoying.

Daily stresses and long-term pressures blind us from what life should and can be – a sensational, inspiring, tactile, colourful adventure, where we are to grow, experience, build, try and try again. We are creatures of the land; our souls desire to cultivate and create, plant seeds as well as ideas, and cherish their development. Our minds and eyes call for variety, for stimulation, whilst our bodies ask for fulfilment, sensation, and nurture – and yet so often people deny themselves these simple pleasures.

We spend our days in rooms, cars and offices – barely knowing fresh air. We feed ourselves instant, sugar-loaded snacks and rarely experience the crisp, raw experience of preparing and eating authentic, natural food. We entertain ourselves with inactivity and advertisements in the form of television. We strain ourselves to fit the mould, to fight to the top, to look good on paper, to be things we’re not. We keep things to ourselves, we keep ourselves to ourselves. We struggle to love and to share, and for all of this, we suffer.

It is amazing the weight that would lift from our shoulders if we allowed ourselves just to be.

Know the joy of simply existing. Fill your life with early morning sunshine, sand in your shoes, the air in your lungs, kisses, love-making, nights sharing stories you never told anyone, music, chances, adventures, swimming, a go on the swings, dog-eared books you’ve read twice already, thank you’s, honesty, sprints, arm-swinging, stupid grins, dancing to your mum’s favourite song with her, crying when you need to, sleep, affirmations, beautiful strangers, new friends, pen on paper, sweet smells, fresh smells, rich smells, the dusk, the dawn, the sky, the ground, knowing what it is to be you and agreeing with it, nodding, winking, holding hands, saying ‘yes’, strolling, wandering, moseying, loitering, laughing.

Don't just enjoy life, revel in it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Japanese Fashion

The thing I love the most about Japan is the clothes they wear! I probably wouldn't wear 80% of it back home but it's uber-interesting to people watch here. I'm not sure why there is so much emphasis on style here but maybe it has to do with the fact that there are so many Asians that they really try to differentiate themselves a bit with what they wear. I'm not sure if that really sounds logical considering how collectivist Japanese society is but I will pass on further overanalysis for now.

The fashion that you would find in Tokyo is a little more dramatic than what you would find in other areas but for the most part they all follow the same sense of style, or so I have observed. This is something that one would commonly see in Otaru - where I am at:

One thing I find really amusing is that cell phone charms are really popular here. Standing on a train and seeing everyone on their phones with different cute charms makes me smile!

This is sweet.

I'm planning on spending 12 days in Tokyo after the semester ends in August and I really want to explore the Harajuku area for a good two or three days. Harajuku girls tend to dress like this:

Japanese hairstyles are also really creative. It's common to see a bun placed as high up on the head as possible - something that seems bizarre to Americans but probably makes Asian girls feel taller or something.

Alright sorry for the lackluster post. I was supposed to have my first Flower Arrangement club meeting today but it got cancelled. I think some international students are going out for all you can eat/drink again. Haven't decided if I will go - probably will though. It's supposed to be nice tomorrow so I'll probably head to a coffee house and study Japanese for a few hours there.


I'm alive.

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived in Japan and I’ve already got quite a large mental list of raves and rants. Once I can get them sorted out in my head, I’ll be sure to let you all know..

There are six of us international students that just arrived a couple of weeks ago. Jamie and I (both from USD), a German girl, a French girl, a Chinese girl, and a Korean guy. I see all of them throughout the week but both the Chinese girl and the Korean guy do not speak very good English (they are really good at Japanese though) so it is difficult and semi-awkward with them a majority of the time. They have a hard time having a basic English conversation saying something like “We are meeting downstairs in an hour” so I am not sure how they are going to survive the English classes here.

I’m pretty surprised by how much the school seems to be focused on having us learn Japanese. They aren’t offering an Elementary Japanese class for us (never offered in the spring, FYI) but all the international students pretty much study Japanese as much as they can in their spare time. When I told the German guy I live next to that I hadn’t studied Japanese back home, he replied with a simple “You’re brave.” The language barrier has been a bigger hurdle than I expected. No one outside of the university speaks English and really only professors that obtained degrees abroad seem to be conversational. We went to the campus IT office and thankfully they had English instructions on how to set up the internet proxy because no one working knew English. We had a “crash-course” in Japanese our first week here - what a joke. The first day of this tutoring they handed out worksheets that had no English on them and assumed that we knew how to pronounce and read all 100 characters of their combined alphabet system (which we didn’t). I had memorized 50 of the characters on the flight over and was scrambling to keep up with what they were saying while the other girl from USD hadn’t learned anything and was just sitting there laughing to herself about how over her head this all was.

The international office here has a fairly good library of books to learn Japanese and I’ve been going there every few days just to take a look. I would say 95% of all the international students have been studying Japanese formally in their home country for at least a year prior to coming here. Many have taken various levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) so being from an institution that doesn’t offer Japanese puts me at a severe disadvantage. I’ve been studying Japanese at least 3 hours every day and am planning on registering to take the JLPT Level 5 Proficiency Test in Chicago this December. Level 5 is super easy and basically shows that I could have a conversation with a Japanese 4th grader but nonetheless is pretty kickass in the nerdy way of things. I am required to know 100 (out of 2,000) Kanji (Chinese) characters, about 800 vocabulary words, and a small, but confusing, amount of grammar. I need to use up the frequent flier miles I accrued to get here somehow and the test itself is only around $40 I believe.

The European girls I hang out with quite frequently and I have come to the conclusion that one really needs to be interested in learning the Japanese language to come here. The amount of free time we have here is pretty large and because of it the program almost seems like a language school of some sort. (Go to one class a day and study Japanese in your room for at least 3 hours before going out with friends) In other words, if you are a Spanish minor - don’t waste your time. Five months is a long time to spend in Asia if you have dreamed of partying in the Netherlands all your life. To be honest, my friend from France here is disappointed about how quiet the campus and city life are right now. She studied abroad in Scotland for two years before coming here (and had the time of her life) and is thrown off by how low-key things are here. After another girl and I sat down and talked to her, we came to the conclusion that studying abroad in Europe involves “immersing” yourself in their culture while coming to Asia places more emphasis on “analyzing” their culture. You will never completely fit into Asia - foreigners are always foreigners - and this has been a depressing reality for all of us I think. A girl from Germany said a girl from her home institution left Otaru a semester early because she had a bad experience and didn’t like the school, the culture, or the city. Japan really isn’t for everyone. I’m 100% positive that I could not be here for an entire year, but that’s just me. I don’t know enough Japanese to be able to survive here for any longer than a semester.

I got interested in learning Chinese in high school but am grateful that I am in Japan because Japanese is 1000x easier to learn! Japanese uses Chinese characters but pronounces them in a much simpler way. One character in Chinese may have several different pronunciations that you wouldn’t be able to know by immediately looking at it and everything is a “trial and error” in terms of reading and pronunciation. Japanese is really straightforward once you get past, what I refer to it as, the Chicken Scratch Phase. Once you learn the sounds associated with different characters it is just like learning Spanish or something - different word, same meaning, different sentence structure, same idea.

Well, it is 4 p.m. here and all I’ve managed to do all day is sit on Facebook and Skype. Saturday is a big day for me (considering we have 3 whole weeks here of nothing to do). I am auditioning for the orchestra here and am meeting a Japanese friend for a conversation lesson! I’m planning on walking to the grocery store around 6 p.m. tonight for cheap sushi! All the prepared sushi for the day gets marked down 50% after 6 so you can get a really good deal!

I will write more tomorrow - there are so many things to jabber on about.


P.S. A book I just started reading - really interesting!

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I am finally in Japan! Getting internet access has been a little inconsistent but I have finally found time to sit down and do a proper blog post.

Today four of us girls went wandering around by the canal checking out some shops. We ended up only buying dessert, groceries, and little things from a 100 yen store.

We went to this pretty cool bakery/art gallery/coffee house. I bought a tin of heart-shaped chocolates for 250 yen and got a free little cup of house coffee with it. Another cafe down the street wanted 300 yen for the same size of coffee so it seems to have been a fairly good deal. The picture below isn't the greatest but as you can see the 2nd floor cafe is cute and trendy.

Tomorrow we are going to try for the third time to get a cellphone. I will explain more about it later! The computer lab I am writing from is freezing - it's still spring break here and the heat isn't on.