Friday, May 8, 2009

Life at my Host Family's Home

(The neighborhood of Ryosanji)

Memories of Life in Ryosanji

The house I spent 10 months at was never what I’d expected before coming to Japan. It was both old and modern; a mix of the 1960s, pre-war Japan, and 21st commodities sprinkled about in rooms sparingly. It was a traditional Japanese house built with none of the Western trappings that have become so common in those numerous shallow and often tacky homes of contemporary Japanese construction. What existed in this home was character and acknowledgement of Japanese culture, rather than an enshrined shunning of Japanese architectural heritage so encased in the numerous new homes that now replace many of Japan’s old houses. A wall encasing a garden with a large roofed gate adorned the front of the house. Inside there was a sizable traditional Japanese garden. Peering into the garden are great large windows which are shrouded by pull down bamboo sheets. The house is constructed out of fine wood that is deep in the hue of dark browns and feint reds seen in the cedars of forests found all over Japan.

The interior of the home was always a little bit of a confusion of style, purpose, and design compared to the façade of the outside structure. While some sections, such as the living room, the butsudan room, and other multipurpose rooms, including the upstairs bedrooms in the middle section of the house were all fairly traditional in layout, other areas were quite different. The kitchen, minus 40 year old appliances, is a true relic of the 1960s. Its drab colors and layout always seemed like such a collision of style compared to the adjacent tatami floored living room. I remember the kitchen as always being so cluttered and never in any state of true cleanliness or order for too long. Always the dishes were out drying on the racks. Cups for water sat constantly partially empty along the table ledge near the water cooler. In the warm months fruit flies buzzed in their crazed patterns among the trash bag and recyclables, finding whatever leftover food that still remained pasted to the damp surface of assorted plastic containers. Often Obaa-chan (grandma) would have come in at some time from the fields, tracking dirt and briers along with an assortment of seeds onto the floor. In the sink and next to it on the countertops she would usually leave the produce she had picked from the fields along with pots of different wild flowers that she’d found for the house. Frequently, okaa-san (mother) would come back home in the evening around 6:30 or 7 and exclaim in surprise and dismay about the “mess” that was on the floor and in the kitchen. And so that was life was in at the Umekage household.

I never did venture into all of the corners of the house. Often I had wanted to see what was in the “white” tower of the far left of the house where Hitomi lived. Once when no one was home I had went as far past Obaa-chan’s room until the staircase that led to Hitomi’s room. I crept up it, but both fearing and feeling a strong pang of shame and embarrassment, I turned back down no matter how curious I still remained. That room to the day I left remained the one area of the house I never saw. Creeping about like the way I was, I felt like a thief or some type of spy. It didn’t feel right.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I'm back. Why did I go?

It has been a long time since I have tried writing anything on this blog, but it’s a good time as any to start writing again! So I am back, back after two years or so of inactivity. The last time I wrote an entry on this blog I had not yet gone to Japan for my year of postgraduate high school study abroad. Now, I have just finished my freshman year of college at George Washington University and have also come back from that one year in Japan.

The way I look at Japan has changed rather a bit since I last wrote anything on this blog. When I think back at how I spoke and understood Japan a few years ago I really feel like I was very naïve about so many things. I am not sure I will ever have such an amazing experience in quite the way I did during that one year of going to school and living with a host family ever again if I am to go back to Japan. Somehow when I left I could not help but feel a sensation of having just experienced a truly definitive and unique moment in my life. Admittedly, ever since coming back home to America and going to college for the past year, life here has never felt as exciting or as interesting. I went to Japan knowledgeable, or so I thought I was, but came back much more matured, fluent, and starkly aware of all of the things that I had assumed incorrectly about Japanese culture and society. Even though I had read so many history books out of my deep passion for Japanese history and culture over the previous five years before my year abroad, and even though I had been to Japan twice before, this time I truly “lived” in Japan. It was not a short exchange trip, and it was not even a trip. It was a year of my life.

When I left to Japan back in the summer of 2007 I was hoping to get a chance to see a part of Japan that is so rarely understood, especially for foreigners of all ages. I wanted to understand what it is like to grow up as a teenager in contemporary Japan. I wanted to know what people my age went through; the hardships and joys of it all. Somehow no matter how many books, articles, and even classes I took on Japan, so much of what it meant to be a young adult in Japan remained so mystified to me. Often when I would read books by western authors speaking about Japanese youth and Japanese schools, the “Japanese youth” in these books would always seem to be so elusive as a subject. Somehow, even if the authors, such as John Nathan, or Alex Kerr, both fluent Japanese speaking American long-term residents of Japan met and talked with Japanese teenagers in their books, I could not help but notice a clear disconnect of comprehension of motives and feelings from the author’s standpoints in their writing. Clearly, just speaking the language did not give all of the tools for succeeding in interpreting Japanese youth culture. And so I began to get curious, in fact more than just curious, I wanted literally to go out and see for myself what it was that the authors of books and articles I was reading were failing to learn. I wanted to go out and learn about Japan’s youth as someone of the same age. I think it began to dawn on me that one of the main problems was that none of these writers had actually ever grown up within a Japanese household, gone to Japanese school, sat through all of those awful boring lecture classes and examinations, and then participated in that common of all routines for a great many Japanese students, commuting to and from school, often a long multi hour trip. By chance and luck of time and place, I had just the opportunity to do all of these things. Rather than waiting for someone to go out there and write and tell the whole world about what it is like to be young and growing up in contemporary Japanese society, I realized I could do all of this myself. And from here on out I became settled on a mission of exploration. I became focused on being my own sociologist. I had an active and imaginative mind, I also had my interest, and I had my language skills. I was set to go.

Well I might have been prepared to go, but as with any great journey, there was a lot that I did not really comprehend. I would find out within the first few weeks one the first lessons about life in Japan, it can be pretty lonely to be a young person there. In addition, I would also discover just how many aspects of youth culture in Japan I had never read or heard about, and just how precisely difficult it was for any of these experiences to go through, not only just as a Japanese teenager, but especially for as an outsider.

Ultimately, I would get more than I thought possible. I got access to Japanese society that as an adult, or even just as a college student visiting or living in Japan, no foreigner can ever witness or take part in. In the midst of my time there, I often appreciated just how lucky I was in light of knowing that I was not going to have the ability to speak with Japanese people so openly and on such an equal footing as I would at Japanese high school. Just like people growing up anywhere around the world, but even more so perhaps in Japanese society, it becomes difficult if not downright frustrating to crack the wall of communication with adults of all ages once they are in a place where society oppresses them into being a certain way.
Although by the end of my year there I had become accepted by classmates and school in such a way that I felt like I truly belonged in my environment as opposed to how difficult school life was when I first came to Japan.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

To End World War II: What would you do?

I would like to share some of my own thoughts on this anniversary of the end of World War II.

Last summer I was living with a host family in a small town (Taketoyo) south of Nagoya while attending a language school. On the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima I happened to be watching the news with my host family. Unlike most host families where one's placed with people who are young, I was with two grand parents.

As a segment on the bombing of Hiroshima and the fire bombing of Japan came on, my host mother (78 years old) turned to me and stated, "I and my mother were there." I really didn't know what to say in turn. I felt awful yet anything that I could say would sound well, rather lame. I expressed to her my regret of her having suffered as a small child with her mother through the hell of the atomic bombings. But inside I didn't really think that what I'd said really came out all that well.

Whenever I see footage of the atomic bombings, and whenever I hear debates about if or if not the surrender of Japan had to be achieved through the bombings, I always ask myself this: could I tell the host mother of the family I lived with that the potential deaths of her, her mother, and whoever else were in Hiroshima justified a correct way to end the last bloody portion of World War II?

65 years and thousands of miles away removed from the war against Japan, it’s too easy for Americans to dispassionately argue one way or the other for or against the dropping of the atomic bombs. I realized last summer that without the human element, the face of a victim, or having known someone, who was there, all of the times that I argued about the necessity of the atomic bombs being dropped as necessary for the ending World War II decisively were absolutely hollow. Now I feel on this 65th anniversary of the end of World War II repulsed and disgusted with the beliefs I thought I held so dearly before I studied in Japan in the summer of 2006.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tragedy in the workplace for Japanese Women

A while ago I read an article in the New York Times newspaper about Japanese women moving to America. The article was about discrimination faced by many Japanese women entering the workforce and their joy in living a different life on the American East Coast. Reading this article reminded me of a fascinating yet perplexing experience I had at school in Japan last summer. One day popular Japanese teacher for foreign students decided to make an announcement that she would be leaving soon. Our teacher was a women but she had always seemed very independent. She had even gone to university to get a teacher’s certification. Yet when it came to her announcement, the content of what she said shocked us all. She was getting married and become a housewife. We could not believe it. A housewife? No job? “Why on Earth would you desire that?” we all thought. When we asked her politely if she would not still like to teacher rather staying at home, she did betray what might be said to be regret on her usually always happy and caring face.
But she continued to profess she wanted to do this. Why was it that Japanese traditional culture even now expects women whom get married to stop working? The answer at first seemed to be that in conservative Japanese society women are expected to be homemakers, have children, and act as super nannies while fathers are away at work. But this disregards one important factor. Women in Japan rarely are able to hold jobs if they are to have kids. And thus it comes down to one or the other. In Japan daycare and paid maternity leave without consequences are not the norm. Most women who succeed in getting a good job are usually forced into losing everything if they have children. Such a system certainly does not aid in any way the lives of Japanese women.
As I read the article in the New York Times it became abundantly clear why unmarried young Japanese women would wish to leave Japanese temporarily and sometimes permanently. Society in Japan is rigged against the advancement of women. But the article at the end brought up the interesting fact that many women who come to America find the freedom and openness of western life to be too shocking and different. In the end the majority of women end up returning to Japan out of homesickness or inability to adapt to a radically different setting than in Japan, even if it might offer more opportunities for advancement in their lives. To me this is very distressing. For these women to comeback to Japan to face little prospect of achieving jobs and lives that are on par with what men can do must certainly be profoundly discouraging. What always amazes me when thinking about Asia is that in China, a nation of extreme poverty and wealth that has suffered so much war and political disasters compared to Japan, it still manages to easily beat Japan when it comes to women’s rights. This has always distressed me about Japan. This is a perpetual and dire quiet problem that afflicts Japanese gender relations in modern Japan.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

My first academic essay in Japanese

サム ポーター


日本の将来にはこれまでに起こった事がない大事な問題が起こります。それは日本の人口問題です。今までも、人口は徐々に増加してきましたが、2004年をきにへり始めました。問題は高齢化と少子化です。最近女性の就労の自由化とともにより多くの女性が働いています。働くつもりの女性でも赤ちゃんがいるために、働く事が困難な女性もいます。もし人口がへりつづけたら、2050年までに日本の人口は多分八億人になるでしょう。もし日本がこの大切な問題をかいけつするなら、移民にき会をあたえる国を作らなければなりません。(Sakanaka, The Future of Japan’s Immigration Policy: A Battle Diary)


げんざい1.55百万の移民が日本に住んでいます。日本は他の第一産業国とくらべると日本の移民の人口は小さいです。きびしい移民法があるにもかかわらず、沢山の外国労働者が日本へ働きに来るため、海外からの就労者をもっと受け入れる社会にしなければなりません。(Sakanaka, The Future of Japan’s Immigration Policy: A Battle Diary)日本人論によると、日本の歴史や文化が世界の中でとくいであるから、日本を特別な国だととらえています。多くの日本人にとって、日本で生まれた人は日本人です。しかし、移民が日本人になるための機会をもっと与えた方がいいと私は思います。もし機会があるなら、日本人になるために日本について学ぶでしょうが、もし、そうした機会がなければ、外国からの就労者は日本が不親切な国だと考えるでしょう。日本はこうとうなぎじゅつを持った就労者がひつようけれど、理由がなかったら来る事にしないでしょう。(Sakanaka, The Future of Japan’s Immigration Policy: A Battle Diary)



Hello again. It seems that life has not been kind to me in parceling out much free time for me to write much in my blog. But now there is only 1 week left until I graduate high school. This also means there is less than 3 months until I leave for Japan for a 10 month stay with a host family while doing intensive language study at a Japanese high school.

Recently I just finished writing an essay in Japanese on the importance of reforming Japan’s immigration policy in the wake of rapid population decline. I argue that if Japan’s economy is to stay competitive in Asia then it must bring skilled workers from outside. This change would required a radical altercation to how “being Japanese” is perceived in order to allow immigrants to attain full citizenship, Without immigration, there are not going to be enough young people in the labor pool to fill the many soon to be vacant jobs because of the retiring generations from the 1940’s and 1950’s. This essay reflects my first attempt to write about an academic subject in Japanese. For me it proved to be an invaluable experience. To view this essay please look at the previous post. I hope to be able to continue such work later on as I progress in my studies while attending school in Japan this year.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

politiziation of entertainment

Hello! It has been a long time, but I’m back. Today I had an opportunity to listen to 6 lectures about Japanese culture and society as part of the MIT-Harvard “Cool Japan” conference that’s been held over the past four days here in Boston. Today for 4 hours I listened to a number of interesting authors and professors speak about a wide range of topics. One of the speakers was David Leheny, the author of Think Global, Fear Local. I had just recently read his book back last autumn. From the book I was able to discern that he was very critical (an understatement) of the current political and social Japanese environment. In his lecture on Japanese soft power, a term which he use for lack of a better word, he described how Japan’s ministry of foreign affairs, MITI, and MEXT have embraced Japanese manga and anime as tools in selling Japan overseas. The consequences of this that he raises are that politicians, especially the Hashimoto faction in the LDP, are now influencing an otherwise independent artistic realm with money and politics. When these two things enter any arena, the rules of the game change entirely for the worse.

Soft power as a concept refers to the notion that any nation has the ability to influence others to their side through means other than coercion. This can be through diplomacy, but is usually seen through the application of cultural transfusion into another society through trade. Japan’s export of popular culture through manga, anime, and music was never planned by Japan’s government. In fact, according to Leheny, Japanese politicians along with many other nations’ politicians did not believe soft power could really work. Years went by in the 90’s and early 2000’s before Japan’s government realized that much of its image success in the west was not because of its policies, but because of the anime and manga industry. This resulted over the past few years in LDP politicians such as Taro Aso declaring that manga should be used as official tools in explaining Japanese society to the world. Other government employees began a program in which the government helped channel money into promoting certain anime and manga. This direct meddling by politicians in a formerly strictly usual apolitical entertainment realm provoked angry blowback. This was illustrated clearly by the manga author who was in the audience at the conference today who expressed in a moving a statement his anger and sadness over the politicization of this sector of Japanese culture. Now, it should be noted that the government does not control the production or planning of any manga or anime. But it does have the ability to give money and support certain projects.

Lehney finally pointed out that this politicization of Japan’s manga and anime has made many in Asia begin to question the convictions and motives behind what they’re consuming.
I’ll try and write up more on the lectures. Other lectures covered topics such as Japan’s pink culture kawaii, Matsuzaka phenomenon in Boston, girls in anime, and another looked at the phenomenon of Onyouji, a heian-jidai bureaucrat/court magician and his transformation into a pop idol and sex symbol over the last 20 years.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hisashiburi ne!

Wow, I've been gone for a long time. I'm sorry, a lot has happened over the last few weeks. I got deferred by Harvard, began a counter student government/movement at school, while I also received my acceptance letter for going to school in Japan next year. At the same time a lot important news has come out of Japan.

The three most important events to have occurred are the changing of the clause on education in the Japanese Constitution, scripted questions in town hall style meetings, and the all time low popularity rating of Shinzo Abe. ( Go to this excellent article to get a good understanding of the issue: Beginning with the first piece. Abe and the LDP finally made their move. After speaking about carrying out "reforms" to the education system, they have finally done so by passing legislation that will have students be taught to love their country. The language that I've used, is just as harmless and vague as used in the new bill passed. But this is the point. By making the language as vague as possible Abe and his far right wing allies in government have the ability to carry out more reactionary legislation that will bring education more into line with what it was before 1945. Abe's allies, more willing to speak their minds, insist on teaching reverence of the imperial family to Japan's youth, and instilling a strong patriotic sentiment. What we are seeing here is a blatant takeover of Japanese politics by quiet and not so quiet nationalists who wish to impose their own agenda and views of history on Japan's citizens.
Abe did all of this with much consequence. He his popularity has gone down from 65% in September, when he took office, to 45% in a matter of weeks. The majority of the nation has voiced anger at the change to the constitution. Academics, and most importantly of all the academics that Abe's government hired from Waseda University to vouch for the change to the education clause in the constitution came out and said that the changes 'were not necessary at all.' There is a clear divide between the people and the prime minister.
The last of the three news bits is the newly revealed scripted realities of the LDP's town hall meetings. In an effort to raise support for the new policy towards education, Abe and ministers held town hall style meetings. The catch, revealed by investigative reporters, was that normal day people were being approached before the meetings and being paid money to ask certain questions at a certain moment. All of this has been very embarrassing for Abe and co. Trust in the honesty of the prime minister's office has ebbed even lower, contributing to the marked decrease in Abe's popularity numbers. What is clear here is that Abe is more hawkish than Koizumi, (in process of taking down barriers to use of JSDF), very confrontational with North Korea over the abduction issue, and is certainly intent on redefining what education is in Japan while not taking action to curb the problems of bullying that have been the source for numerous suicides this past fall. I wish Japan good luck. It's going to need it. If there is one thing that remarkable for Japanese politics, then that is how unremarkable its most powerful LDP politicians are.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

As Promised

Nagoya-jo (Nagoya Castle) Nagoya is a city of a lot of promising historical sites for those who are interested in feudal Japanese history. Well, that would be the case if World War II had not happened, and if the fire bombing of 73 Japanese cities including Nagoya hadn't been done. Nagoya castle is disappointing at best. What you see in this picture looks nice from this distance. Get close to it and then you will realize the truth of its nature. It's a fake. The real building, along with the rest of Nagoya was incinerated during World War II. All that survived of the real castle was its stone foundation, and one of the towers and gates from what was once a sprawling castle. So on close inspection the castle is made of concrete and metal. The interior is a museum built in a modern rendition. The result is a lackluster experience. It was only the next day at school that I learned from my friend Cleo, that there was an amazing castle on a large hill 10 minutes outside of Nagoya. She insisted that it's everything that Nagoya-jo isn't.

Going native! This was taken on a Sunday afternoon when I was preparing to deliver a speech (in Japanese) to a regional AFS meeting. I'd never worn Yukata (summer kimono) before, and certainly I'd never had a chance to even get close to a kimono in my life. So it was a very special day when my host family decided that I should have a yukata of my own. It cost about $90. This is on the cheap end for Yukata. But nevertheless I was thrilled. It took two people, plus myself, and about 10 minutes to get the sash and yukata on correctly! I can't imagine wearing this every day and having to spend so much time putting on the correct way. Although modern clothes may lack the jazz that some old clothes had, utility of modern clothing certainly wins in the end in my opinion.

Lest We Forget... Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. Today marks the 66th year since America and the Allied powers went to war with Japan. To all of the Allied and Japanese veterans still alive, I hope the years of peace since 1945 have healed any mental wounds from the war. Never again a world in arms.... only if.