Merry Christmas (Eve) everyone!
You may or may not remember this, but I mentioned at some point in a post back in the past that I had been asked to give a speech for the Kagawa Systemized Goodwill Guide about what my impressions of Japan and its culture is. You also may or may not remember another thing, but there was a long period of time at the end of November when I did not post anything here on my blog. This speech was the reason why.
But, my hard work paid off and my speech was a huge success! Below are the fruits of my labor. It is long so you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to or don’t have the time. But that being said, this speech touches on what the heart of this blog is all about. Many people that attended the speech also said that it was very informative as well, so it may be of interest to you. Please enjoy! 🙂
My Impressions of Japan as a Foreigner
Hello everybody and thank you for coming. I am here today to give you my thoughts and observations on Japanese culture through the eyes of a foreigner.
First off, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and how it is that I came to be here with you today. I am a 22-year-old Civil Engineering student from America. As a young boy, I moved around frequently, attending five different schools before graduating from high school in 2008. After graduating, I moved once more, and began my college education at UT, the University of Toledo, in Ohio.
Before I tell you what my current impression of Japan and its culture is, I first want to give you an idea of my previous encounters with Japanese culture, and how that played a role in my eventual arrival here in Japan. My interest in Japanese culture began, well before I ever even realized. As a kid, I began watching Japanese animation through a popular program on television, not knowing at the time that it was Japanese. It didn’t take long before I was completely enthralled by these shows that were so different from anything I had ever seen before. If I remember correctly, the first two Japanese animes I saw were Dragonball Z and Gundam Wing. During my high school and college years, my exposure to Japanese pop-culture continued to grow through things such as the films from the director and animator, Hayao Miazaki, other animes, such as Bleach and Naruto, and also manga. My interest in Japanese pop culture led me to pursue studies in Japan’s cultural history as well. In a class I took in college, I learned and studied about Japanese historical figures such as Tokugawa Ieyasu and his rise to power. I also enjoyed studying and reading the works of Bashou, the famous haiku poet from the Edo period. It was from that point on that I decided to begin studying the Japanese language and alongside it, modern Japanese culture as well.
It is my belief that the first major inevitable step that people must take in order to gain a larger perspective in life, is to push their limits and thought capacities through higher education. An even better way to achieve that is to begin that journey by leaving your home and beginning somewhere new, where you won’t have as many preconceptions as you would if you were still surrounded by the same places and the same people. Though, in my experience, I have noted a heavy reluctance from people to escape their comfort zones and go experience a new place. I believe that my upbringing, which involved frequent moves, gave me a predisposition to traveling. Due to my desire for travel, my interest in Japanese pop-culture, native culture, history, and language, and my decision to study engineering, a perfect opportunity arose that allowed me to make this trip here to Japan.
I am the first person from my university to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity. However, because of how amazing and fruitful my experience has been so far, I am sure I will not be the last. As a research student at Kagawa University, I have been given the opportunity to not only participate in an interesting, challenging, engaging, and relevant research project, but I have also enrolled in classes to continue studying Japanese, and am frequently being invited to participate in various Japanese cultural events. Now that I am here I am very excited to continue my studies in this incredible new environment and inevitably, gain new outlooks on my previously established views.
I first arrived in Japan on September 21st. Despite being here for three months now, the first week I spent in Japan and the following experiences with my host family, remain the most influential times for me thus far. Quite possibly because of the culture shock that I was experiencing, coupled with the fact that I was also living with a Japanese family, experiencing first hand Japanese daily life. Although, from the very minute I stepped off the plane in Osaka, I began to feel the differences surrounding me. Whether it was the universal kindness I received from everyone I encountered or the supreme efficiency that I have come to associate with Japanese transportation facilities, I knew right away that I was in a new world.
One of the first things that stood out to me, and still continues to stand out is the Japanese standard of efficiency. Whether it is time efficiency, space efficiency, or even fuel efficiency, it is clear to me that this value is deeply engrained in the Japanese community. I see it manifested in many different forms, from rail station and airport functionality to automobile and bicycle coexistence. At Takamatsu Airport for example, when I was getting off the plane from Tokyo, it took less than 10 minutes for us to get our bags from the baggage claim belt, get to the door, find a shuttle, and return to our car at the parking lot. In almost any other airport I’ve been to, it usually takes at least twice that long for the bags to arrive from the plane. Even within the vast rail network that permeates Japan, whether it was during my trip to Hiroshima, or on my way from Haneda to Saitama, I never waited longer than a few minutes for the train I needed, even when transferring lines. Since I’ve studied transportation problems and project planning, I understand a little of what has to happen to make a system like that run smoothly, and I am amazed. There are two other notable representations of Japanese efficiency that I have seen. One is the large difference between the average types of cars you see being driven on the roads here. In America, you can’t go anywhere without seeing an SUV or truck. It is not very common to see the type of small compact car there that you see all the time here in Japan. I see them everywhere, and to me that represents two types of efficiency, space efficiency and fuel efficiency. The other is Japan’s highways and railroads. Most of the ones that I have seen have been elevated off the ground in order to save space for other things, such as local roads, homes, or buildings. For the most part, that is something very new to me. Since America is a relatively large country, when the analysis weighing cost versus space is done with regards to building highways, the cost side always yields to space since space is not such a limited resource.
The idea of efficiency leads me to my next topic: Takamatsu’s bicycle popularity and accommodation. When I first arrived, I knew to expect a heavier amount of bicycle usage, but I had never imagined that bikes would be used to this extent. I thought that the age groups that would primarily be seen on a bicycle would be high school and college student aged. However to my surprise, the range is a lot wider than that. It ranges all the way from the student age range to the businessmen age range all the way to senior citizens. Before coming to Takamatsu, I am fairly certain that I had never seen more than ten people older than 60 riding a bicycle. Here I see more than that in a single day. I have always enjoyed biking. I even had a job once delivering food on a bike, but I had never used it as my main mode of transportation, like most others in America. Although, there have been recent pushed in certain American cities to encourage biking as an alternative mode of transportation; incorporating an infrastructure for bikes like how it is in Takamatsu.What many people don’t often consider is that the benefits of biking severely outweigh the convenience of driving. Biking is cheaper, it keeps you active and therefore healthier, allows you to appreciate being outside, and is better for the environment; the only drawback is that it sometimes can be inconvenient if the weather is bad, if there is no infrastructure for bikers, or if there is a time constraint. However, here in Takamatsu the weather is generally nice and with relatively mild winters, biking all year round is possible. There is also great accommodation for bikes, like the underpasses in the center of town, specific bike lanes on the sidewalk, and designated parking areas. With regard to time, in my experience biking is just about as fast as a car when travelling from my dormitory in Yashima to Kagawa University’s engineering campus. I think many places could benefit from incorporating bicycles into their infrastructure as Takamatsu has.
As someone who appreciates cleanliness and likes to help preserve our environment, one of the things that I really like about Japan is its policy regarding garbage. Even after being here for two months, I still don’t fully understand the intricacies of the garbage separation and collection system, but it does appear to work well. Despite its obvious difficulties, it seems that the people here embrace the system and do their best to adhere to the policies that govern it. Like I mentioned, I do not know the full extent of the policies here but I do know that basically, the garbage is separated into three main categories; burnable garbage, non-burnable garbage, and recyclable bottles. I also know that some places in Japan take it even further and have anywhere from ten to thirty different categories! In America, garbage is disposed of in a much simpler way, at least on the consumer’s end. We do have a similar garbage separation system; however the bulk of the separation takes place after collection. Before collection, there are really only two categories: trash and recyclables. Despite the relative simplicity, there are still many people who disregard it and treat all garbage as the same, and most of it ends up in a landfill somewhere. Also, despite major improvements over the past few decades, America still has a littering issue. In most cities or towns you go to, you will almost always see some trash littering the streets; unless there is a government-run organization that is in charge of keeping the litter in check. The strange thing is that you will also see numerous trash receptacles lining the roads and occupying the street corners. That is also a major difference that I noticed when I began my life here in Japan. “Where are all the trashcans?” I had asked myself. It wasn’t until I did some research that I discovered it was because if there were trashcans in public, chances are the garbage wouldn’t be sorted properly. Then I wondered, since there are no public trashcans, where do people put their garbage when they’re out and about. Since I hardly ever see any litter, I realized that the only answer is that everyone keeps it with them until they find a proper place to dispose of it. That prospect also amazes me. Not because I can’t do it, but because from my experience, society isn’t patient or caring enough to do it. In America, even though there are designated places for our garbage, even in public, littering is still an issue. Considering those conditions it seems as thought the problem lies with the people. That is something that has always bothered me in America, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover such cleanliness and diligence here in Japan.
As you can probably guess, when I first arrived in Japan and before I had made it to Takamatsu, I was in over my head. I soon realized that my two years of studying Japanese had not prepared me enough for an independent venture into this completely new and foreign environment. One of the things that made this transition possible and a lot less painful is how kind and helpful the people are here. In the beginning when I needed help I was always a little hesitant to ask, but once I had I was treated kindly and was offered earnest help and advice, despite not even being able to effectively communicate my problem. For example, when I had just gotten off the plane in Osaka, I had managed to find my shuttle and get to my hotel fairly easily. As I was riding the shuttle the next day back to the airport, I noticed a mother-son couple I had seen the previous evening going to the hotel. I started a conversation with the mother, keen to test my conversational capabilities for the first time in Japan. I found out they were on a pilgrimage trying to see the 88 temples, and she found out I was here to research at Kagawa University. When we got off the shuttle, I asked her where the bus stop for Takamatsu was. She told me and then offered to escort me to the bus stop! I said that she didn’t have to but she insisted, thankfully. Once there, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
From that point on, I began to realize that that is how most people are in Japan. They will be willing to go above and beyond what you expect when trying helping you. I have experienced it time and again since being here. It is really quite a relief because I know that I can always find help if I need it. In a way, this is indicative of a broader quality that I have noticed. That is that when there is a task or job that needs to be done, or a skill or subject that needs to be learned, the Japanese people exhibit such extreme focus and determination to accomplish their goals.
One of the most common places where this focus and commitment is exhibited is in the workplace. Whether it is one of the many udon shops here in Takamatsu, a restaurant by Kawaramachi or one down a narrow alleyway, at a bike shop, or in a barber shop, the people that work there always seem to be giving 100% when performing their job’s responsibilities. The one thing that I have found is never lacking when I visit any customer service establishment in Japan is just that, the customer service. The consistency is quite incredible. I always receive a hello and a farewell, and am always hurriedly attended to. When I was eating at a small yakitori shop and one of my group said “sumimasen,” two servers literally raced to our table to try and be the first to help us. Another time, I went to go have lunch at a small ramen shop with my host father. It was delicious so I decided to go back a couple weeks later and when I entered, they greeted me and had remembered my name. I was shocked. When I went to get a haircut, my bag, coat, and sweater were all taken and hung up while my gloves and sunglasses were set neatly by them. In addition to an awesome haircut, they also helped me into my coat and all called a farewell when it was time to leave. Since I have worked in the service industry since I was 14 years old, I notice these types of things and also know that it takes dedication and focus to deliver such good service, especially if your job is particularly tough or if you don’t like it. Due to the amazing consistency with which I encounter such focused and committed people, I realized that it must be more than just an inherited good work ethic, but an engrained value of Japanese society.
Aside from the fluid, well-organized facilities, the multitudes of bicycles, the kind, generous, and hard-working people, and the clean surroundings, there is another thing, which serves as a constant reminder to me that I am indeed living in a new world. That thing is Kagawa prefecture. The landscape here is different from anywhere I’ve been before. The constant presence of the surrounding hills, the mystical Seto Naikai, the breathtaking skies, and the mild climate make Kagawa prefecture a completely unique and amazing place to live. In the beginning, I was in a constant state of awe. But as time passed, I began to accept the constant presence of such beauty and it has now become a natural part of my daily life. There are still times however, usually either on my room’s balcony or on my bike going to or from school, when the sky takes my breath away. I feel very privileged to live in such a beautiful area. Although, it’s not just the landscape that contributes to its beauty, but also the things and places it contains. I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit many different places in the area such as Ritsurin Park, Teshima Island and its museum and other art exhibits, Yashima Temple, and many different Shinto shrines as well. All of these things contain their own wonderful and unique beauty.
Despite all of these wonderful qualities that make Japan an awesome place to live, there are some things that Japan does differently that made adjusting to life here a bit interesting, to say the least. One of the major things surprised me was the way that money and payment is handled here. For all of my adult life, the primary and most common method of payment has been by card. Whether it is with a debit card accessing your bank account money, or a credit card, the method of payment by card has become the preference in America. In second place is paying with cash. For most people in my generation, if the item being purchased costs any more than $20, the default is to pay by card. But anything less than that is most often paid by cash. Due to the widespread acceptance of card payment in America however, many people rely solely on their cards to buy things. That being said, you can probably understand my surprise and slight frustration when I discovered that most places only accept cash. Even large stores like supermarkets most times do not accept cards. So then I thought, well then there must be a solid ATM system here. Once I had my bank account set up and received my ATM card, I discovered that the ATMs are indeed quite functional. I especially like the bankbook balance recording function. What I don’t understand is why many ATMs have operating hours even though cash is the main form of payment. Most times, ATMs in America are accessible 24 hours. The lesson I have learned from this, which is most likely a valuable lesson anywhere in the world, is to always think ahead and prepare for the unexpected. In this case, it means don’t wait to get money until the moment you need it.
Another difference that I noticed, that was actually impossible not to notice, was a loud method of advertisement here in Japan. The first time I encountered this phenomenon was around 9:00 on a Saturday morning in my dorm room at Yashima. I was sleeping until I started hearing a man’s voice, booming from the Nikito Pachinko shop on the other side of the river. I passed it off as it being a special event or something, but then I began hearing it every weekend. Around the same time I also began encountering vehicles equipped with loudspeakers doing the same things. My Japanese is not yet good enough to understand exactly what is being said however, I can’t imagine anything being advertised is worth the public disturbance. I’m not entirely against this method of communication, because it is obviously effective, and I know that it is used for other things as well, like recycling announcements and other types of important information. But I do think that it is a bit excessive for a supermarket to be allowed to advertise their discounted prices to every person within a 1-kilometer radius.
There is one final thing that took me by surprise when I came here, and that is the availability of free wireless Internet. I know it may seem like a lot to ask for, but in actuality, my plan had been dependent upon finding free Wi-Fi. I was actually expecting it because I had become used to finding free Wi-Fi networks everywhere in America. You may or may not be able to relate, but for someone from my generation, going without Internet for an extended period of time is very difficult. I had wanted to use the Internet for staying in contact with my family from my phone, but all I saw were SoftBank Wi-Fi hotspots and other such services. Even the networks labeled “Free Wi-Fi” still required a membership password. So when I came here, I was unexpectedly disconnected. Because of this condition, my priority for the first few days here in Takamatsu, aside from taking care of preparation work for school and residency, was finding Internet access. In the end, everything turned out well, and through this I learned another valuable lesson, which was discovering the value of being disconnected. In this way you can be much more receptive to what is actually around you without being blinded by the constant presence of the rest of the world.
When I began to distinguish these values from what I was seeing, I began to wonder why they are manifested so strongly. The main reason that came to mind that because Japan is an island, it had a very long time to develop and nurture its culture without any outside influence or interference. For that reason, Japan is unlike any other country in the world. Japan’s past, its history, and its longstanding culture make it very unique; but despite that there are many similarities as well: kind and generous people, family values, people striving to succeed, diligent students, unique ways of thought, and beautiful places. You can find those things anywhere but they may exist in slightly different forms. That is what I find so intriguing and beautiful about travel.
Japan is such an amazing place. I could go home right now and be satisfies with the lessons that I have learned here. But the fact is that I am not leaving for 7 more months, and when I consider what else I can learn and accomplish in that amount of time, it makes me excited and puts a smile on my face. I don’t think that I will be able to fully grasp the significance of my time here until I actually do return home. I know that I have been changing, because change is inevitable when immersed in something completely different; however I won’t know how much I have changed until I have something to compare it to, like home. My world has become larger and I can see the difference it is making in my life by contrasting it with some of my friends who have not have the same experiences that I have had the opportunity to experience. Even though I cannot say with certainty how I have changed, I do know that I will strive to maintain certain aspects of my life that I have grown accustomed to in Japan. For example, I will make an effort to continue using my bike as a primary mode of transportation. I know that I will strive to maintain a global perspective on life because as I mentioned before, that is essential for novel ideas and progress. I will be fortunate enough to take some cooking skills that I have acquired here back home with me and I will be sure to utilize them. And most of all, I will carry with me the fantastic relationships that I have developed here. I have already met so many amazing people and made so many great friends. Living in an international dormitory in Japan, not only have I met Japanese people, but I have also become friends with people from around the world! I am sure that this time in my life will be something I never forget.
Thank you all very much for listening!
And for those of you that took the time to read it all, thank you very much for reading!