Monday, November 23, 2009

Contemporary Democracy, Foreign Perspective

Here's a fascinating editorial from the BBC regarding current politics in America. One nice thing the BBC does is they moderate commentary on articles--that way, the result is actual interesting discussion with a minimum of flaming (resulting in a flame war instead of a discussion). Furthermore, I'm intrigued at the views opined by people from what seem to be various regions of the world--perhaps mostly British of some sort, but still an "outside" perspective. I have found in my travels that an outside perspective on things can be vastly illuminating--and certainly, for American politics as well. Anyhow, I have a lot to say about this article because I find it so very refreshing to see some actual reasoned discussion going on--not to mention how it relates to my interests. I don't have the time to comment further now, but I highly recommend reading it (and the following commentary).

Thursday, November 19, 2009



"Sumeba miyako" is a Japanese proverb (kotowaza) that means something like "Wherever you live is home."

ただいま! (tadaima)
I'm home!

Tomorrow, I will be 21 years old.
I can hardly believe it, but after 21 years of life, I'm in a good place. I made it to the milestone of adulthood so revered in American culture, and like I often do, I'm taking this time to look inward (before I go have an AWESOME weekend!) and thinking about my life. Last night, I considered the circumstances that have led me to reside in this little green valley of Kakuma-machi in Kanazawa, Japan, how it came to pass that I lead the life I lead, and who I am as a person. I've learned a lot about balance and form, and though I had a hard week this week with lots of study, my birthday weekend will soon begin. I'm beginning to feel my Japanese skills improving, and every day I learn something new. There are some truly amazing people here, and spending time with them makes everything else I do here better. I'm catching up on work, I have great plans for the future, and I'm developing my routine. With the traveling I've done recently, the proverb that titles this post has become my way of life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Life is good.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

"The study of comparative cultures [...] cannot flourish when men are so defensive about their own way of life that it appears to them to be by definition the sole solution in the world. Such men will never know the added love of their own culture which comes from a knowledge of other ways of life."
- Ruth Benedict

Where I am now...

Sunset in downtown Kanazawa, in front of the Kohrinbo Atrio shopping mall near Katamachi.

There's a reason why I elected to spend an entire year in Japan. I became fascinated by Japanese culture, and now that I'm actually here I feel only more excited by it. It was difficult to believe it for a very long time, but now it finally feels like the pieces are falling into place in my life, and everything really IS going to work out in the end. I went through some very difficult times, but I've come through it, and I'm doing better than ever. I love my life here.

So why did I come to Japan? To "better" myself, to approach some ideal, to figure out my life? No. A friend of mine from Australia reminded me yesterday of what I'm doing here. Simply put, I came to Japan because I knew it was a good idea. I knew it would be a good thing for me to do. That's it!

Yesterday I overheard a conversation about how giving people more control over their lives will increase happiness and life expectancy. Writing, talking, music, friends--these are my means of control, of introspection, of finding meaning in the wonder of life. The only thing that's really giving me anxiety right now is my studies--it's very important to me, but there are so many other things going on here! I'm still adjusting to life here in that way.

Pico Iyer has written a very insightful article about his impressions as a foreigner having lived in Japan for a number of years. I highly recommend it; I think that many of his ideas about the form and structure in Japanese society are very astute.

So what am I DOING in Japan??
- Jōdō - every Friday I practice "the way of the staff"
- Karatedō - every Tuesday I practice "the way of the open hand"
- Shodō - every Wednesday I practice the art of Japanese calligraphy
- Melo Melo A Cappella - every Friday I attend A Cappella Circle meetings on campus
- KUMAKUMA!! - a new band that I have formed with a Japanese friend and an Australian friend
- Japanese B - language class four times a week
- Kanji B - once per week (supplement to regular language class)
- Japanese Anthropology - every Monday
- Special Russian Independent Study course - every Monday, I meet with a grad student from Russia who speaks fluent English and Japanese as well. I read Pushkin and Dostoevsky in the original Russian for the class, and we discuss culture.
- Trip to Nagoya - next Thursday, I'm going to Nagoya with a couple of friends. I'm going to see an awesome concert, and thanks to the awesome drummer from MAE, I'm on the guest list. I'm SO STOKED for this!
- JUSCO (big nearby department store) / shopping
- Food happens all the time
- Organized cultural experiences: tea ceremony, ikebana
- Dinner, nightlife - restaurants, clubs, karaoke
- Helping Japanese friends with English
- Comparing cultures - Class meets on Tuesday, and we analyze cultural differences. I'm in a group scheduled to discuss Mythology, with an emphasis on Japanese mythology of course.

Last week, U2 broadcasted their live show from the Rose Bowl in LA, and I happened to watch it live. I'm not a huge fan of U2, but it was awesome.

Calendar of cultural events

Interesting article about Japanese names

Individually wrapped bananas!

Super cool Japanese girl!

Traditional style Japanese house.

I cooked my dad's recipe for fried chicken with country gravy, and made it with rice and corn, just the way I like it back in California. I also made a salad with 1000 Island dressing, and there were many American style drinks to go with it, including milk for dipping Oreos after dinner. I invited about eight guests, and they were all from non-English-speaking countries, as I planned, so that I could show people that American food is more than just McDonald's hamburgers. It was a delicious feast!

A photo of me was featured in this article from the Hokkoku Shimbun. The article is about how a group of us international students are participating in this program to learn about Japanese culture, and so we were learning to make soba noodles. In other words, I was in the newspaper because I was making noodles. YES!

Article from the Hokuriku Chunichi Shimbun about us, too.

The Germans!
The Finns!

There's a sushi place in Kanazawa called Matsurizushi (Festival Sushi), where you pay by the plate. In other words, you sit down at the bar, and various plates roll past you with different kinds of foods (or drinks) on them. You take what you want, stack up the plates as you eat, and pay ¥100 per plate when you're finished. Not satisfied? In front of your seat is a touch-screen monitor that displays various food options. Choose what you want, and depending on what it is, your selection will either be wheeled out on a card by a friendly waitress, or will roll up right in front of you on a Shinkansen-styled food train. Now THAT is a dining experience I can believe in.

People love holidays in Japan, and Christmas is no exception by any means. It's an excuse to decorate! To give gifts! To shop! And Christmas in Japan is known to be a couples' holiday, rather than a family holiday as it is in America, or as a more religious holiday in other parts of the world. So what is religion in Japan? There is a saying that Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist. What does that mean? Japanese people do not categorize themselves by religion as Americans and much of the Western world so often does. Everyone knows the traditions and customs and mixes and matches them in whatever way seems to fit, so as Ayer mentioned in the above article, certain combination that seem to defy "Western sensibility" (as if there is such a thing) are common everywhere in Japanese society. As a result, because people like Christmas, Christmas is popular.

Finally, here's a clip from TV Kanazawa, featuring some familiar faces. The translation of my broken Japanese is "I like to cook myself, so this is really fun!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama continues to follow me around the world...

Obama is coming to Tokyo on Friday, continuing his trend of following me around the world.

Here's an interesting article from the Associated Press about the question of visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That's an intriguing issue for me personally. There's no question that I will visit the memorial at Hiroshima while in Japan, and I already feel very emotional about it. I'm glad to hear that Obama wants to visit while in office, something that no sitting President has done before. It's very, very important to me.

Another article from the Washington Post, outlining the President's itinerary.

Finally, from the above article, an interesting bit to ponder, what with all the ridiculous toxicity that still ravages American politics...

"President Obama is enormously popular in all the countries that he's visiting. I haven't seen the latest polls, but the numbers I have seen are staggering," said Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

"When we have someone who has that degree of respect and affection and admiration, the message that he is bringing is much more likely to resonate than when you come in with a five percent approval rating," he said.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Quality of Life

Photo of the interior of a bar called Sturgis in the happening Katamachi neighborhood of Kanazawa. The place is a rock and roll paradise, a bit of an otaku sanctum in the best sense of the word that's a mellow museum when it isn't a party. The walls are covered with memorabilia and musical instruments are everywhere. People from all over the world write on the walls about how they will never forget Kanazawa and Sturgis and its proprietor, and musicians come and play and leave their mark. Much of it is American music memorabilia, but the place is truly international.

Russia and Japan are two nations that have some of the most notoriously high suicide statistics in the world. Why is this?

«Японцие живут слишком хорошо,
а русские слишком плохо.»
"Japanese live too well; Russians too poorly."
- A relation of my weekly Russian tutor

Though I am in Japan, I'm still studying Russian on the side. Every Monday I meet with a graduate student from Russia and we discuss in Russian some issues of life and culture and literature. At our last meeting, I asked the above question and we discussed the idea of quality of life, a phrase that seems to be thrown around quite often. But what does it mean?

In Russia there's a bit of a joke that I have mentioned on this blog before concerning the idea of the Russian Soul. But is it so different from an American? What is culture, anyhow?

I believe that culture consists of the life experiences that make a person. Perhaps in psychological terminology, this might be known colloquially as "nature versus nurture." Americans seem to love categorizing and qualifying, quantifying and defining things; I'm coming to realize that religion is a large component of identity in American culture. Students at most colleges must declare a major in a specific field by their third year of studies. From my current studies, I'm beginning to see what appears to be an international trend towards regionalism. Anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown wrote in 1939:
Concrescence...into larger and larger social structures by political, economic, religious, or other organizations is the outstanding feature of human history”

Perhaps, but maybe we're moving beyond the "global village" phase with a bit of a return to regionalism. People love to emphasize their regions: people want to find culture, the unique bits of flavor in a place. Japanese sake brewers are returning to regional flavors. Southern Californians are proud of the Southern California dialect and traditionally love to hate certain phraseology used by Northern California residents; similarly, Russians from Saint-Petersburg make fun of slurred Moscow Dialect. In Japan, one of the most distinct and recognizable dialects is Kansai-ben, the speech of people from the Kyoto region, though from what I have seen it is both a point of pride for Kansai natives and a liked and appreciated bit of culture by other Japanese, sort of like the way that everyone likes New York pizza but only New Yorkers really know and understand it, and they're proud that it comes from their home.

Friday, November 6, 2009


先輩/せんぱい:elder, senior, mentor

An integral part of Japanese society and language is the sempai/kōhai relationship. As a foreigner and someone new to the country, I have little day-to-day experience with this idea. However, earlier this week, I felt that I was beginning to get a bit of a better idea about what it's all about.

This sort of relationship generally exists in schools or companies--for example, if two students are studying in the same faculty at a university, then the older and more experienced student is treated with respect by the kōhai. In companies it is similar.

I'm only beginning to understand the levels of formality in Japanese society and language. I'm already quite aware of differences in how I talk to my Japanese friends Takashi and Shinsuke (Takashi is also my tutor; more on that later--Shinsuke is also in the band with me; more on that later too), and how I talk to my sensei in Japanese class or to a salesperson at a store. Still, there are grammatical forms that I'm aware of but haven't even learned yet that take this idea much further. and add even more levels of formality.

As a foreigner, I am not generally expected to conform to this structure. However, I must be aware of it. The more I become involved in Japanese society, the more I will have to be aware of these relationships.

Earlier this week, I realized that sometimes these relationships exist in American culture too, though much less common. For example, my step-grandfather will always be known to me as Grampa. In another sense, when I did theatre at Buckley, older students would always notice and be extremely annoyed if a younger student might step out of place, disrespecting seniority in the program's hierarchy.

Japanese language has these forms built-in, in a way that English simply does not (and, for that matter, Russian). In addition, here's an interesting article about gendered forms in Japanese, too--another important and related point. It is sometimes the case, as readers who have studied foreign language extensively will understand, that some words simply don't translate so well--or as I have found, you can translate a word, but it takes more than that to explain what its usage means or implies. These subtle shades of meaning take time and experience to learn, but they are essential to understanding cultural differences.

Drawing these cultural comparisons makes for fascinating conversation, and it will lead to the focus of my major, too.

I realized that of the six Tufts students in this program, I'm the only one concentrating on Japanese culture as an academic interest. One amazing thing about about being here is that after all the experience and confidence I have so far gained abroad, I really do feel free to make of this program what I want. I'm amazed and honored by the amount of respect that seems to thrive here even among the international student community, and it's a great feeling and a very positive environment to live in.