Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cultural Capitol

(not "Capital," or is it a play on words?)

Check out my article in the latest issue of the Tufts Traveler magazine!  Got a photo spread too!  Download the latest issue.

Also check out my Japanese blog if you're interested, though you'll need a Mixi account to access it.  I have a Russian blog too (you'll need a VKontakte account to access it), though it hasn't been updated in a while.  That may change late next week, though almost certainly not before then.

Today I approached some unusual people on campus who were drumming up support for their upcoming rally downtown against the American military base in Okinawa.  It appeared that I had caught them off guard, and I got the sense that they hadn't actually talked to any real American people before.  Fortunately, my Japanese has gotten good enough now so that I was able to express my own opinions and find out exactly what their views are.  Although their posters all over certain regions of campus do seem generally anti-American (and Japanese students who study here also seem to have that impression of this group), that is apparently not, in fact, the case.  They support the tens of thousands of other Japanese who are actively against the base's presence, and generally believe that the base should be relocated elsewhere.  Furthermore, they are against the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they believe that troops should be withdrawn immediately, subsequently blaming Obama for continuing a failed war. 
(NY Times article)
LA Times article, from an earlier time when it seemed that the earlier agreement with Hatoyama to relocate the base to a new location on the island could still hold water, so to speak.  Clearly the US isn't "making the case" very well.

Grievances against the base include not only the right of sovereignty; it is a stereotype that American soldiers are sometimes not so "considerate" so to speak--that is to say, there have been incidents including rape and the "accidental" death of a local man.  When I visited the Marine base at Iwakuni last month, I learned that soldiers there get into trouble on a basically weekly basis, and they have to go and apologize for it all the time.  That all being said, it is not well understood why the USA needs or wants the base(s) at all.  True, there is the fuzzy issue of "Asian Security," but perhaps it more closely relates to the sphere of American influence, both military and cultural, and of course likewise economical.  Moreover, in the city of Naha for example (the largest in, and the capital of, Okinawa), the American military presence brings big money to local businesses.  Still, there has been more and more friction with the locals recently, and it doesn't wear too well.

All in all it was an educational experience to speak with these people and try to explain that the situation in Afghanistan has become rather too complicated to simply leave.  They're not "anti-America" or "anti-American," they told me, but seeing their posters in some places with pictures of thousands of people chanting against the wishes of my home government can certainly make me feel a bit uncomfortable.  As I left, I reminded them that it's good to talk about things, that there are several other Americans on campus here, and that it ought to be a good idea to talk with them.

A quick comment on circle culture at the university here.
I grew up feeling encouraged to cultivate many different interests, in fact to such an extent that I felt I was often spreading myself too thin.  Here, most students are in one circle (just one, though occasionally two), so that means one activity to focus on.  It seems to me different from the usual way in America to cultivate various "liberal arts" though neither approach is necessarily better.  The upside of the Japanese way is clear: cultivation of dedication, a chance to get really good at something, opportunity to become close with a singular group of friends who share a common interest.  It's something I vaguely sensed before I came here actually, and something I wanted to try.  So far so good, though coming from my home perspective of wanting to do as much as possible, it's a bit difficult to do everything.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Dave Spector

Dave Spector is a Chicago-born Jewish-American TV personality who has been living and working in Japan since the mid-80s.  He's a regular figure several on Japanese TV programs, commenting usually on "foreign" news, though recently also occasionally on Japanese news as well.  Being a blond, white, American foreigner, he's rather a recognizable figure and household name.

 So what's the deal with Dave?

He's one of the most successful and certainly one of the more recognizable foreigners in Japan, that's what.  Still, to foreigners (i.e., Americans) living in Japan, he can seem very strange.  To me, up until I actually read about him and his career, I had seen him several times on TV here and thought him rather annoying.  True, I must admit I felt somewhat envious of his clear success with Japanese life (his Japanese is known to be perfect), but if you watch him then perhaps he might occasionally come off as a sort of stereotype of foreigners.  The thing is, he's got to be one of the top ten most prominent non-Asians on Japanese TV, so his presence also carries a lot of weight.  According to this  Japan Times article, part of his success stems from his ability to digest great amounts of information from the English-speaking world and then relate it to his Japanese audience--especially since, as the JT article claims (and in my experience, I consider it to be more or less true), Japanese news coverage of "foreign issues" tends to occasionally be somewhat lacking in detail or in-depth analysis.  That certainly seems to be the stereotype, and on a couple of occasions I have felt bemused at the style, angle, or amount of news coverage on certain topics while living here in Japan.

That said, why is Dave Spector one of the most reliable of the gaijin talent?  How has he done it?  It's another stereotype (that the JT article touches on) that Japanese people can be wary of or hesitant toward foreigners, whether for language difficulties, cultural differences, or mere stereotype.  The Dave Spector Wikipedia page talks about this idea, and how he responded to it with The Panda Approach.

 The Panda Method

This so-callaed Panda Method is the idea that something that you always hear about but may not know so well personally is much more approachable if you meet it in a controlled environment and it's doing something silly.  That way, you won't feel intimidated, and whatever reservations you have had about the meeting will melt away.  Take a panda for example: they're really wild animals that live in bamboo forests in China, but if you see one in your local zoo running around playfully or munching one of those bamboo shoots in utter cuteness, they don't seem so wild and in fact appear quite cuddly.  With this idea and an intuitive understanding and proclivity toward supporting the American value to stand up for oneself, Dave started out his career with bit parts on TV and worked his way up, doing silly stuff, acting like the hapless foreigner he wasn't (though of course, he appeared to be), all while gradually becoming, as it were, a part of the furniture.  As a foreigner who had grown up with American values combined with a mastery of the language (all three qualities being predictably unexpected), he played the non-threatening part that the culture suggested he play--while at the same time being in command of his career. The net result of this is that he has created his own quite comfortable place that previously was simply absent in the culture.  Furthermore, over the years, he has made the culture work for him, and he's gone from being the silly panda to gaining trust and playing more and more serious roles.

I can relate to a lot of these ideas, also being an American who is living in Japan.  Locals constantly seem impressed by my developing mastery of the language, and I find that people relax quite a bit around me if I act a little silly, which fortunately as far as I'm concerned is my nature.  Moreover, once people see that I can communicate with them in their language, the whole communication process gets a lot easier.  Still, built into Japanese language and culture is a certain "wall" of distance between people that can sometimes seem quite fuzzy.  That wall is inherent to the language, and it depends on the degree of closeness with the person in large part, which also has something to do with age and relative status.  It's not as concrete as you may read about and is certainly more complicated than a textbook will tell you, but broadly speaking, it's true.

When the wall breaks down, people become closer.  American values tend to stress openness, standing up for personal rights and beliefs, and various freedoms.  In Japan, things tend to be different.  A university student's life, for example, is dominated by one or two "student circles" of which one may be a member.  But these aren't your weekend Frisbee clubs or Tuesday-Thursday choir practices.  They also have nothing to do at all with any teachers.  Students tend to have fewer (yet more serious) hobbies, and friends tend to be almost exclusively one's clubmates rather than mostly those who live in the same building.  They're serious, and they meet often, commonly going to dinner together after meetings or having parties as many as several times per month.  I've joined two circles this semester, "XXTRA" (live rock band jam/practice/performance circle) and "Melo Melo" (a cappella circle), and so far it's been a fantastic way to get to know Japanese students, practice the language, and to really feel like I'm experiencing the culture in-depth.  Besides that, it's great practice for my music, something I've missed for too long.

The Other Side of the Wall

There's a new movie coming out in Japan called 「ダーリングは外国人」(My Darling is a Foreigner) that looks at some of these cultural differences from the Japanese perspective.  The movie, based on a manga of the same name, focuses on the relationship between a Japanese woman (Saori) and an American guy (Tony) living in Japan, and various issues that arise over the course of it.  Over the course of these events, various stereotypes are addressed.  However, the manner of addressing these stereotypes is also distinctly Japanese.  The concept of racism as it exists in the States just does not exist in Japan, and stereotyping happens all the time, even stereotyping of their own culture.  In fact, on more than one occasion I have found Japanese people to be surprised at the fact that rice is quite common in America, let alone the fact that Los Angeles is famous for its glut of sushi restaurants.  That's not to say it doesn't happen elsewhere too--in any country in the world, most people don't get the chance to travel, and there's no place like home, right?

On the subject of stereotypes, I read a memorable story in my compendium of Traveler's Tales: Japan that related the experience of a mostly black jazz band from New York City who arrived in Tokyo for a week of performances to find the place set with watermelon.  In America, this action would be questionable at best and could even be called racist.

(From "Department Store Panic" by Jim Leff)
     On the surface, Tokyo seems much like any other big city.  It's easy for a Western visitor to fit comfortably into its familiar urban facade, only rarely glimpsing the breathtaking exoticness that lurks just beneath the surface.
     Notice the mowhawked, body-pierced Japanese youth coming toward you on the Shinjuku sidewalk.  You've seen punkers before; he's hardly worth a second glance.  But watch as he bows to an elderly stranger out of respect for her age.
     You're not in Kansas anymore.
     I was there to perform with a mostly black jazz band, and was appalled when the promoter's welcoming party featured a table full of cut-up watermelon.  I was more horrified still--for different reasons--when I learned that off-season watermelons in Japan run a cool $100 per.  So...it was more an ostentatious show of respect than adherence to a stereotype.  Or was it?
     It's nearly impossible to say; East/West cultural correlations are slippery, and sometimes the more you probe and analyze, the less you understand. 

 I can even corroborate the bit about the watermelon.  I recently saw a cantaloupe for sale at the local supermarket--about a third the size of a normal American one--for about ¥2800, the equivalent of about $31.  For one melon.

The more international experience I gain (I have no love of the word "foreign"), the more I come to see how these stereotypes and cultural peculiarities differ.  So far it's been fascinating, and it's certainly a great education for whatever I end up "doing" in life.  I've signed up for classes this fall at Tufts, and that includes my plan to write a senior thesis, concerning something about international culture.  We'll see where that may lead.  Maybe I could become the next Dave Spector...

 Kanazawa University Foreign Students - Asano River Cherry Blossom Viewing Party
(金沢大学留学生 浅川花見)
( April 10, 2010 )

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Mystique of Aviation, and New Salarymen

The BBC envisions a world without planes.
An intriguing sort of piece inspired by the Eyjafjallajökull chaos.  Don't miss the point--it's not about the current event at all. I think it's about the mystique of travel itself, and the inherent wonder of aviation that can be so easy to forget.

Here's another look at Japanese universities and the whole inherent system there, written by a foreign "salaryman" living and working in Tokyo.  Check it out.

On a side note, a friend of mine who lives and works in Tokyo is the international manager/representative of an up-and-coming Tokyo rock band called Molice.  They call themselves "Blade Runner Music" and they're currently trying to win a contest for a chance to play at a festival in Canada, so I encourage my readers to click here and vote for their video.  Even if you're not interested, do my friend a favor--no registration required, all you have to do is click!



(very difficult to translate; means something like "going for it" "making it happen" or "trying my best")

The new semester started on Monday, and so far it's be crazily busy.  I've joined two "circles" on campus, basically student clubs.  In Japanese university culture, the vast majority of students' time outside of their studies or alone time (so, hang-out time) is spent with clubs or circles.  It's sort of the "group culture" idea, and it provides a framework for social interaction.
Anyhow, I've joined 「XXTRA!!」 (live rock band jamming/practice/performance circle) and [Melo Melo」("メロメロ"; a cappella singing circle, in small and medium groups).  Both circles had parties yesterday, I went to a total of four dinners last week, and two practices each.  Normally it's too much but once the new-student period is over (the school year just began here, actually) then it'll go down, but it's still a huge amount of time.  Still, it reminds me about how important music is to me, and how I miss singing and just love live performance and all this kind of stuff.

That said, however, I'm tentatively in the higher-level Japanese class now, and it's already kicking my ass.  I'm not so good at kanji/reading, though my conversation skills have improved a lot, so it means a lot of study.

Recently a few people have been asking me why I came to Japan and why I study Japanese, and my answer has come down to some combination of these points:
• I wanted to do something different.  Something rare, maybe even innovative.
• I didn't want to do what my brother did.
• I always knew I wanted to study abroad.
• I wanted to challenge myself.
• I wanted to totally replant myself (despite having experienced this on a smaller scale many times before) to discover myself and some of my real interests.
• About Japanese culture specifically, I perceived a special emphasis on moments in time, an abstract idea that appeals to me spiritually and perhaps academically.
• An interest in Japanese culture on a sort of warm level, including food, video games, and motion pictures.

 A few more pictures from spring break:

This is the famous Kobe Beef.  It's called "Momo" which could be a name or could mean it has a sort of "peachy" flavor.  This particular box is designed for gift-giving, and this particular cut of the beef is for barbecuing.
Seen in Osaka.  Japanese clothing seems to be known for strange English.

Kyoto, in front of a famous mochi shop.

Miyajima, just south of Hiroshima (more on that later).  This is known to be one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan.  It's a torii (sacred gate) from a famous old temple.

I've been cooking more, and I finally learned how to make REAL teriyaki chicken, especially since I can't buy it here! haha.  This was my emulation of an American-style teriyaki bowl.

With new friends and old friends at an izakaya (sort of a pub) in Kobe.

Sunday, April 11, 2010



Back to Kanazawa, and back to blogging.

I've been to what seems like all over Japan, and now the two-month Spring Break has come to a close.

My itinerary included Kanazawa, Noto-hanto, Matto/Hakusan, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Amanohashidate, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Iwakuni, Okayama, Himeji, Obama, and Seoul! Yow!

Things have very quickly become very busy again, so I'll be posting updates as I have time, though to be sure that now with my schedule having become much more regular, I'll be posting more regularly as well.

One thing I did over the break was...
I was a roadie/photographer/translator for a band touring from LA.  Check out some photos I took for the guitarist.

Here's a new Ameican comedy-drama show that I've come to quite like a lot.

 Feeding a Japanese Snow Monkey at Arashiyama Monkey Park in Kyoto!

Morning crowd in Shibuya, Tokyo.  This is what Tokyo is supposed to look like, right?  Not like how it was in January.  Super cool.

With friends in Himeji, just before the cherry blossoms bloom.  It was really really really cold!

Myeondong shopping district in Seoul.  Awesome place!

 Classes begin tomorrow.  Life has been interesting recently.