Thursday, November 17, 2011

Changing Impressions - The End Approaches

As our study abroad term in Japan draws to a close, its fun to think back over the last 3 months and how many memories were made. We've been in schools working with energetic schoolchildren, talked with an atomic bomb survivor in Hiroshima, worked with volunteers from all over Japan at a relief effort center in Tono, and met many many Japanese and international students during the course of many events at Gandai. From all of this, I feel like I've got a sense of the drive of the Japanese people. There is some force that pushes them on, to study hard, to make lots of friends, to help others, and to live life to the fullest.

When I arrived in Japan, I looked at everything with wonder and excitement; everything was new, and I could hardly believe how much I needed to speak Japanese. Now, Morioka has become my home, both in a sense of I've lived here and also that I'm made so many connections. If you know people in Japan, you can do many things. I feel like with the people I've met, I will never have a dull moment should I return to Japan. Thank you everyone for all the memories, let's have a great last two weeks!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Politics: Visible & Invisible

My first introduction to Japan outside of video games and language classes was politics. When I decided to start down the path of Japanese Studies, I took the intro class offered at my first university, University of Washington. The intro course there was taught by a professor who specialized in Japanese politics, so not only did we get the usual Meiji period, occupation period, 90s bubble economy lectures, but we also talked a great deal about Japan's political parties.

The two main parties nowdadays are the Liberal Democratic Party (jimintou / LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (minshutou / DPJ). Since the American occupation, the LDP had been the majority almost all the time until the general election in 2009, when the DPJ took power, forming a coalition with a couple other minor parties. The only other party with a significant amount of seats is the New Komeito Party (koumeitou / NKP), a party with close ties to the Souka Gakkai buddhist group.

While here in Japan, although there have been election cars and candidates giving speeches on street corners, I didn't hear much talk at all of politics like there is in the United States. Politics just doesn't seem to come up in conversation here, although it is likely a difficult topic to bring up. The only time I've seen national politics in action is speeches and voting. When my host parents voted, they brought me along, and although I couldn't vote obviously, I was allowed to go in and observe. Unfortunately, I couldn't take any pictures inside.

An election car, you can see the person inside reading from a script over the loudspeakers

The other time I saw politics in action was in the middle school I'm assisting at. I biked to school one day, and after I parked my bike and started walking to the entrance, I noticed kids wearing sashes lining the student entrances asking for others to vote for them. A couple of them came up and shook my hand and asked for my vote, though it was more to be funny, because teachers aren't allowed to vote in student elections. There were also posters put up with students names in the hall, much like the candidate posters you can find around the city during election season. A couple of times during lunch, the student candidates would make speeches over the loudspeaker while everyone listened in their classes. Also, at the first year morning meeting, all the first year candidates gave short speeches. I regrettably missed the election itself (there was another event at the same time), but got to see the assembly announcing those elected.

Students campaigning outside
Student campaign posters inside the school

First year students in the election give speeches to other first years

Election results at the weekly morning assembly

So, although you can easily find politicans making speeches and calls to vote during election time, both in school elections and in local ones (the visible side), much of the issues remain undiscussed among people outside of the voting booth (the invisible side).

(Images of school elections taken by myself)
(New Komeito, Democratic Party of Japan, Liberal Democratic Party logos are copyright of their respective parties, and are reused here for descriptive purposes at low resolution under the Fair use clause of copyright law)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gender: Group Separation in Schools

The concept of gender in Japanese schools is very interesting. Particularly I've noticed that during events like assemblies, morning meetings, and even in most classes there is a separation between genders. In the first picture, you can see that in the classroom there are sets of two columns, one all boys, the other all girls. I can only imagine that this is to keep them more separated from their own gender peer groups, hopefully keeping their concentration more on learning and less on chatting during class. Outside of class, you can easily notice students in their peer groups, especially when arriving and departing school. Oftentimes students will walk along the road in pairs or groups of 3 or 4, but all the same gender, with occasional exceptions. I've also noticed this phenomenon at Iwate University. Although there are more exceptions, I would be comfortable saying that often students are with a group of their own gender. However, when eating there is a difference between college and middle school groupings. Middle school lunch is within the classroom, and so the desk organization stands. At Iwate University, lunch is eaten in a separate cafeteria building, where students of all genders intermingle, though there are still a lot of single gender groups.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Globalization: Influx and invitation of foreign culture

One part of globalization is the importation of foreign culture. You can see cultural symbols from all over the world in Japan, but particularly in the realms of familiar characters and langauges.

This is a poster that I found while wandering in a Kyoto subway station. It’s a sign for lost children, but it features a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine, a character from a British children’s show about trains. Here it has relevance, as this is the subway, but Thomas is from a different culture. Here his imagery has been adapted into the Japanese context of subways and trains, something that the two cultures share a liking of. This cross-cultural exchange is a striking example of globalization.

This picture was taken at the Hiroshima Station shinkansen tracks. The explanations of the reserved and non-reserved cars as well as the romanization of easy to read kana lettering is an effort to make it easier for tourists to travel to and from here. You can now see roman letters in many places where normally kana would suffice. This inclusion of both Western and Japanese writing shows the trend of opening Japan up to the world, inviting foreign cultures and people to come. You can even see roman letters in areas with fewer foreigners, such as Iwate Prefecture.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Religion: A Sightseeing Thing?

Religion in Japan is a very interesting concept. The various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines go way back in history, and have a lot of culture value instilled in them. However, oftentimes, especially with the more famous temples, they become tourist attractions. The first picture is of the interior of Itsukushima Shrine, the site of the famous big red torii in the water. The island itself is sacred, and yet now there are all sorts of people walking around every which way, taking pictures and posing with the temples. I am of course guilty of this as well, but the point is that the shrine has become a very touristy place. You can buy various charms and such from stores inside the shrine itself.

The second picture was taken in front of Zenkoji, a famous Buddhist temple in Nagano. It is very famous, and there were many visitors when we came to see it. You can see in the picture the traditional buildings in the back contrasted with the touristy souvenir booths on the left. Many of the more famous religious sites in Japan are like this, particularly Kinkakuji. The tourism is not necessarily a bad thing, as it brings people to these sites where they can hopefully learn something of their religious and cultural significance.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pop Culture: ケタイとマンガ


Cellphones (ketai) are now regularly used by people all around the world. But in Japan, they've become a cultural item. Lots of stuff about cellphones just has to do with decoration. People hook charms on to their cellphones, and there are innumerable different kinds. The one on my cellphone is a hanafuda card with a bell. Other people have more sparkly charms, or ones that make noise, or several on one phone! The phone design itself is pop culture as well. One thing I noticed is that cellphones have decorative light patterns that serve little to no purpose other than to be cool, and let you know with some extra pizzaz that a text message just arrived. Simpler models just blink a light, much like most American cellphones. However, most of the fancier ones do more than that. My host mother's phone blinks a snowflake pattern, one of the ALTs has one that flashes several colors like crazy, and I've seen many more.


In Japan, manga is everywhere. Comic culture in the US is normally more of a cult or younger kids thing. However, in Japan, most everybody reads it. You can see kids reading it at home, businessmen reading it on the train, and it is everywhere in stores. There are all different genres to appeal to the various types of people, as opposed to US comics, which are mostly targeted at a particular audience. While I don't read it often, due to my lack of kanji skill, most Japanese people that I know from Earlham as well as people I've met during SICE have read at least one manga series.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

People: Uniformity & Diversity


This picture was taken at a local middle school in Morioka. In Japan, starting from middle school, most schools require students to wear uniforms. Although everyone in the picture seen here is in gym clothes, there are also separate uniforms for girls and boys when outside of the gym. Several reasons exist for this uniform requirement; it can help the students concentrate on their studies and less on fashion (makeup is also not allowed), it presents a unified image to the public, etc. There are several situations in which there is a measure of uniformity in Japan. School is one, work, particularly office jobs, is another such situation. However, despite this unifying image, there are still several differences between students/workers. Just because everyone has the same clothing doesn't necessarily mean their personalities are all similar.


This picture was taken during the Obon festival in mid-August. A lot of people came to watch from the riverbank. In this picture, you can note that people are wearing various different types of clothing. When outside of the workplace/school, peoples' differences come out in not only personalities and faces, but in clothing. There are various colors, styles, and personalities expressed here in this picture. It is interesting to note how kids particularly dress outside of school, as during the day they don't have much of a choice.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Neighborhood: Defined by Transportation


This is a picture of Iwate-iioka station looking northward towards downtown Morioka. While not all neighborhoods are centralized around train stations, they are definitely a defining feature. You know what stop you live by, what times trains run to and from that stop, and especially when the last train is, in case you stay out late with friends. Facebook in Japan even has an option to put your train station at the top of your page, right next to where you go to school! Many students from Tsushida minami and surrounding neighborhoods bike to Iwate-iioka every day to take the train to school.


This is a picture of one of the main bicycle parking areas at Iwate University. A lot of students and the population of the city in general use their bikes to get around during the day, and visit around the neighborhood. When you own a bike in Japan, in combination with the train, you can get almost anywhere, you don’t even need a car! There are many roads that are bicycle friendly, including large clearly marked bicycle lanes (picture to come), as well as separate paths for pedestrians and bicycles (on bigger roads). You can often see Japanese of all ages riding their bikes around the neighborhood from day to day.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

First Impressions: 広くて伝統的な日本

Japan is much more open and spacious then I thought, especially when travelling through countryside areas. This picture was taken while on the shinkansen a short while before stopping in Sendai. The number of rice fields we saw while on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka surprised me. Even in city areas there is always open space somewhere; whether its a large rice field, a open concrete public area, or a meeting area within a building, there is always some kind of wide open space nearby. It symbolizes a more peaceful and old-fashioned Japan, in contrast to the modern Japan of busy streets and tall buildings.

While Japan has become quite the modernized country, there are always elements of tradition to be found. This picture was taken at the Kumigai Ryoukan, a traditional Japanese inn close to downtown Morioka. A part of the inn is tradition, the whole place has it in the air. From the design of the building to the rooms style (all the customer's rooms have a tatami mat floor with a futon bed), everything is traditional. Several families now eat at a more Western style table, but you can always find a tatami room in the house, as well as traditional entrances most of the time (genkan).