Hello again everyone! Today I enjoyed my first day off in a while, and I went to Shibuya with a few friends. However, our trip was cut short by two things. One is the typhoon that is currently sweeping over the area; I can hear it raging outside right now, and many of the trains are stopping. The other is the protests that are going on in Shibuya right now. This is because of the ongoing island dispute between Japan and China. Japanese citizens are gathering to protest not only China, but also the Japanese government for not taking a stronger stance on the island conflict.

A protest in Shibuya

You may have heard about this conflict already, but I’ll give a brief overview. In the East China Sea, there are a string of eight islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. These islands are currently uninhabited, but are close to strategic shipping lanes and have rich fishing grounds and oil deposits. Right now, they are controlled by Japan.

Japan claims that they claimed the islands originally in 1895. Then after World War II, ownership of Taiwan and other islands was given to China, but then in 1971, the US gave ownership of this group of islands to Japan. Japan says that at the time China had no objections. At some point, the islands were purchased by a private owner, who recently sold them back to Japan. This is what sparked the conflict.

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

China claims that the islands have always been part of their territory since ancient times. They are closely connected to Taiwanese fishing, and so they say the islands should have been returned to them when Taiwan was.

Both countries consider the islands part of their territory. And while both countries say they want a peaceful solution, China has been beefing up its navy and Japan has been forcefully sending off Taiwanese fishing boats. There are violent protests in both countries. In the United Nations General Assembly, the nations lashed out at each other.

They each have the same argument: “We want to resolve this peacefully, so you need to acknowledge that the islands are obviously ours, apologize for your mistake, and everything will be fine!” And they are not backing down. Meanwhile the United States is refusing to take a position on the issue, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been advising the nations to remain calm and diplomatic.

Clinton at the U.N. General Assembly

I have an interesting perspective, being here in Japan. Though I’ve been very busy during my first few weeks here, it’s impossible not to notice what’s going on. My school commute takes me though Shibuya, which is where lots of the protests are taking place, though I had never seen one until today. The US Consulate sent out an email to us advising Americans to stay out of it completely. Usually Japanese people don’t pay much attention to politics, but this has certainly got their attention. My host family mentions it occasionally, but doesn’t go into it much with me around. When they do talk about it, they seem very grave.

In reality, this conflict isn’t even about the islands themselves. It is about nationalism and long held grudges. Taiwan, Japan, China, and Korea have been in conflict with one another since ancient times. More recently, Japan committed unspeakable atrocities when invading China and Korea during World War II, which is has still not officially apologized for. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people are notoriously racist against one another, though of course there are exceptions. In fact, usually an outsider might think they have a fine relationship. About 80% of exchange students at Waseda University are Chinese. College students from these countries make friends with one another. The countries also exchange pop culture; they often watch each other’s television dramas and listen to each other’s music. But during a conflict like this, we can see the constant, underlying current of hatred.

It might be difficult for an American to understand. We don’t have any national grudges that are this strong. We haven’t even been around long enough to have national feelings that are this ingrained. In a way, it is similar to the feelings many people have against Middle Eastern people after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Imagine that, only much more widespread, against a country that is right next to us, and something that has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Last week, we attended the opening ceremony for Waseda’s School of International Liberal Studies (SILS). The ceremony was completely in English. We were introduced to some of the faculty members, congratulated on our acceptance into Waseda, and whatnot. But then things took a more serious turn. The Dean of SILS got up to give a speech. He started by saying:

“When I was thinking about what to write for this speech, I thought about including something about the current island dispute. Eventually I decided that it would be too controversial. Then, I changed my mind.”

SILS Opening Ceremony

But rather than address the issue head on, he proceeded to talk about the idea of “patriotism”, and compared it to “nationalism”. From the way he spoke, he implied heavily (but never actually said) that people had been accusing one another of being unpatriotic if they doubted in the least that Japan had true claim over the islands. He talked about the difference between loving one’s country but also thinking critically, and worshiping one’s country unquestioningly. He quoted Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature:

“I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”

It’s very clear what the Dean was trying to say about the island conflict, but he carefully kept from saying his actual opinion.

Recently, worldwide famous novelist Haruki Murakami wrote about the conflict in the Asahi Shimbun.

Haruki Murakami

“When a territorial issue ceases to be a practical matter and enters the realm of ‘national emotions,’ it creates a dangerous situation with no exit,” Murakami said.

“It is like cheap liquor: Cheap liquor gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical. It makes you speak loudly and act rudely. . . . But after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.

“We must be careful about politicians and polemicists who lavish us with this cheap liquor and fan this kind of rampage.”

“One of the main purposes of cultural exchanges is to bring about an understanding that we are all human beings who share emotions and inspirations, even if we speak different languages,” he wrote.

“That is, so to speak, the path through which souls can come and go beyond national borders.”

Think about patriotism and nationalism in your country. How do they manifest themselves? What is the difference between the two? Why is this important? Is love for one’s country a good or a bad thing? Do you think it is possible for China and Japan to resolve their long standing grudges? Why or why not?


Japan Q&A

Hello again everyone! I’ve decided to make my responses to your questions in a new post rather than try to put this all in a reply comment. I’ll do my best to answer all of these.


1. What do teenagers do in Japanese culture?

This is quite a broad question, and I’m not exactly sure what you mean. If you mean their traditional role in the family, it sometimes depends on whether they’re a girl or a boy. Girls often are expected to do more housework. Either way, they are inferior to their parents, and they are expected to do what they are told. They are also expected to be responsible and respectful, and don’t get the same breaks that younger kids do. They usually study very seriously. In Japan, you don’t have to go to high school, and to get in you have to take an entrance exam. After that, you focus your high school years on getting in to college. Sometimes teenagers work part time jobs as well as working very hard at school. When they get to college, that is when they can let their hair down and party a little. Once you get into a Japanese university, it’s basically a straight shot to a career, so many students become slackers. But before this, they work very hard.

2. How do they dress?

In general, Japanese people of any age dress more nicely than Americans. They put more effort into their appearance, and the girls especially choose looking good over wearing comfortable clothing. Teenagers are often seen wearing their school uniforms, which have ride ranges of styles and colors. In general, the boys wear a button up shirt and sometimes a tie, with a jacket and slacks. The girls wear a jacket, sometimes a tie/bow, and skirts.

Some examples:

They often wear these around town as well as at school. When not wearing these, they dress like we do, only a bit nicer. Girls wear skirts and dresses more often than pants. Boys dress a little more cleanly and formally, with button up shirts and such. Japanese fashion is a little strange. The girls like wearing very frilly, lacy, and sometimes oddly patterned clothes. Their shirts are often baggy rather than form fitting, and they don’t show much skin on their arms or chest. I look strange when I wear a tank top, even in the middle of the summer. They also generally don’t dress in bright colors.

3. Is there a reason behind how they dress?

For this question, I’m going to dig a little deep into this aspect of Japanese culture, so bear with me. Japanese people are very concerned with outward appearances, what they sometimes call the “wrapping”. The way they wrap gifts is very important, almost more important than the gift itself. This kind of mind set applies to many other parts of their lives as well.

When giving gifts, they pay great attention to to the kind of bag, bow, or wrapping paper is used. The appearance of food is also very important. All of their food is beautifully arranged on the plates. They always cover construction areas so people don’t see gutted buildings. People always dress nicely even when out shopping or something casual like that. To the opening ceremonies of my new university, everyone wore suits and dresses.

Appearances also define people in a certain way, and tell everyone else what their place is in society. This is why they have so many uniforms. School uniforms not only tell society that you are a student,  but also what school you are from. Police officers, doctors and nurses, store clerks, maintenance workers, bus drivers, and etc. all have specific, recognizable uniforms. And even jobs like “businessman” or “receptionist” have their own kind of uniforms. You can easily guess what kind of person someone is by how they dress. This is just part of Japanese society, and seems very normal to them. Personal style is not as important to them as it is to us.

4. Are the people spiritual?

Sometimes Japanese people say that they are born Shinto, married Christian, and die Buddhist. Shinto is the oldest and most traditional religion. Most shrines in Japan are in Shinto style. It used to be a religion with mythical beliefs and stories, with many gods, demons, and spirits in their folklore. Now people don’t seem to take that too seriously, and look back on Shinto traditions as fun parts of their culture rather than a real religion. They say they are born Shinto because many people still perform small Shinto rituals when babies are born and when they are children, though it is more cultural than spiritual.

This is a Shinto Shrine:

Often weddings are in the Christian style. Sometimes they have traditional weddings with kimono and other traditional clothes, but these days it’s most popular to have a bride in white and the groom in a suit. They mostly adopted Christian weddings not for the spiritual aspect but for the Western aspect. Of course, there are devoted Christians in Japan, but there aren’t very many, and they mostly keep to themselves. It would take a little googling to hunt down a church.

Most funeral and after death traditions are Buddhist. People build small shrines in their homes for dead loved ones, and sometimes pray or talk to them. They are cremated, but they have headstones in very crowded graveyards. Most Japanese take part in some kinds of Buddhist traditions and rituals, but they aren’t devout Buddhists.

Giant Buddha we visited today:

5. Is their technology more advanced than the United States?

Yes and no. It depends on what you define as “advanced”. For example, the toilet in my host family’s home opens by itself when you approach it. It also heats the seat and makes noise. I’m not sure whether to call this advanced or not.

Their smart phones are definitely more advanced. Rather than installing wifi in many places, Japanese people do everything on their phones. Unfortunately for me, this means wifi is scarce around the city. So they put a lot of effort into their smart phones… of course, many people still use iPhones.

So far I haven’t seen anything else noteworthy that makes them seem more advanced than what we have. Anything they invent quickly finds its way to the US.

6. Is it a very populated country?

Yes. Japan is only about 1/26th as big at the US, but still has nearly 1/3rd as many people. It has a population of 127,817,277 compared to the 311,591,917 of the US. This is why the public transportation system is so important. With everything so cramped here, there simply isn’t enough room for everyone to take their own personal cars to work.


7. Is the food like the Japanese food in the United States?

If you go to a really authentic Japanese restaurant, such as Shigezo or Ichidai in Portland, the food is very similar. But it isn’t close to what you’d get at Sushi Land. Most of our Japanese restaurants are poor imitations, though they are often easier on our American stomachs. There are lots of kinds of Japanese food, and we only see a glimpse of them in the US. The basics of Japanese food is meat/fish, noodles, and rice. Besides that there are endless combinations, as well as certain food we would never hear about. For example, this food is a Tokyo street food called “Monja”, which you fry yourself at your table.

All in all, it’s the same basic concept, but very different from the Japanese food in America. My poor American stomach is actually having trouble adjusting to it.

8. Do they eat only Japanese food?

It depends on the person, but from my experience they eat other kinds of food, but for large meals they generally stick to Japanese food. It depends on how traditional the family is. Even if they do have Western style food, it’s usually Japanized. For example, my host sister made me breakfast and she had scrambled eggs… with soy sauce. And they have toast with jam, but the jam is in weird flavors like orange and pineapple. And the bread is different here. They never have wheat, only very thick, firm white bread. When going out to dinner, sometimes they will go to a Japanese McDonalds or an imitation Italian place. There are even American style restaurants, but they aren’t that common.

9. Do they drink as much coffee as Americans do?

This one definitely depends on the person. If I had to make a sweeping generalization, I’d say that they probably drink more tea than coffee. But Starbucks and other coffee shops are everywhere, so there’s definitely demand for it.

10. Do the people ever try talking in an American accents?

The thing about Japanese is, they often try to use American words. Sometimes these words become part of their vocabulary and are indistinguishable from real Japanese. For example, their word for coffee, “koohii”, came from the English word, but now sounds natural to them. Sometimes they actually attempt to use an English word for the sake of an English word. But English is very difficult for them to pronounce so it rarely comes our correctly. I’ve never heard someone attempt an American accent, but I suspect they wouldn’t be able to do it if they tried. But I’ll ask some time.

11. What is it like to be in a Cat Cafe?

Regrettably, I have not been inside a Cat Cafe yet. It’s on my to-do list. I’ll tell you all about it when I do. They definitely exist, as do Maid Cafes, Butler Cafes, Cosplay Cafes, and more. There’s a cafe for everything. I do know that some cafes, the cheaper ones, won’t let you touch the cats. You have to pay more for that privilege. You have to pay to get in, then pay for whatever drink or food you buy, then pay for how long you stay.

12. What are different laws that they have?

For the most part, their laws are not that different. Most notably, they have completely outlawed guns. Only police officers (and yakuza) can have them. They also have much more severe punishments for carrying and selling drugs of any kind. That kind of thing can get you life in jail.

13. Does it feel like a New York atmosphere?

I’ve never actually been to New York, so I’m not sure. But from what I’ve heard, Tokyo is much cleaner and safer than New York. There are only some areas that have very large buildings with flashing lights. There are a lot of more suburban areas in Tokyo. But everything is very thin and squished together, even more so than New York. The streets are usually very narrow. It’s obviously very crowded as well.

14. Do they all act like a diverse community?

Japan is not a racially diverse country. The population is 98% Japanese. Foreigners look out of place, and if one ventures into a more rural area of the country, they will be openly gawked at. Besides that, the Japanese people also place a great deal of importance on conformity. Even social rebels who like to wear outrageous clothes or cosplay will only do it in areas where that is more accepted. During everyday life, people dress and act in a way that conforms to society’s expectations. Of course they are also individual people with their own tastes, but I wouldn’t call it a diverse community.

15. Do they have fast food restaurants like the US?

Yes, and often they are US chains such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and KFC. But their menu is changed to suit the tastes of Japanese people, usually by adding more seafood choices. None of them are drive through though. I’m not sure drive throughs even exist here.

16. Do they have a Dutch Brothers Coffee?

Nope. I thought they didn’t even have those outside of Oregon? They do have Starbucks though.

17. Do they have everyday trends?

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this question.

18. Is English a foreign language?

Yes. However, they are exposed to English much more than we are to other languages in the US. They have English on their signs, shirts, in their pop songs, and in their daily language use. They also learn English from elementary school to middle school, and then many continue learning from then on. However, it is difficult for them to become fluent in English because of how difficult the language is.

19. Are schools super strict about academics?

Generally yes, as I mentioned in the first question. But it does depend on what high school you attend. Some are more strict than others. Often Japanese middle school and high school students also attend “cram school”, which is more school after school. Sounds like something that crawled out of your nightmares, right? But they voluntarily do it, all so they can prepare for college entrance exams. However once they get into college, they often skip class and spend their nights drinking and partying. After you get into a good university, your future is basically set anyway.

20. What is their major religion?

See question #4. They don’t have an official national religion,but Shinto and Buddhism are both very big. However, they are more about culture than actual religious beliefs.

21. What kind of music do they listen to?

You may have heard of Jpop, Japanese pop music. This is probably the most popular kind of music for young people. Boy and girl singing groups are very popular here. They’re kind of like One Direction, or the Backstreet Boys back in the day. Probably the biggest group in Japan right now is AKB48, a girls group that now has over one hundred members.

They’re also huge fans of Korean groups such as Girls Generation, which are very similar. Then there’s the boy bands:

That’s Arashi, which some of you may recognize if you’ve ever seen Hana Yori Dango. They also have other music styles, such as the intense Jrock and their own kind of R&B. But I’d say pop is the most popular.

22. Does China make the majority of their products?

I’m not sure on this one, but from what I’ve seen, they have less Chinese made products than we do in America. Many things such as household items are made right here in Japan.

23. Do they have ordinary pets? (Dogs and cats)

Yes, they have the same kinds of pets that we do. However, it’s rare for them to have large dogs. People don’t usually have yards; that kind of house is very expensive, since everything is so cramped here. So their dogs are usually toy poodles, little yorkies, things like that. Corgis at the largest.

24. What do they think and say about Americans?

This is a complicated question. After all, what Japanese people think and what they say are two very different things. I think it’s kind of a love hate relationship. Many Japanese people have bad experiences with American tourists, especially here in Tokyo. This can lead them to think of Americans as rude, arrogant, and ignornant. Even if they don’t have this kind of experience, we kind of have a reputation like that all around the world. However, they’re often enamored by American things at the same time. Many of them are excited to learn English despite its difficulty, and they often love seeing American movies and other parts of American pop culture. So if I had to make a general statement, I’d say they like our stuff but they don’t really like us. As for what they actually say, well, they don’t really say much. All I’ve really heard is people politely saying that it must be interesting where I live, and things like that. They keep their judgements to themselves.

25. What do most locals eat in Japan?

See questions #7 and #8.

26. Is schooling more important than in the U.S.?

See questions #1 and #19

27. Do they focus on arts/crafts there?

There are many traditional arts and crafts in Japan. These include origami (paper folding), ikebana (flower arranging), and tea ceremonies. Japanese people love art and have many artistic traditions. Children often draw from a young age. However, I don’t think it’s something most adults actually participate in unless it’s a special event of some kind.


28. Do they have to wear uniforms to school?

See question #2

29. What is the weather like?

The weather is more extreme than Oregon’s weather. The summers are hotter and the winters are colder. The summers are ridiculously humid. My first week here, I felt like I was walking into a sticky, nasty warm pool when I walked outside. It often rains, but it’s no relief because the rain is warm. I haven’t experienced the  winter here yet. Of course, weather does depend on the area of Japan, for example the top island, Hokkaido, is cool in the summer and VERY cold in the winter. That’s about all I know.

30. What’s the government like?

After World War 2, the US set up Japan’s new Constitution. Strangely, they’ve embraced this whole heartedly. It’s very similar to ours, only it limits Japan’s military severely. While they still have the royal family, the ones who actually make the policies are their Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches. Very similar to our government. But here, politics are much less dramatic and people don’t seem to care much about them. There aren’t as many political scandals, and it’s not really a topic of daily conversation.

31. Are there a lot of rules?

Besides the unspoken rules of social conformity, there aren’t many rules. I don’t know if there are even curfews or anything like that. As for rules for kids while they live with their family, that really depends. Basically an American could come and live here without having to worry about breaking any rules, unless they want to carry a gun. Except the social ones of course.

32. Do they sleep in pods?

No, they do not. There are “capsule” hotels, but they aren’t common. People sleep in beds, and sometimes old fashioned futons that they roll out onto the floor. They’re actually quite comfortable.

33. Do they make fun of Americans?

Not to our faces, so I don’t know.

34. What kind of jobs do they have?

Just like in the US, there are all kinds of jobs. There is a high demand for waitresses though, because there are lots and lots and lots of restaurants. There’s probably more restaurants in my neighborhood within a ten minute walk than there is in all of Portland. Many men become businessmen after they graduate college, and many women become housewives once they get married.

35. Do they party a lot? and 36. What is night life like there?

The college students definitely party a lot.The two most popular things to do when out at night are nomikai (drinking parties) and karaoke. They love staying out late, getting drunk, going to clubs, and partying. Other age groups don’t really do that kind of thing at all, but college students really live it up.

37. When can they legally drive?

Once they’re 18. I don’t know any more details than that. But many Japanese people never learn how to drive, and often if they do, it’s later in life. You can get anywhere in Japan by train or bus, and it’s much faster and more convenient to travel that way. So learning to drive is not an exciting rite of passage, as it is in the US.

38. When can they legally drink?

20 years old, which is also the legal voting age. When you turn 20, you are officially an adult. There’s even a ceremony every year. However, many many people drink before they turn 20. They rarely card people. But if you ever come to Japan, I wouldn’t try it if I were you. Nothing is worth risking getting deported.

39. What is life like in the city vs. life in the country?

All of Japan shares this in common: It’s crowded. The streets are thin and the houses are very close together. But besides that, the country and city are very different. Every bit of free space is used for growing rice in the country. Beautiful green rice fields as far as the eye can see. There are also more houses as opposed to apartments. It’s much quieter, and cars are rare.

In the city, it looks a lot like what you’d imagine. Tons of people walking everywhere, all the time. Even in the middle of the night. Lots of bright lights, lots of cars. Life in Tokyo is filled with hustle and bustle. There’s so much to do, and so many places to go. However, there are crazy scary bugs in both places.

40. Do they eat a lot?

Japanese people eat in smaller portions, but they also have a lot of courses. They’ll have a small piece of meat, but then also have noodles, fruit, soup, salad, rice, and more. So I think it evens out to about how much Americans eat.

41. Are the parents strict?

I’m not sure about this, because I think it really depends on the family. My host family parents aren’t strict at all, and spoil their children. I don’t know how others are.

42. Do they kill dolphins?

Yes, and this is a very touchy subject for them. Whaling has been part of their culture and national identity for hundreds of years. It’s not something they eat every day or anything, but I think if you asked them, they’d defend their tradition. Dolphin pods are easier to kill than whales, so dolphin meat is also labeled as whale meat sometimes. However, dolphin meat often has high amounts of mercury, so this is a concern. Obviously this also causes issues with animal rights groups in other countries, but I don’t think they’ll stop any time soon. I’ve been avoiding the subject, even though I feel strongly about it.
Whew, there we go! Maybe more information than you were looking for, but there you go. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them. I’d love to hear from you.

Yokoso (Welcome)


Hello class, nice to meet you. My name is Aimee and I am from Portland State University. Right now I’m studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan. My main goal is to become fluent in Japanese so that I can become a translator, though I’m guessing that by the end of this year, I may have changed my mind about my career path.

I’ve been in Japan for a little more than a week and a half now. As I mentioned in the About Aimee page, I’ve been to Japan three times already. But this is the first time I’ve been more than a tourist. I’m really going to live here. It is also the first time I’ve ever been to Tokyo. Before this, the largest city I’ve ever lived in was Portland.

Needless to say, I’m overwhelmed. Tokyo’s population is over twenty times as much as Portland, and the metropolitan area is over 30 times as large. Luckily Tokyo is comparatively safe and clean, for a large city. The transportation system is also wonderful. One can take a train or bus to nearly any location in Japan. Which is great, because Japanese drivers are insane.

After a week of orientation together with the other students from Oregon, we all went to our separate host families. Mine is a large and modern family, with three daughters, one son, two grandchildren and a ward who lives in their house. They’ve been hosting exchange students for about twenty years. Even so, adjusting to living in their home has been difficult for me. The language barrier is even more challenging than I thought it would be. I’m used to having people respect my intelligence, but all that has gone out the window here. It’s very frustrating to feel dumb constantly.

The university where I’ll be studying here is called Waseda University. I take a 20 minute bus and then a 15 minute train to get there. It is one of the top universities in Japan. I will be studying intensive Japanese as well as taking some lecture courses in English at the School of International Liberal Studies. In this large school, many people speak English. It’s amazing how much Japanese people embrace learning English, while many Americans resist the idea of learning a foreign language.

In my experience, learning a foreign language not only gives you an important life skill, but also makes you a well rounded person. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own language and culture as you compare it with another country. I would encourage any of you to start learning a language if you haven’t already, or to continue learning if you’ve already started. It will open many doors for you. Just look at me now; if I hadn’t taken a Japanese class because it seemed fun, I wouldn’t have been able to see the hilarity of Tokyo Disneyland, visit the imperial palace, or tour Studio Ghibli.

You may have heard some things about Japan. If any of you have family members who remember World War 2, you might have heard some negative things about Japan and Japanese people. If you surf around YouTube, you might find crazy clips of commercials and game shows that make Japanese people seem hilariously insane. And if you like anime and manga, you might think Japan is a wonderful, exciting place to live. Or maybe you’ve never thought about Japan at all.

The thing is Japan, like America, is many things. There are normal things and crazy things, great things, and terrible things. For example, Japan has amazing food. They put an incredible amount of effort into making their food taste and look perfect. It’s also generally healthier than American food. However, there are issues with animal cruelty because of their long standing tradition of whaling. They don’t only hunt whales; they also slaughter dolphins.

My point is, there are many sides to Japan, and I am still discovering them now.

I would love for you all to comment and tell me what you think when you hear Japan. What comes to mind when you think about the country? Maybe some of you have never thought about it before. But I would like to know your first impressions, if you have any. And if you have any questions, about Japan or about me or about anything, feel free to ask those as well.

Lots of interesting things will happen to me here. I’m going to learn more than I’ve ever imagined, and I’m going to change as a person. I hope to share my experience with you, and I’d hope we can have open and meaningful dialogue throughout the next ten weeks.