さようなら Sayounara

Alright everyone, this is my farewell post to you all. I’m really glad that I was able to see you over Skype, even with the technical difficulties. I wish that I had been able to come see you in person instead, but my experience in Japan is only just beginning!

Here’s the picture of the Skype session with the first class, with me looking extra derpy in the corner:

Skype

Unfortunately the internet cut out before I had time to take a screenshot of the Skype session with the second class. The internet has never cut out like that in my room, so I was pretty shocked. But I’m glad we got to talk a little at least.

It seems like many of you had never thought much about Japan before, and didn’t have many impressions. Now I hope that you have at least a little bit of knowledge about Japan, but most of all I hope I’ve sparked your interest in learning more about the world. Studying abroad is an amazing experience, no matter where you go. Even if you go through hardships, you will come out a better and more understanding person. I would highly recommend it.

I very much enjoyed writing for you all, and I loved your responses. Thank you for helping me to make my Japan experience even more amazing.  Now go out and have an awesome 2013!

Japan and America

Hello everyone! While you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve been missing all the American food. But I did get an amazing opportunity this weekend to visit Kyoto with my host mother. The trees are just changing color here, and it was beautiful!

Trees in Kyoto

Today’s subject is Japan’s relationship with the United States, and the Japanese view of Americans. When I came here, I initially expected to face some kind of racism. Japan is notorious for being racist, but I’ve come to find that it’s more against Chinese and Korean people than against Caucasians.

The biggest event that shaped the relationship between Japan and the US was of course, World War II. Japan became extremely imperialistic and committed many unspeakable atrocities during the war, mostly against China and Korea. In turn, we used the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which mainly killed civilians, and completely crippled Japan. I don’t think any side can be completely proud of what happened during that war, and that includes us.

Hiroshima after the bomb

After this, the United States set up Japan’s new constitution. It is very closely modeled after our own, except we prevented them from maintaining their own army, but do have a “Self Defense Force”.  One would think that the Japanese people would be resentful towards Americans, not only for brutally crippling their country but also for setting up their entire government on our terms. Yet strangely, with the exception of a few protesters at the beginning, the average Japanese person seems perfectly happy with their current structure.

These days, the US has strong economic ties with Japan, as Japan is also one of the world’s largest economic powers. There are large markets for each other’s exports and imports. One example is all the Japanese car companies, such as Toyota and Nissan. We also have a very good political relationship with them, as they fully support democracy and human rights.

But on a day to day basis, what do Japanese people think of Americans? I asked my host mother about it. This is paraphrased and translated, but this was the gist:

“Most Americans we meet on a daily basis are either tourists or people coming here to be English teachers,” she said. “They usually don’t speak much Japanese, if any at all. So we try to help them as much as we can.”

I asked her if she thought it was rude to come to Japan without speaking Japanese, and she said no, and that she was always happily surprised and impressed when a foreigner takes the time to learn Japanese. This kind of attitude surprises me, given the hatred we have toward non-English speakers in the US.

Japanese people are indeed very helpful to foreigners. This can be nice when one is lost or generally confused, because people are generally patient and willing to help. But this can also backfire. For example, I was waiting for the bus that I take every day, and this old lady grabbed my arm and physically put me on the bus, as if I didn’t know whether to get on or not. I didn’t look confused or anything, but she assumed I was lost simply because I was Caucasian.

I also asked about the behavior of American tourists. After all, we do have a worldwide reputation for having rude tourists. But both my host mother and my host sister said that they thought they had seen both rude and polite people, and it depended on the person. They said it didn’t change what they thought about Americans.

One thing that greatly influences the Japanese view of Americans is the media. American movies, TV shows, and music are all very popular here. My host mother in particular loves American movies. Several of the people from the Oregon study abroad group have reported being told that they look like different famous actors or actresses. Because of this influence, many Japanese people have certain stereotypes about Americans. They seem to think that most, if not all Americans are blonde, tall, and have pools in their backyards.

In Japanese, the title is: マカロニ野郎のニュージャージー・ライフ. This translates to, I kid you not, “The New Jersey Life of the Macaroni Rascals”

 

As an American, I have had many strange experiences here in Japan that I was not expecting. For example, they warned us that sometimes Japanese guys will assume that American girls are “easy”. I didn’t really believe this until now. I’ve been approached several times on the street by random guys, who say things like “You’re cute”, or sometimes even offer me money. They would never, never say that kind of thing to a Japanese girl.

Also, many Japanese people find Americans very attractive. This is a huge stereotype, but in my experience it is very common. Big eyes, pale skin, and blonde hair are all considered very attractive. It’s not uncommon to see people try to make their hair blonde, which is very difficult with their pitch black hair. Japanese girls will sometimes wear certain cosmetics to try to make their eyes bigger, or sometimes even resort to surgery.

It looks even freakier in person

When I told my host family and their friends that my hair was dyed from ash blonde to dark brown, they were absolutely shocked. They then tried to convince me to dye it back, because it’s “such a waste”. As if I want even more creepers approaching me on the street to admire my hair.

When I ride the bus and the train, I often get stared at. It’s not as bad here in Tokyo; the further away from Tokyo you go, the more you get stared at. It’s hard to tell what they’re thinking. They could be thinking that they find me attractive, or they could be silently seething about how they think I’m rude. Either way, it gets kind of annoying. Coming from a place with a relatively diverse population, it’s hard to wrap my mind around a country where people are amazed by seeing someone of a different race.

Do you suppose it would be a good thing for Japan to become more diverse, or could there be advantages to racial unity? How do you think we could try to get rid of these strong stereotypes of Americans that are common around the world? What do you think of the Japanese fascination with blonde hair and big eyes?

Anime and Manga

Alright everyone, it’s the post you’ve all been waiting for. Or maybe just a few of you. Depends on how many of you are anime fans like me.

To those of you unfamiliar with these terms, manga are Japanese comics and anime is Japanese cartoons. However, they aren’t exactly what you’d think of them you think of comics and cartoons in the US. For one thing, they are much more popular. For one thing, you will probably find more manga in the average bookstore than novels.

This whole thing is the manga section of a bookstore

They also cover a wide range of topics and there are options for any age range, from young children to adults. They also have a distinct Japanese style that is unlike American comics. Often the characters have very large eyes and bizarrely styled or colored hair. But within manga and anime, there is also a wide range of styles. For example, compare these:

YuGiOh, famous for insane hairstyles

Baccano, which has a more realistic style

Manga and anime cover any kind of topic you can think of. There is romance, fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, drama, comedy, or anything else you can possibly think of. Manga is sold in both individual books and in monthly manga magazines, which have small parts of several different series in every issue. A few of these have made it over to America, Shonen Jump being the most well known. In America a single volume of manga can cost up to $15, but in Japan they cost about $5, or less if you buy them used. There are plenty of $1 manga in the used book shops.

When manga are popular, they are usually made into anime as well. Though there are some series that begin as anime rather than manga. In America we have been exposed to mostly kids shows like Pokemon, Digimon, YuGiOh, Sailor Moon, etc. But there are also more adult shows such as Death Note and Bleach. Even so, this is just a small taste of how much manga and anime there is in Japan. Anime voice actors are considered celebrities, and are nearly as popular as the biggest singers and bands in Japan.

You might be wondering why this is so popular. To understand the appeal of manga in Japan, one must consider the writing system. Japanese has a very difficult writing system, even for native Japanese people, since they use kanji. Kanji are very difficult because they can have different meanings and readings depending on the context and the combinations of them. Most Japanese people stop studying kanji after high school, and so they forget a lot of what they don’t use on a daily basis. Novel writers usually use very complicated kanji in their writing, so novels are difficult for Japanese people to read.

Manga has the ability to tell a complicated story without forcing the reader to read complicated writing. This is why even adults find manga so appealing. It is not uncommon to see adults reading manga on the train, and it is considered a perfectly normal thing to do.

Manga and anime have many genres, and two of the largest ones are “shonen” and “shojo”. Shonen means “boy” and shojo means “girl”, so as you can guess, these are boys manga and girls manga. However, there are plenty of girls who read shonen manga and some boys who read shojo. Shonen manga are usually centered around adventure, some examples being Naruto and One Piece. Meanwhile shojo manga are often about friendship and love.

Bleach, a fantasy-action series

Peach Girl, centered on romance

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to a small tour of one of the largest book publishing companies in Japan. While in America we have separate companies for manga, in Japan manga is published alongside novels and magazines and such. This company, Shogakukan, is famous for publishing Doraemon, a famous children’s manga that features a robotic cat from the future.

I don’t get it either

It has also published Pokemon, Inuyasha, Ranma 1/2, and Sonic the Hedgehog. We were able to tour the shojo manga department and we spoke with the editor of a shojo magazine called “Ciao”, which is targeted toward young girls.

Ciao magazine

The shojo manga editorial room

The editor told us a lot about her job, and explained the process that a manga goes through from the first drawing by the artist to when it hits the shelves. Each editor works with about 6-10 different artists, and brainstorms with them as they submit different drafts of the story. Sometimes the editors ask them to re-do everything, as they have a lot of power. And sometimes, editors have to come to an artist’s house and wake them up to make them finish before a deadline!

But she was very interested in hearing about why manga and anime are so popular in America. For me, though I do enjoy reading novels, I like being able to read something in comic form, and I enjoy watching animated films. Japanese anime and manga have such a wide range of stories, topics, and characters that I can enjoy these mediums while also watching something appropriate for my age, that is mentally and emotionally stimulating for me. They also tend to have stories that are very different from what Americans come up with, so I always find it interesting.

Do any of you like anime or manga? If so, what do you like about it? Does anyone dislike it, and if so, why? Is there anything you’d like to know about it that I haven’t talked about? Do you suppose it will become more popular in the US as time goes by, or less?

Kabuki

Hey everyone! I hope you enjoyed the interview. Last weekend I went to two kabuki plays, and I thought I’d share some pictures with you. I took panoramic shots of the theatres, so if you’d like a closer look at them, click on the pictures.

The Shinbashi Theatre

The show at the Shinbashi Theatre

The first play I saw was at the Shinbashi Theatre. We had great seats, right next to the hanamichi. The hanamichi is a walkway that goes through the crowd that actors often use to enter and exit. It was amazing to see all the costumes up close. This performance had scenes from a few different plays, each one in a slightly different style, so it was very entertaining.

The National Theatre

The show at the National Theatre

The second one was at the National Theatre. This one was a bit more modern, and it was one long story. The main character is a corrupt samurai trying to take over the throne. It was very exciting, with lots of crazy fight scenes.

Let me know if you have any questions about kabuki. I really know way too much about it.

Interview

Hi everyone! Thanks for sending me so many great questions. I’ve done the interview with a Japanese high school student named Ai. She is currently 18, and she lives in my host family’s home. She’s not related to them, but they are family friends, so she’s staying here to be closer to the private school that she’s attending. I’m sorry I don’t have a video for you, and I had to cut out a few questions for the sake of time.

Also, a disclaimer: This is my translation of what she said, and it isn’t perfect. But I’m pretty confident that it’s as accurate as possible.

This is Ai, about to leave for school in the morning

Q: When does school usually start and end?

A: At my school, we usually start at 8:15 and end at 3:30.

~

Q: Do most students live far away from school? Do they have to commute?

A: It’s different depending on whether it’s a public or private school. Public school students usually live close by, but private school students usually have about an hour long commute by buses and trains. My commute is about forty minutes, and it can be rough because the morning trains are very crowded.

~

Q: What kind of school breaks do you have?

A: Saturday is always off, but we have classes on all the other days. Then we have spring, summer, and winter vacations. For my school, summer vacation is the longest. It lasts about a month. Spring and winter vacations are both about a week.

~

Q: At your school, what kinds of classes do you have?

A: Well, there core classes are Japanese, math, history, science, and also English. And besides that, my school is a Christian school so we have a Bible class. We also have PE and health class, as well as music.

~

Q: How many students are in each class?

A: 40 people per class.

~

Q: Are all the courses taught in Japanese? Are there also classes taught in English?

A: Most classes are taught in Japanese, but we also have English classes that are taught entirely in English by Americans and other English speaking teachers.

~

Q: Are there other languages besides Japanese and English?

A: No, not at my school at least. Some schools also have French, but
no other languages usually.

~

Q: Do your grades depend only on tests, or also on homework and other things?

A: Yes, just tests. From elementary school to college, grades are almost always based on tests.

~

Q: Are there school newspapers?

A: Well I think most universities have newspapers, but I don’t think high schools have them. At least, mine doesn’t.

~

Q: What is your school mascot?

A: We don’t have a school mascot. Our schools sports teams are just called by the name of our school.

~

Q: Do most students enter clubs? What about you?

A: Yes, almost all students are in clubs. Since I’m a third year student and I’m studying for entrance exams, I’ve had to quit, but I used to be on the cheerleading team. I liked it a lot.

~

Q: What kinds of sports teams do you have?

A: Basketball, volleyball, badminton, tennis, and we also have dance teams, track, that kind of thing. We don’t have baseball because we’re an all girls school, so we have softball instead.

~

Q: What is fun and interesting about school festivals? What do you like the best?

A: At festivals, you can see all the other club’s activities, and there’s always fun games and contests. We also have a lot of fun cooking and having food booths. My cheerleading team would always have a big performance, which was my favorite part.

~

Q: Is there a bullying problem at your school?

A: My school is very strict, so I don’t think we have that kind of thing going on. As for other schools, I see things about it in the news, so I think other schools have major issues with bullying.

~

Q: What about problems with drug and alcohol use among the students?

A: I think because my school is a strict private school, we don’t have that kind of problem either. But I know that there are problems about students drinking too much in public schools.

~

Q: Do school shootings ever happen in Japan?

A: Not at all, never. No one’s allowed to have guns in Japan, so it never happens.

~

Q: Is there a school cafeteria? What is the food like there?

Yes. The menu changes every day. One day it might be fried rice, the other day it might be spaghetti. We have both western food and Japanese food. It’s really delicious.

~

Q: Really?

A: Yeah really! I like it a lot.

~

Q: Do you have to wear uniforms at school?

A: Oh yes, of course.

~

Q: Are there also schools where you don’t have to wear them?

A: Yes, there are some schools that have looser rules about clothes, but they’re less common.

~

Q: Are there other rules about what you wear?

A: Yes, my school has lots of rules about that. If your hair is past your shoulders, you have to have it tied back. We can’t have earrings, we can’t dye our hair, we can’t get hair treatments like perms, we can’t wear makeup or even have necklaces.

~

Q: What do you think about rules like this?

A: I think some of the rules are too strict, but I like wearing uniforms, at least the ones at my school. And when you wear uniforms, you don’t have to spend time deciding what to wear in the morning. That seems like it would be annoying, so I think uniforms are good.

~

Q: Are you allowed to have boyfriends and girlfriends?

A: Well my school is an all girl’s school, so we don’t have anyone to date in our school. Technically we can date, but we don’t really meet people from other schools. The only time we meet people from other schools is when we go to cram school, an extra school where we go to study for exams. Since I’m studying for the college entrance exam, I go there every day. If you go to that, there are students from other schools. That’s the only time you can meet guys.

~

Q: Do you think dating is important to high school students?

A: I think it is. Since we don’t have guys at my school, I think that when we become college students, it will be strange for us. I think flirting, dating, and things like that will be difficult, coming from a high school like this.

~

Q: What do high school students usually do after school and on the weekends?

A: We do club activities, like practice or rehearsal, or we go to cram school. And during the weekends we hang out with friends, but we don’t have parties or anything like that.

~

Q: American students have heard that Japanese students have really expensive backpacks. Is that true?

A: I don’t think so, but they might mean elementary students’ backpacks. They wear these specific backpacks called randoseru (this is from the dutch word for backpack, ransel). They’re leather and shaped like a box. All elementary schoolers have these backpacks. They’re expensive, but they use them for six years, all through elementary school, so I think it’s worth it.

~

Q: Do students use electronics a lot? Are there rules about that?

A: Yes, we use cell phones a lot. But at my school we have to give our phones to the teacher when we come to school and then we get them back when we leave. It’s very strict.

~

Q: What are the best high schools in Japan?

A: The best high schools in Japan are probably the ones that are attached to universities. For example, there’s Waseda High School, and Keio High School. Usually the students from those schools can go straight into those colleges, but sometimes they choose to go other places.

~

Q: In order to get into the next grade, do you have to pass exams?

A: No, it’s not like that at my school. There are entrance examinations into schools, but not between grades. We have lots of school tests, about two every three months, but everyone at least passes.

~

Q: Between public high schools and private schools, what is different?

A: Pretty much everything is different. Private schools do all sorts of things for the students, and there’s always the best school equipment. And a lot of private schools have special themes, for example, mine is Christian, so private schools have that certain appeal. Public schools are restricted to specific places, so they aren’t like that.

~

Q: Which do you think is better?

A: I think private schools are better. The teachers are very knowledgeable, and everyone in the school really wants to be there, so it’s nice to become friends with people like that. For public schools, the teachers aren’t as good, and there are people who drink and smoke all the time, and there’s bullying. Public schools seem like they’re kind of scary.

~

Q: Is it very difficult to get into college?

A: Getting into the top schools is difficult, but there are all kinds of universities, so there are also ones that are easy to get into. But for the best schools, there’s so many people who try to get in them and everyone studies very hard, so it’s difficult.

~

Q: What do most students want to do as a career?

A: There’s all kinds of different things. At my school, some people want to become teachers, some want to be doctors. There’s also a lot of people who want to become pharmacists. Everyone has different aspirations.

~

Q: What are your plans after graduating high school?

A: I hope to get into the college that I want. I’ll do my four years in college and then… I’ll find some kind of job. What exactly I’m not sure yet. I haven’t decided.

~

Q: What is your favorite kind of music?

A: I like western music mostly. American music, like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Katy Perry.

~

Q: What kind of food do you like? (she doesn’t cook at all, so I didn’t ask for a recipe)

A: For dessert I like macaroons. For meals, I like kara-age. (Japanese style fried chicken). I like western food too, like omelets and hamburgers.

~

Q: Where is a good place to go sight-seeing in Japan?

A: Tokyo has lots of places to sight-see. The Kyoto area has very traditional Japan-like scenery, and Hokkaido has very beautiful weather and seasons.

~

There you have it! A Japanese high school student’s perspective. Give me some feedback and let me know what you think about her answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Waseda Festival

Hello again! Please send me your interview questions for the Japanese high school student by Tuesday night (your time) so I can do the interview this Wednesday.

I’ve gotten over my cold, and the weather has finally started to get chilly. The trees haven’t started changing color yet and I’m starting to wonder if Fall is ever going to get here. Apparently this is normal for around here, but I find it bizarre.

This weekend, all our classes were cancelled (yes, we have weekend classes). We all got the weekend off because of the annual Waseda Festival. All schools in Japan have festivals, from elementary to college. From junior high school on, all schools have clubs. During festivals, clubs perform or host other activities around campus. Some of them sell food of various kinds. Waseda Festival is a huge event, where students and community members alike some to see performances and have fun. The Japanese Prime Minister even came, though I didn’t see him.

On the way into campus

On campus, in a huge crowd

Clubs are a very important part of student life. University choirs in the United States are usually classes, as are other activities such as martial arts, dancing, and so on. But in Japanese universities, these activities are all clubs, which are sometimes called “circles”.

Now I’m about to tell you something that might blow your mind. It certainly blew my mind. In Japanese universities, clubs are more important, more difficult, and more time consuming than classes. Let me explain.

Before coming to Japan, I had always heard that college was incredibly easy compared to American college. In the US, school gets progressively harder from elementary to college. After moving from high school to college, classes become more difficult, time consuming, and serious. But here, middle school and high school are both very difficult. Students have to pass examinations to get into middle school and high school. Then they have yet another examination to get into college. Students prepare for these exams by going to an extra school called “cram school”, which is just as terrible as it sounds. It’s more school after school.

However, once they pass the exam and get into a university, things become incredibly easy. Because the grades of most classes only depend on test scores and not attendance or participation, students rarely go to class, and only show up for the tests. There is rarely any homework or any kind of discussion. The classes are lecture based. Even in my classes, some of which are taught in English, are this way. I was shocked to find out that my intensive Japanese class has no homework at all.

After two years of studying Japanese intensively as well as taking advanced culture classes back at PSU, I’m very shocked by this. I spent me first two years of college with my life consumed by homework constantly. And now, I only have a few hours of homework a week, at the most.

So what do students do with their lives? Well the answer to that is clubs. There are hundreds of clubs at Waseda university. If you can think of it, there’s a club for it. People can generally be in only one club at a time because they are such a huge commitment. For example, my club meets for rehearsal three times a week for two or three hours at a time. That’s more than any of my classes. And beyond rehearsal, there are at least two club activities per week, which include trips and drinking parties. And my club is a light one.

There is even a huge building on campus dedicated only to clubs.

The music floor, where students are constantly practicing various instruments

The basement, where a dance team is practicing

Another dance club rehearsing in the dance room

Many clubs go to competitions. The musical ones have performances, and one of the biggest performances is normally at Waseda Festival. They often have club alumni, who have sometimes gone on to become famous, come back and teach them. Your club members become like your family, and so you spend most of your time with them. People don’t make friends in classes, they make friends in clubs.

My club, one of the choirs, didn’t do anything for Waseda Festival. I joined the one with the smallest amount of commitment, afraid that the language barrier would stress me out. Even though we didn’t perform at the Festival, it still takes up a lot of my time. I’m the only foreigner, so it’s been difficult to feel accepted in the group, but I’m working on it.

My choir rehearsing in our humid little room

Back to the Waseda Festival. Here are some of the performances and activities I saw:

Juggling Club

Pantomime Club

K-Pop cover dance group performing Gangnam Style

I believe this is a club dedicated to “Super Sentai”, which is a lot like Power Rangers

Traditional dance performance

Waseda’s male cheerleading group, “Shockers”

I couldn’t read the guidebook very well, so I wasn’t sure what was going on during the festival. But the atmosphere around campus was amazing. Everyone was having an amazing time, watching and supporting each other. In my experience in America, we never have events like this for the whole school. Not in high school or college. I don’t know anything about the groups and clubs at my university.

What do you think about the importance of clubs? Could the Japanese focus on clubs rather than classes be harmful or beneficial? Are festivals like this a good idea, or a waste of time? Who do you suppose they have events like this in Japan, but not in the US?