Akita International University (AIU) is small, rural place, hidden away in the Tohoku region in Northern Japan. With a mere 600 or so students and only a few bus journeys a day to the main city, it has a certain feeling of isolation, but nurtures an atmosphere similar to one you might find at home.
Benkyo ni naru naa!
An unfamiliar face easily stands out, even amongst students from as diverse backgrounds as Taiwan, America, Mongolia, Sweden, and Australia. It’s this small, yet incredibly mixed community that I’ve spent the last eleven months a part of.
Coming from such a colossal city-based university as The University of Leeds, at first I was naturally quite shocked to suddenly be in such a small environment. If truth be told I, as did many international students, found much to complain about regarding AIU’s location and inconvenience. Though I might have liked to think it would, having been to Japan twice before didn’t much help me to integrate into such a different culture again so quickly, and a cocktail of location, culture shock and finding myself in a long distance relationship all made initially settling in a challenge.
One of my aims for this year was to deepen my understanding of Japanese culture through intensive language learning and interacting as much as possible with Japanese people of all ages, though I particularly wanted to make new friends of my own age. My previous experience had been working for a year as a volunteer in rural Japan at a Leonard Cheshire care home for people with mental disabilities. My colleagues were all older than me, which made it rather difficult to make friends easily and socialise. I also picked up some negative impressions of Japanese culture during my time at the care home, and as such I wanted to take a good look at them and examine the extent to which I had developed misconceptions in my immaturity.
Another of my aims was to travel around Japan to visit old friends and experience the diversity Japan has to offer. The care home I worked at previously was located in Hyogo prefecture (the South of Japan), so by going to a University in Akita prefecture I was able to instantly get a different and ultimately more balanced impression of Japanese culture. Also, as a tourist I was simply looking forward to travelling to new and interesting scenes and making the most of my opportunities while here again.
Soto vs. Uchi
Around November last year I was introduced to my new host family through AIU. While it wasn’t a permanent home stay (I could meet them when we both had time and sometimes stay overnight), I was delighted at the thought of being treated to expensive meals, driven to remote sightseeing locations and generally being pampered in the way distant grandmothers would do to their grandsons. Being a foreigner in Japan, especially one that finds him or herself in the company of an eager Japanese family is akin to suddenly becoming like royalty, at least in the initial meeting stages.
As I dare say anyone is when they first come to Japan, during my first visit to Japan and then again during my second visit while working at the care home, I had innumerable encounters with unbelievably kind people. Sometimes I would be offered rides to places well out of the way of convenience for the driver and other times I would be treated to meals or given random gifts by strangers. In fact, when my parents came out to visit me in March this year, during our travels around Kyoto a kind taxi driver decided to become our personal tour guide leading us, by car and by foot, to lesser-trodden places hidden away in the mountains and providing us with a local commentary to match some historians.
In part, I suppose this kindness is due to the fascination many Japanese people have with foreigners; the strange languages they speak and the way they look and act so differently. Or so I had thought. Though even now I do not think I am in any strong position to comment on the nature of Japanese society, it has occurred to me that there are yet deeper values behind that kindness, and ultimately universal ones we all share. They just seem to be masqueraded in cultural rules and practices unfamiliar to us.
For instance, after meeting my host family, I gradually became more and more aware of the delicate roles each of us played. I was the guest, so I should not refuse the hospitality in order to avoid insulting them or disturbing the harmony. Though my host family would treat me, I in return learned to repay the favour as best as I could, sometimes bringing back souvenirs from vacations, or helping them in ways that only I was able to do. However, I do not think this phenomenon is so far removed from British or other cultures; it just seems to be that it is more pronounced in Japan. I would hazard to say that a great many people in other countries would play similar roles when entertaining guests and would feel uncomfortable if the guest tried to offer too much help.
In short, I have begun to realise that simply playing the role of the celebrity foreigner, leeching off the goodwill and hospitality of those around you is a sure-fire way to forever remain a guest and on the outside. Even when I meet my host family now I am still aware of preferential treatment, but slowly it feels like our relationship is changing to a deeper one. Though perhaps somewhat childish in its reading, the old motto ‘it’s all about give and take’ I think probably best describes the nature of relationships. As much as I can, I have been trying to assimilate into the culture and remember that kindness and hospitality are something that should be given to people, rather than just accepted.
Between a White Wedding and Fugu
Taking a break from such philosophical ponderings for a moment, I wonder if I could recount some of the amazing memories I have from my year so far. I’m happy to be able to say that I feel like I have definitely fulfilled my goal of experiencing much more of Japan and its culture. I’m spoilt for choice in things to write about and, taking a moment to reflect upon things, I’ve been busier than I had initially thought…
I’ve travelled nearly the entire length of Honshu (the main island in Japan’s archipelago), being in Akita near the very top and going as far as Hiroshima in the South West; I’ve been mountain climbing and gone apple-gathering, visited a sake factory, enjoying alcohol for the first time and seen snow-covered trees frozen into Godzilla-like shapes; I’ve been to theme parks, temples and shrines, translated my name into kanji, argued with the President of the University, eaten fugu (poisonous puffer fish) and was the best man at my friend’s wedding. That’s all without mentioning the Maid Café, Love Hotel, Kabuki theatre performance, being Chairperson for the Student Government and the myriad festivals I’ve seen. I’m currently training now for Akita’s very own Kanto festival in August, for which I will lift and balance a huge pole of fifty kilograms beautifully adorned with heaps of candlelit lanterns.
Of course, I well imagine most students who study in Japan will come back with their own equally impressive list of achievements about which to brag. I also well understand that such a list cannot convey the heart of the experiences, so perhaps another vignette is in order. The date is 11th February. Akita is still very cold, but is about to hold its annual Namahage Sedo festival…
Darkness is falling on the Oga Peninsula as I, snugly wrapped up in a large black winter coat and scarf, lead my girlfriend up the stone steps to a shrine veiled by a mountain forest. A huge bonfire roars in the centre of a small clearing, with a few rinky-dink stalls surrounding it selling sweet bean-cakes, hot bowls of brown soba noodles and thick slippery udon noodles. A crowd gradually begins to form, many of them international students from my University, attempting to toast themselves on the sparking bonfire to beat the biting cold. The festival begins, and before long we see the monstrous forms of the Namahage emerge. The demonic ogres pour down the mountainside towards the small stage before us, carrying flaming torches and knives and clothed in straw vests. Thick, clotted locks of hair conceal deformed angular masks of deep reds, blues and the occasional gold and silver. On New Year’s Eve they would usually go the locals’ houses to warn children who are lazy and misbehave to listen to their parents, but tonight they are here to play drums, dance in front of the bonfire to ward off evil spirits and hand out rice cakes to the visitors. That doesn’t stop the odd rogue from attempting to rip screaming children away from their mother’s comforting arms though!
Of all my aims before coming to Japan, my drive to really push myself to excel with the language was probably the strongest. I began learning Japanese in secondary school as a GCSE course, and deciding I wanted to be familiar with at least two languages, vowed never to forget the Japanese I had begun to acquire. As such, here I am five years later, more or less in a state of being able to get around in Japan by myself. I hesitate to say I am fluent yet, and indeed I have another two years with which to further hone my language skills, but I definitely feel as though I have made significant progress in the language.
When I arrived at AIU, it was necessary for me to take a placement test to determine my Japanese ability. My poor writing skills and lack of knowledge of kanji and grammar were of great concern to me, and I feared being put into a class that would be unchallenging. My speaking and listening ability at that time however, were much better (due to my time spent in Japan before), and through some good luck and intuition on my test, I managed to skip the entire intermediate grade of Japanese and be put in the intermediate-advanced class. This would prove to be exactly what I needed.
I can vividly remember my head thumping hard for two weeks at the beginning of term. I had been thrown into lessons taught completely in Japanese and my brain just couldn’t keep up. I contemplated moving down a class and lamented the huge gap in my knowledge from skipping a grade, but somehow I stuck with it and forced myself to acquire the missing knowledge as I went along. I made new Japanese friends, bought a mobile phone that had no English options and began watching Japanese dramas in my efforts to improve. I think, as written in one newspaper article we studied in class, the best way to learn a language is to be thrown into the mayhem directly and be forced to cope. Immersion really is the best way forward, but I have found that simply having the language all around you is not quite enough. In my opinion, a certain amount of serious effort studying, reading and writing to learn the language is also necessary. I had been immersed in the language before, but through not studying I only developed a better ear for Japanese and wider vocabulary, not the grammatical and written skills I needed to communicate properly.
What a nuisance!
Though it may read as though a truism, I have generally found throughout the year that as my language skills improved and I could speak Japanese more naturally, the likelihood I would be readily accepted seemed to increase and I found it easier to make Japanese friends. Of course, this is not just due to pure language ability, but I think also deeply entwined with understanding of the culture. Even if I was able to speak Japanese like a native, it would not enable me to build good relationships with most Japanese people, because I would have next to no shared knowledge with them. In-country jokes, famous bands, current news and fashion trends are but a few of the things included within the concept of ‘culture’, and without knowledge of them it is considerably difficult to build rapport with most of the country’s native people.
In keeping with cultural understanding, I would also like to mention the concept of ‘meiwaku’ (causing bother, a nuisance to others) to which many Japanese people adhere to strongly. I think this is a good example of a cultural phenomenon that is, in a sense, unique to Japan but that I believe at its heart remains a universal concept. At its most basic level, I would suppose that the notion of causing problems for people around us is evident in any developed country. Take the U.K for example; I think most people would agree that arriving late for a meeting and holding everyone up causes them trouble.
In Japan, causing trouble for other people does not stop at obvious things such as not being on time or not cleaning up after yourself, it extends to a much deeper level. I have never been forced to think as deeply as I have about the feelings and reactions of people around me before coming to Japan. A very telling example emerged recently in an extract from the book ‘Saga no Gabai Baachan’ (loosely translated as ‘the amazing grandmother from Saga’) that we were studying in class.
In the story a young boy, Akihiro, is leading a very frugal life living with his grandmother. As such, Akihiro never has particularly luxurious food to eat. One day during the school sports festival, he is depressed and sitting in an empty classroom clutching a very minimal bento (lunchbox) that his grandmother has made for him. His teacher notices the sad Akihiro and that he always leads a very thrifty life and wants to give Akihiro his own rather extravagant bento to cheer him up, but doing this without tact would cause meiwaku to Akihiro and his grandmother.
By simply giving the bento to Akihiro or swapping with him, the teacher presupposed that Akihiro would tell his grandmother, and that his grandmother would realise the teacher had thought the lunchbox was rather frugal and therefore swapped, and so Akihiro’s grandmother would feel embarrassed (feel meiwaku) because of it. So, what the teacher did was to complain that his stomach hurt and that the contents of Akihiro’s bento would be good for his stomach, and using that reason he swapped bento with Akihiro. This way, he considers the feelings of everyone involved and acts accordingly so as not to cause meiwaku, and furthermore he can make Akihiro happy by treating him to luxurious food.
Though rather long winded, the story illustrates the sort of incredible awareness of the feelings of others and duty to act accordingly in Japanese society that is so different from many other countries.
Citizen of the World
Perhaps the lack of this sort of deeper cultural knowledge and understanding is the reason I came back from Japan last time with a strong negative feeling of being an ‘outsider’ and that I could not, no matter how hard I may try, penetrate into the inner society. But through my many experiences this year I have begun to think that Japan, however ostensibly unique, is at heart no different to other countries. When we remove the veil of cultural phenomena and ingrained beliefs and practices, I think we can find similar values in any country in the world. Of course, it may be just that I want to believe this cosmopolitan idea as it is difficult to prove in a scientific way, but at the most fundamental level we all seem to have the same core. We share humour, love, and trust among other things that I would argue are the very fabric of society; we just manifest them in remarkably different ways, building complex societal systems on top of these core concepts. I believe this is what Socrates understood when he said: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”.
A class I am currently taking in addition to my Japanese studies, Religion and Bioethics (in English), aside from having a fantastic Buddhist monk-turned scholar lecturer, Dr. Soho Machida, is helping me to reconnect with my interest in Philosophy and the wider world again. Being so immersed in Japanese culture and language, it is easy to start forgetting that it is only a small part of a much broader picture. As such, once I return to Leeds I feel I would like to renew my interest in Philosophy as well as continuing my Japanese language studies and I am also looking to take some modules on religion and society in order to and deepen my understanding of not only Japan, but the world and our roles within it.
In closing, I feel I have matured more as a person since coming to Japan and learnt to understand people much better. As the above story illustrated, I think it really is important to learn about different cultures in the world in order to properly understand them and interact with new people. My experiences this year have given me renewed appreciation for other societies and reminded me of the significance of being open minded to new things. I of course still have much, much more to learn and there is no doubt that I still hold some prejudices and misconceptions, but I think as long as I remember this idea of being open minded, I can work to overcome them and continue to grow as a person.
Above is the report on my year abroad spent in Akita-ken at Akita International University which ended in summer 2007. I did eventually enter the Kanto festival and participate with everyone! Perhaps I’ll write about that some other time ^_^