Week Nine – A Loss For Words

This week was the first time this term that I have felt truly stressed in a class. It wasn’t due to the homework or any upcoming tests, as the coursework here isn’t all that difficult. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find the right words to say in class.

Since arriving in Japan, I have continually challenged myself to express my myriad complex thoughts in Japanese. If I have something I want to say, I should try to say it in Japanese, even if I have to rethink my entire approach to saying what I mean. But when I can’t find the words, I pause and I simply cannot speak. I end up feeling trapped.

To add insult to injury, I found myself in a position after class where I was explaining to my teacher – who was worried I was having difficulties – this exact phenomenon. I was thankfully able to explain that when I can’t think of what to say, I freeze up and she understood, but when this stuff happens early into the class, I’m in a bad mood the rest of the time.

I’ve expressed for a while now that I don’t think I’ve been struggling in Japan the way that I expected to, but this moment made me rethink a lot of things. Am I interacting with Japanese people enough? Am I truly testing my Japanese skills thoroughly enough? If I can’t do either, why am I even here?

This was a small taste of what would be more intense if I went to a different school without NGU’s international appeal. I’m cursed and blessed with a lot of English speakers around me. Okay, I wouldn’t outright call it a curse but it definitely hasn’t pushed me out of my comfort zone as much, as happy as that makes me.

The truth is, Japanese isn’t super integral to what I aspire to do as a career. I took on this second major because I love the language and I was already planning on taking three years of Japanese classes. The study abroad trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and with only one or two extra classes in the major after the previous three years, it was a no-brainer.

The biggest lesson this week is that I should be glad that I’m meeting with my tutor weekly to chat for a little bit during lunch. I am passionate about Japanese and learning the language more because the culture of Japan speaks to me in a lot of ways. All that being said, I need to remind myself that I don’t need to beat myself up if I go back home not having improved a huge amount.

At the time this new journal entry goes up, I will be a little bit more than half-way through this trip. I’ve got to start planning trips to Tokyo and other places a bit more seriously in the time that remains so I can get the most out of my time here. Expect an entire post dedicated to Tokyo in the coming weeks, as well as possibly Kyoto, Hiroshima, or any other places this journey takes me.

Blog Post #7 – Sushi!!!

For those who don’t know, Sushi is a combination of raw fish and vegetables, wrapped in fermented rice and seaweed. The ingredients are typically laid out, rolled up, and then cut into 1.5-inch rolls to be served. The types of seafood inside the rolls range from shrimp, crab, salmon or even tuna (one of the most popular). Common condiments served alongside sushi include wasabi and soy sauce. Sushi is not to be confused with Shashimi, which is raw fish without the wrapping of rice and seaweed.

I bring this up because this week, I ate Sushi!!! Granted, I’ve eaten sushi before several times but now I got to do it for an assignment!!! Besides, Sushi is one of the most iconic foods to come out of Japan ever and certainly one of the most unique combinations of raw materials brought together so wonderfully. So now I have the incentive to look up how it is made, its history and what I think of it personally.

An article from Madehow.com goes in-depth on Sushi’s history, dating its origins back to prehistoric times when fish was wrapped in rice to ferment. Soon the addition of vinegar to the rice sped up the fermentation process and led to a boom in sushi entrepreneurship. However, anyone familiar with sushi knows that a big part of its creation involves wrapping the fish not only in sushi but also seaweed, or nori as it is known in Japan.

For a time, nori was only a seasonal occurrence, seemingly disappearing in the summer, but thanks to British scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker, the Japanese were able to construct a cultivation system that has allowed year-round production. After harvesting the raw materials, the plants are pressed into sheets used to roll up the sushi.

I first tried sushi a couple years ago when my sister got some from a local shop. In all honesty, I used to be a pretty picky eater and even now I am not a huge fan of seafood. However, since sushi is eaten in one big bite, you get the benefit of all the various spices and flavors in one go, and I was surprised how much I loved it.

Ever since, I’ve really enjoyed sushi, as long as there is a good balance of the ingredients and the additional sauces. I will admit that I cannot eat too much of it in one sitting though. Something about the ingredients makes sushi very filling, even in just small doses. Even still, I love complex the construction is for such a small and perfectly portioned food. The draw of sushi is the same draw of most Japanese food for me. When it is not the simple sensory pleasures it offers, it is the style of its construction or presentation.

Journal #3 – Cultural Distinctions

Mary Midgley wrote a paper called “Trying out One’s Sword,” in which a tradition from Japan’s past was described, wherein a nobleman would test his new sword on a passerby coming down the road. How does one react to this practice? Am I allowed to criticize and judge this culture when I have not been born in it?

This is cultural isolationism and it is a school of thought that I do not support, as it too commonly justifies inhuman acts. Of course, that question of my authority in the matter still prods me even as I say that with the utmost confidence. What reason do I have to judge a culture that is not my own?
Continue reading “Journal #3 – Cultural Distinctions”

Bafa Bafa – The Culture Shock Game

You are in a group of about 40 people, which is swiftly split into two groups, separated by different rooms. You listen to a tape explaining a set of rules which you must abide by. This is your culture and you will be enacting this culture to the other group. The catch is that the other group has a culture of their own and you have no idea what that culture’s rules are at all.

This is Bafa Bafa and I had a blast playing it with a bunch of other students last week. It is a game that simulates the experience of both visiting unknown cultures and witnessing others enter your own. It was designed for the navy and I can totally see how such a game can have its uses.

There are two groups in the game: Alphans and Betans. I was an Aplhan, and my society spoke English but emphasized the importance of actions over words. It was common for Alphans who communicate with one another to get as close as possible when communicating with one another. The society was patriarchal and the oldest male was chosen as the chief. Discussions were primarily about male family members before commencing a game (which the chief will always win because… patriarchy), after which discussion topics become broader before the Alphans decide to move on to another group.

We were encouraged to laugh as well and that led to some genuine laughing when we began to appreciate some of the subtle absurdity of the game. Additionally, being in a group with really extroverted and funny people was the best. They followed the rules to the t, unashamed and trying to be as funny as possible. Also, the professor enforcing the rules and playing it completely straight was the best.

So then came the communication between the two cultures and there were two phases for this. Observers and visitors. Observers simply went to the other society with pins on and watched what unfolded. After a set amount of time, they would return and report what they interpreted to be the rules of that society. This would happen a couple times before we begin sending visitors.

Visitors are given the same items as the people of that culture and then are left to their own devices. There were two kinds of visitors: those who genuinely attempted to be a part of the culture and those who went into that other culture applying the same rules from their own. The former had varying levels of success which I will get to below but the latter was almost always a complete failure.

I think this game is most effective as a tool for showing how one’s attitude towards other cultures can impact the relationship between them. Abide strictly by one’s own rules, and you alienate those who want to try to understand. Try to impose your own rules and you are cast aside pretty quickly. I actually had to tell one person to leave because they were obstructing the rules so badly.

The sad thing is that I couldn’t even explain the rules to them. We had to assume this attitude of “they should know how our world works” and that was that. So if they do not know what the cards in the game means and end up accidentally offending us, we can only shun them.

When I visited the other culture, it felt a lot like if I had gone to Japan back before I learned the language. Trying to communicate with people without learning what the words mean. The other culture spoke no English, treated everyone equally, regardless of gender, but also seemed very uninterested in conversation and mainly the game. the game was centered on trying to acquire seven cards, numbered one through seven of one color so get your name on the board.

In my entire time there, I never at any point was able to even focus on which color I want to try and acquire. I was just focused on trying to communicate with the people who kept coming up to me, trying to exchange cards. It was overwhelming in the exact way I expect traveling to a foreign culture to be.

In the end, both groups returned to the room, and we shared the impressions we got from the other culture. We never ended up really learning everything there was to learn and I still do not understand every rule of the other group because we did not listen to the same tape they did. Much in the same way I cannot understand Japanese culture as much as someone born their, I could not grasp all the rules even as my questions were answered in the end.

The biggest lesson is that even when you make every attempt to be respectful and try to integrate into a culture, those cultures have almost unspoken rules and create defense mechanims that can cast you out before you really grasp what you have done wrong, if you are ever lucky enough to find out what it was you did wrong in the first place.

Blog Post #2 – Japan’s Economy

Historically, Japan bounced back after its defeat at the end of World War II, “going on to achieve an almost miraculous economic recovery, which has allowed it to take its place among the world’s leading democratic powers,” (Web Japan). This was in part due to the actions of the US during its occupation of Japan following the end of the war.

First, allied forces disarmed, demilitarized and “punished Japan for its past militarism and expansion by convening war crimes trials in Tokyo.” General Douglas MacArthur’s Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) got to work rebuilding Japan. “MacArthur also tried to break up the large Japanese business conglomerates, or zaibatsu, as part of the effort to transform the economy into a free market capitalist system.” (Office of the Historian)

According to a journal titled “Exports, imports and economic growth in South Korea and Japan: a tale of two economies,” we learn that WWII’s impact on Japan’s economy was enormous, with “approximately 80% of production capacity being lost.” This meant that Japan had to import a lot of “food, energy and raw materials to support its population.” This meant that Japan had to focus its attention on exports. And it worked, Japan’s GDP growth rate was a staggering “10.5% between 1960 and 1970.” (Zang, Baimbridge 361-2)

[Zang, Wenyu and Mark Baimbridge. “Exports, Imports and Economic Growth in South Korea and Japan: A Tale of Two Economies.” Applied Economics, vol. 44, no. 3, 20 Jan. 2012, pp. 361-372. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00036846.2010.508722.]

“Headed by automobiles, colour television sets, high-quality steel, precision optical equipment, and electronic products, Japan’s merchandise trade balance with western Europe and the United States steadily mounted in its favour.” Japan was an economic powerhouse, and it was during this time that some of the biggest names in tech producers were beginning to surface, such as Sony. (Brittanica 27)

Today, Japan’s economy continues to be one of the most impressive. “Since the late 1990s, the growth in Japan’s real GDP per head has outperformed every other major economy. And unlike other major economies, income inequality in Japan has not increased.” While the GDP has not necessarily risen significantly, the population has decreased, meaning that “per person, economic activity has been fine.” (McCrum)

Welcome!

If you are familiar with my other blog, you probably know me as a nerd who loves anime, but next year I am going to Japan to study abroad. As such, I am attending a seminar to prepare for the trip. I have been encouraged to start this blog where I will be posting about the culture I will be experiencing and explore the facets that make up all of the varied cultures of the world.

Some pretty broad topics, I know, but I’m excited to ramble on my thoughts about world cultures if I can also incentivize myself to learn more about the country I will be living in for a third of a year. So thanks for coming and I hope you’ll enjoy!