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May 25, 2012

Student Reflections – May 25

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By Debbie Rumbo

I find it especially difficult to articulate in words the sensations I felt while visiting the Sensoji temple for the first time. I feel as if events like those can only be accurately transcribed through the recalling of certain emotions that arise at that moment. The mixture of incese, large bustling crowds, and Japanese tradition illustrate an image of a country that has succeeded in maintaining the intricate balance between ancient traditions and modern society. I feel as though in the United States this balance is not as pronounced. To a certain degree I believe that our society is so much more apathetic about religion. To be completely honest, I found myself conflicted when analyzing the atmosphere. In a way, having the opportunity to visit such a historical landmark in a whole new country with an entirely different culture other than my own has pushed me to push the boundaries of my thoughts. Without even realizing it, I found myself creating a comparison that touched on the commercialization of experience. On the one hand, I saw a temple—the oldest and the biggest in all of Japan. A symbol of the religious ties that for centuries have shaped the morality of this society dominated by tradition and religious beliefs (maybe now, not as deeply rooted as before but nonetheless still relevant to how society functions). The beauty was in the idea and the aesthetic of the temple. Its vibrant reds, its panting’s, the golden alters, the overall immersion of the experience that mimicked the past in a way only a religious temple could. For a moment it was as if I had gone back in time to the greatness of the Japanese empire long gone. The irony was that as soon as I turned around I saw the other side. Through the gates that held the huge red lanterns were the mini shops that profited from this tradition and religiousness. It made me think: Is it then possible that religion in itself had become commercialized too? Is this one of the consequences to the “westernization”/globalization of Japanese culture?

I found myself constantly stopping to take it all in paying particular attention to the historical symbol of the swastika—how it was redefined (from my own perspective) and what it actually means to the Japanese culture. Being a woman of color and a lover of history this experience brought about a great deal of mixed thoughts upon reflection.  The swastika was everywhere in the temple. I had only been introduced to it through my historical associations with the Nazis and Hitler and so I wondered why would the Japanese allow such an important symbol of peace and happiness to be tainted by the Nazi movement? I realize now that that perspective in itself was very much biased by my American mindset. I have found myself many times throughout this trip challenged by that same mindset. I now see how—in their own light—the Japanese probably saw the Nazi movement as a heroic and even justified. To this day, there are some parallels between the ideals of the Nazi movement and the Japanese valorization for the preservation of their culture. It is these kinds of associations that have made my experience in Japan as worthwhile as it has been so far.

By Rubi Garcia

Today we had the chance to visit the Asakusa Kannon Temple (Sensoji), one of the oldest and most venerated Buddhist temples in Japan. Although I had already seen similar temples around Tokyo before, this one in particular fascinated me very much. Whereas visitors were relatively absent in other temples, they were everywhere at Sensoji. There was so much activity going on around the temple, and for once, I was able to see different groups of people, not just Japanese. There were many shops surrounding the temple and I got so excited to see the many items that were available for purchase. The shopping area was similar to a “swapmeet” back home and I found it interesting to witness the Japanese interacting with the different tourists. In most of the shops I bought souvenirs, I was surprised to discover that the Japanese owners knew English. I thought this was really interesting because they seemed really happy to have tourists. From what I observed, they tried really hard to accommodate themselves to foreigners and make them feel welcome to the country. This actually gave me a new perspective about the country. Most of the Japanese we have seen in Tokyo have treated us well; they are extremely nice. Although they are a homogenous society, I actually feel as if they are happy to see people of color.  Their actions are reflective of this, and as we are getting ready to go to Hiroshima this weekend, I am looking forward to understand my “American identity.”

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