August 8, 2014
by Natasha Cirisano
Japanese calligraphy in four words: Harder. Than. It. Looks. On our first Saturday at the Yamanaka Lake retreat, the Meiji students set up a calligraphy lesson for us to learn to write our names. I’m a design major, so I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult… but I was wrong. Three characters might seem easy at first, but the calligraphy really showed me the care and importance that goes into every stroke of Japanese writing. In Japanese language class, we learned how to write the alphabet with an emphasis on the stroke direction and stroke order of each letter. At first I thought this was just a tedious, extra element to memorize, but when we did calligraphy I saw how these ideas really stemmed from the way the ink medium worked when these letters were written with a brush back in the old days. The direction and order of the strokes are crucial to create the particular weight and balance the letter needs, and passing the brush across the paper in the wrong direction makes the letter much harder to draw because it is against the flow of the ink.
Compared to Western calligraphy, which also depends heavily on the direction and order of the strokes, the Japanese version is much more about showing motion even though the letters are static forms. While I usually picture monks hunched over parchment paper with quill pens painstakingly shaping every letter, Japanese calligraphy is more like a dance between concentration and spontaneity. I felt like the letters were people doing ballet or maybe even martial arts – one stroke, an arm jabbing to the right, the next, a leg kicking up and then coming down again. The art is mental as much as it is physical, and I had to train my muscle memory as much as my mind to make it beautiful. For example, to be successful, I had to get used to holding the brush upright at a 90-degree angle from the paper, which feels awkward at first, but provides a lot more control over the thickness and thinness of the strokes. Kenta, my teacher, kept correcting me when I fell back into holding the brush like a normal pencil! Next, the composition was the mental part; I had to pay attention to the angle of the strokes or else everything would look awkward and out of balance. It’s funny, because even though I could not read the characters, I could tell when a stroke “felt” wrong. Good design is a universal language. It seems that even people who come from two different sides of the world can “sense” compositional oddities and imbalances, even if one person (me!) first sees the characters as abstract art rather than as instruments of ideological and symbolic meaning.
July 29, 2014
by Sarah Anne Nakamura
During our first week in Japan we had the opportunity to visit Asakusa, where we went to our first Buddhist temple called Sensou-ji. This was one of the most fascinating places we visited during our program because the area was divided into two main areas: the temple and a small market called Nakamise-Dori.
Before walking to the temple, we made our way through the Nakamise-Dori market, which I calculated to have about 90 stores. Some of the stores had omiyage (souvenirs), shoes, clothes, bags, and unique sweets. I had the chance to taste fresh ningyou-yaki, which is a traditional Japanese cake that is often molded into a Japanese design. The name literally means “fried doll,” which is exactly what we got. I had a bird design, but other students got flowers and lanterns. We could see the ningyou-yaki being made right in front of us with a machine that did everything: pour the batter, bake the cakes, and then individually wrap each one. It was one of the best sweets I had the pleasure of trying in Japan.
June 30, 2014
by David Collier and Andy Gause
Early Tuesday morning the group visited the Tokyo Imperial Palace. We were immediately struck by the enormous ornate gates. We strolled across the gravel footpaths, admiring the lush foliage. It was quite impressive because we were able to see the foundations for the castles that once sat next to the palace. The scale of the peaceful complex was immense. We witnessed people painting the scenery, couples walking hand-in-hand together, and an older gentlemen napping under a tree. We took several fun group photos, including some in which we all jumped at the same time.
Next we visited Yasukuni Shrine, in which 2.5 million military casualties stretching back from the Meiji Restoration are enshrined, including fourteen Class A war criminals. We couldn’t take pictures inside of the shrine and the atmosphere surrounding the shrine was tranquil. If we hadn’t known the history, we wouldn’t have realized the controversial nature of the place.
Next we visited the nearby WWII museum. Our professor asked us to figure out the narrative presented by the museum. We came to the conclusion that there was some definite fact-stretching in the museum’s representation of the war. One of the placards claimed the battleship Yamato crashed its way into the enemy fleet. However, the battleship sunk before it ever reached the fleet. The museum also presented the invasion of Manchuria and other countries in Southeast Asia as an action of necessity. The segment at the end of the museum showing the faces of the (mostly young) men and women who died in the war was particularly harrowing.
The next day we were driven to Sky Tree, the imposing TV tower in the heart of Tokyo. Standing at 634 meters tall, the structure rose into the overcast sky. We went to the mall where there were several stores selling merchandise related to Japanese TV. One store in particular had some colorful products related to Pokémon, anime and other popular Japanese television shows.
June 28, 2013
By Sally Fu
(This is Part 2 of a two-post series on our trip to the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House)
Day 3: The drizzling rain softly woke us from our slumber. Last night was a festive and insightful night at the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House. Not only did the USC students bond with the Meiji students through various activities such as Japanese calligraphy (shodou) and karaoke, but the past few days allowed for much cultural exchange, as we all stayed together in a Japanese-style retreat at the base of Mt. Fuji.
While the night was fun, the lack of a curfew ended up hindering many students from eating their breakfast. When I arrived at the cafeteria around eight or so, only a couple of students were there, which meant I could allow myself to devour more food. After eating, we all returned to our rooms to pack up our things. Even though the director of the Yamanaka Lake trip, Tom Power, had asked the students to simply fold the futons, my Meiji roommates also wiped off the table and sink in our room to restore it to the original condition in which we found it.
After breakfast and packing up, the Meiji and USC students joined together for a discussion session. The session involved topics such as improving cultural exchange and the differences between Japan and the U.S. The Professor divided us into groups, and our group discussed how much more efficient and conservative Japan is compared to other countries such as the U.S. One thing that really shocked me after coming to Japan is the way people always finish their food; they leave nothing behind on their plates. In the U.S., I’m used to taking my unfinished meals to go, but Japan does not really offer such a service, and so everyone usually finishes all of the food they ordered at that one sitting at the restaurant. Furthermore, navigating the intricate subway system not only provides a great opportunity to exercise, but it is also inexpensive and very efficient. Our group also discussed how people should step out of their comfort zone to allow for greater cultural exchange. The discussion also broke down common stereotypes held between the USC and Meiji students. For example, we found out the Japanese do not eat sushi or sashimi every day, and they discovered that Americans do not eat hamburgers every day, either.
Before departure, our instructors took many photographs as if we were magazine models. We tried various poses and locations, but the instructors were not alone in wanting to preserve such precious memories; I also hoped to obtain an eternal memory of this wonderful experience.
By John Carlson
(This is Part 1 of a two-post series on our trip to the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House)
Days One & Two: As part of our exchange with the students here at Meiji University, the 14 USC students in Japan with Global East Asia traveled to Yamanaka Lake near Mount Fuji with 21 students from our host school, Meiji University. Having gotten a chance to meet students in the prior week, our hope was to engage in cross-cultural communication, sharing our perspectives on Japanese culture and society and also opening discussion on trans-pacific exchange.
The first day of the trip was simply a chance for us to sit down with Meiji students and get to know them better, and the following day, the students from USC presented on various topics of interest in both Japan and the U.S. The topics came specifically from something that we had observed during our visit to Japan, including, but not limited to, advertising, LGBT rights, entertainment, transportation, and Japanese concepts of beauty/art (i.e., Wabi-Sabi). It was a great opportunity not only to share the perspective of an outsider observing Japanese society, but also a great chance to engage in a two-way discussion of societal values, issues, and challenges in moving forward.
Of important note was the simple concept that in order to move forward, open discussion is needed on both sides. While for Americans this may come rather naturally, for Japanese people such open discussion often seems to be of greater difficulty. We spent a good amount of time discussing this concept, as well as what to do when open discussion becomes more prevalent. Following the presentations, we had a great time hanging out with the Meiji students while enjoying the mountain retreat. A lot of close bonds were formed among both students and faculty that will assuredly serve us well not only in our coming studies, but in our future as well. It was a great opportunity to share both in the classroom environment and on a more personal level.
Continued in Sally Fu’s post: http://dornsife-blogs.usc.edu/gea-japan/?p=537
June 25, 2012
By Sheng Ge
Time flies. Our three weeks of intense study has officially ended. Looking back, we really had a great time in Tokyo, both in and out of class. Each week we focused on a specific theme: Japanese history in the first week; politics in the second week; and economics in the third week. Through reading the assigned textbooks we had gained a general understanding of Japanese history, its political system, and its economic development, while in the class sessions, Professor Katada gave us enlightening lectures, and Chad divided us into three groups based on our Japanese proficiency to provide us with Japanese language training. We also had the wonderful opportunity of listening to two lectures about the Japanese political system and the current problems Japan is facing given by Meiji professors from the Political Science and Economics School.
Besides our coursework, finding awesome food soon became one of our top priorities. We have all had wonderful dining experiences in these first three weeks: delicious CoCo Ichiban curry dishes, budget-friendly fried rice + ramen combos, pasta wonders, fresh-off-the-boat sushi from the famous Tsukiji fish market, and The Insurpassable Ramen Place (a.k.a. Ramen-Jirou) which I will remember the rest of my life… There are just too many awesome food places that can only be found in Japan.
I of course also have to mention the awesome Meiji students. They are just so welcoming and helpful to us, always trying to help us in every aspect of our stay in Japan. Even from the first day we met, they asked us all about what we wanted to eat and where we wanted to visit in Tokyo. This was not just their being polite to us; they really took our request and concerns seriously, and made every effort to see that we could do everything we wanted in the following days and weeks. Despite being very busy on weekdays (because we are visiting in the middle of their semester), nearly every day a few supporters would meet up with us to show us around Tokyo and have dinner with us. Then, on the weekends, we would go shopping, dining, and clubbing, all of which contributed to our developing unbreakable friendships. As Chad noted at the Farewell Party, these experiences that Meiji University and its students have enabled us to experience are so unique that not only tourists, but even other exchange students, rarely get to experience them. This is why we all are extremely thankful for the opportunities provided to us by the USC East Asian Studies Center, the Freeman Foundation, Meiji University, JASSO, and of course all the professors, TAs, and supporters who have helped us so much during this trip.
By Diana Yan
Although Los Angeles and Tokyo are both large metropolitan cities, student life in Tokyo is an entirely different experience. On the first day of class, we arrived to Liberty Tower, a large 23-story building that houses the majority of the Meiji University 3rd and 4th year classes.
Soon we had made friends with many of the Meiji supporter students, and learned about their college experiences. Many students commute from home or an apartment because living in Tokyo is simply too expensive. As University of Southern California students, we were startled to learn that some students commute for an hour and a half every day. Moreover, they do this five, and sometimes six, times a week! And to think that when I moved into my off-campus apartment from my sophomore year, I thought a 15-minute walk was far. It really goes to show the dedication of students studying in Tokyo.
Immediately after arriving on campus I had the impression that Japanese students were rigorous and hard-working, so I was even more surprised to learn that the Japanese students thought they did not study hard. At the Yamanaka Lake Seminar House we had an insightful discussion about Japanese student life. We learned that because it is so difficult to get into college, especially a top school like Meiji University, many students felt like they had worked a lot harder in high school. Also, since many of our supporters were juniors and seniors, we talked a lot about getting jobs right out of college. The Meiji students explained that there is really only one chance, or time window, to get a job right after graduation and, just like in America, it is getting harder and harder to find employment. The challenge of only having one chance to enter the work force seems so daunting!
However, while learning about such an education system and job recruitment process seemed so foreign to us, we were also pleasantly surprised to learn that the Meiji University students also make great friends! The first day, when we had our reception, both the USC and Meiji students were rather shy.
We shook hands and introduced ourselves, then started to mingle. Very quickly we realized we had much in common to talk about. Then, three weeks later at our farewell ceremony, we would be toasting to our new best friends and laughing at inside jokes. It has only been a few days since we said farewell to them, and I know that we all miss them already!
May 30, 2012
By Alex Norby and Michelle Armstrong
The day was Tuesday. It was our fourth day in Japan and second day in class when our professor Saori Katada reached to erase the yellow chalk on the long blackboard. Upon brushing the eraser, the black fiber left almost no trace of residue on the surface. “This, this is why I love Japan,” Professor Katada unexpectedly blurted out, catching her face in the palm of her hands. “The little things, the details…” she went on to talk about how even the staplers always work in this country, jogging my own memory back to all those times the Leavey one failed me right as the class I needed to turn my paper into was starting. If only we had proper staplers, I wouldn’t have been late to class. But, then I thought, if I were a Japanese college student, there would be no chance of me procrastinating so egregiously. As our gang of Angelenos traversed the city on Sunday, we were astounded at the complex efficiency of the Tokyo Subway, the mass organized choas of Shibuya Crossing, the perfectly ordered maze of walkways at Shinjuku Station. It occurred to me that the essence of Japan is one that finds greatness in the smallest things. To appreciate such things requires holding them to a higher standard. Some might say perfection. I would call it respect. In LA, especially in our public spaces, we often find this sorely lacking, creating a society that can at times seem as at odds as a 5pm traffic jam on the 110. In Tokyo, respect is a way of life. It is the unspoken force that bonds its citizens together, as strong as the structural steel that holds up Tokyo Tower. As I stood on the 45th floor of the North Tower of the city’s Metropolitan Office buildings, I gazed at the vast cityscape below. I thought that I, a half Chinese, half Norwegian-American, would do my best in this city to observe this way of respect. Because while something, like chalk residue, may seem small to us, Tokyo has taught me that it is in things, little things, with which we can find greatness and harmony in life.
After an 11 hour plane ride, we arrived safely in the late afternoon at the Narita airport ready to start our adventure. We got on our private bus and traveled to the Sakura Hotel, where we will be staying for the next month. We settled into our rooms and then we enjoyed our first dinner in Tokyo together.
On our first real day in Japan, we explored various places such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku. In Shinjuku we went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and enjoyed the view of the city. Afterwards we headed to the fashion district, Harajuku. Before heading to Meiji shrine, we watched some yakuza impersonators and some older Japanese men and women dance. At Meiji Shrine we were able to learn how to cleanse our souls before praying and how to pray, as well as able to buy good luck charms and omikuji (fortunes). We then walked through the famous street called Takeshita. The street was super narrow and crammed-pack with people and clothing stores! Next we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Shibuya. It was oishii!
On Monday we had our first day of class. We walked as a group over to the university and had our first class. After class we had our welcome reception and met the Meiji students over lunch. After lunch we had a tour of Meiji’s library, cafeteria, museum, and gift shop. The museum had a lot of torture devices, books, and other interesting artifacts.
After our tour we went out to dinner at a Champon restaurant with some of the Meiji students and then headed back to the hotel and played games and bonded.
Tuesday was our second day of class and we discussed a brief history of Japan up until WWII. Afterwards we had free time and everyone split up into groups and explored different parts of Tokyo!
A group of us headed to Tokyo’s brand new Sky Tree with our new friend from Meiji, Fumi. We couldn’t go into Sky Tree because reservations are booked for the next two months, but we were able to look at the tower and go into the department stores. It was really windy by Sky Tree. Afterwards, we explored Shinjuku, ate at Yoshinoya (which is a lot better in Japan than America), and talked!