USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

May 27, 2015

Global East Asia Japan 2015

Filed under: Class,Culture,Los Angeles — geajapan @ 3:33 pm

By Jotham Sadan

This year, Global East Asia scholars are participating in the USC Dornsife Problems without Passports (PwP) program, a month-long program aimed at teaching students through problem-based learning and experiences that go beyond the classroom. As a part of this program, we will spend two weeks in the US gaining a theoretical understanding of our problems of interest in class, spending time with guest lecturers and preparing research projects for execution abroad. The latter two weeks will be spent in Japan researching individually chosen topics and experiencing firsthand the issues we studied prior to our Japan trip.


Group meeting at a park near the Japan Foundation

We are focusing on historical cultural misunderstandings between the United States and Japan: where they originated, why they happened, and how to analyze modern issues of similar nature by applying what we learned in the case of the US and Japan. More specifically, we are examining American stereotypes of Japan and Japanese stereotypes of America: starting with the 1980’s when Japanese-US tensions were high, then looking back at their presence in World War II, and then using this knowledge to make broader statements about the prominence of these stereotypes today.

We spent our first two days of discussion pinpointing stereotypes of Japan from the past thirty years, both from personal experience and using Pico Iyer’s The Lady and The Monk and David Mura’s Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. While both memoirs detailed very different experiences of foreigners in the same country, one of the themes that appeared frequently in both works was that Japan was viewed as an enigma by the West. According to individual accounts within both books, Japan was the complete opposite of the US in many ways. Where the US praised individuality and creativity, Japan emphasized being a cog in the machine. Where the US prided itself as being an equal opportunity country, Japan had strict gender roles that oppressed women, as evidenced by Sachiko throughout Iyer’s book.

Once the discussion was opened to analysis of these claims, we quickly began to discover that several of the ways in which we viewed our country were the same as the Japanese viewed theirs, and that all of these radical ideas we attributed to the Japanese could just as easily be applied to the US. This trend is most easily demonstrated in John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, in which the author examines stereotypes like the ones above in World War II propaganda. Speaking specifically to the issue of inequality, the US made accusations that the Japanese mistreated the Chinese and Koreans (Kindle Loc 466), and that the United States was fighting for the free world. On the other side of the war, the Japanese pointed out that the States’ treatment of African Americans was inhumane and that the imperialist West was treating its constituent colonial citizens as sub-human, and that in fact Japan was the true freedom fighter.

All of the examples we studied afterwards all pointed to the same message: for two countries that consider one another opposites, the United States and Japan have a whole lot in common. Moreover, the idea of Japan being an “enigma” was less a matter of its culture being completely different and more a matter of perspective.


The instructor (left) teaching us how to say “ありがとうございます (Arigatou gozaimasu = Thank you).

During our trip to the Japan foundation, we discussed this topic briefly, but focused more on preparing to travel to a country whose native language most of us do not know how to speak. In the hour and a half clinic, they taught us etiquette in public places and a few important phrases, such as “なになにはどこですか” doko desu ka, or where, and “ありがとうございます” Arigatou gozaimasu, or thank you,  to help us navigate and communicate during our free time.

The more I prepare for our flight next Thursday, the more excited I get. Having spoken to several of my fellow classmates, I know they feel the same. We may only have two more days of class left before our trip, but we definitely have a lot more to discuss before we travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.

August 8, 2014

Calligraphy Challenges

Filed under: Class,Culture,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 3:16 pm

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.

2014-06-25 10.34.47

An ink-brush set-up from around the late 1800s at the Japanese Migration Museum. Our brushes were much thicker than the one pictured here, but I was surprised by the way that I could still achieve a very fine line by rolling the bristles into a point.

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.

My first egregious calligraphy attempt. A clearly off-kilter first character with inaccurate stroke angles. (Circle 1: Space needs to be wider. Circle 2: Giant blob that shouldn't be there. Circle 3: Downward stroke needs to be much longer.)

My first egregious calligraphy attempt. A clearly off-kilter first character with inaccurate stroke angles. (Circle 1: Space needs to be wider. Circle 2: Giant blob that shouldn’t be there. Circle 3: Downward stroke needs to be much longer.)


July 29, 2014

Exploring Asakusa

Filed under: Class,Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 1:22 pm

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.


The amazing ningyou-yaki machine


Ningyou-yaki, bird version


June 30, 2014

Our Trip to the Imperial Palace, Yasukuni Shrine, Sky Tree and Asakusa

Filed under: Class,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:44 am

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.

One two three JUMP

One, two, three, JUMP

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.

A group photo at Yasukuni Shrine

A group photo at Yasukuni Shrine

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.

The imposing Sky Tree

The imposing Sky Tree


June 28, 2013

And We Departed Happily Ever After

Filed under: Class,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:27 am

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.

Breakfast content of our second day at Yamanaka Lake!

Breakfast on our second day at Yamanaka Lake Seminar House!

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.

A small group photo with the Meiji Supporters' leader, Risa!

A small group photo with the Meiji supporters’ leader, Risa!

Another group photo with the Meiji girls.

Another group photo with the Meiji girls.


Yamanaka Lake Retreat

Filed under: Class,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:22 am

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.

Meiji and USC Students at Yamanaka Lake

Meiji and USC Students at Yamanaka Lake

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.

Meiji students teaching the finer skills of Japanese Calligraphy

Meiji students teaching the finer skills of Japanese calligraphy

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.

Attendees of the 2013 GEA Yamanaka Retreat in the main seminar house

Attendees of the 2013 Meiji-USC Yamanaka Retreat in the main seminar house

Continued in Sally Fu’s post:

June 25, 2012

Studying in Tokyo

Filed under: Class — geajapan @ 4:35 pm

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.

Professor Saori Katada Lectures at Meiji University

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.

Lecture by the Dean of Meiji Political Science & Economics School
Our Class

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.

Student Life in Tokyo

Filed under: Class — geajapan @ 4:35 pm

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.

Getting to know the Meiji students

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.

USC’s First Day Welcome Reception at Meiji University

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

Arrival in Tokyo

Filed under: Class,Tokyo — geajapan @ 7:58 pm

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.

~Alex Norby

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!


~Michelle Armstrong