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

June 9, 2015

The Journey to Lake Yamanaka

Filed under: Class,Culture,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:45 am

By: Sophia Li

The USC and Meiji University students after our arrival at Lake Yamanaka (featuring Mt. Fuji in the background).

The USC and Meiji University students after our arrival at Lake Yamanaka (featuring Mt. Fuji in the background). Photo by Yu Tokunaga.

We woke up bright and early morning on June 5 to travel with Meiji University students to Lake Yamanaka. I ended up sitting in the back of our charter bus with three Meiji boys. After we introduced ourselves I began interviewing the three students about their awareness of Japan’s foreign labor exploitation and their perceptions of Chinese people in Japan. I was not expecting Meiji students to know much about Japan’s “Technical Intern Training Program.” The Japanese government claims that the program helps prepare foreign trainees succeed in their home country’s economies, but it has been used more often to facilitate cheap labor in small to medium Japanese companies. Even though the Japan Times, Japan Today and the U.S. Department of State have all written about problems with the program, such as withholding wages and taking away foreign workers’ passports and bank cards, there has not been any widespread effort in Japanese society to amend the program’s rights violations. That is why I wanted to interview Meiji students; I wanted to understand why there has not been more done to stop the injustices of Japan’s foreign trainee program. The lack of action in Japan led me to suspect that people in Japan, especially Japanese youth, lack awareness of labor exploitation. I speculated that one potential reason young people might not know about the trainee program is if they do not pay attention to the news.

Three of Meiji University students I interviewed about Chinese workers in Japan.

Three of Meiji University students I interviewed about Chinese workers in Japan.

To test this idea, I first asked students if they knew what the trainee program was – my teaching assistant Toku helped me pronounce the name in Japanese as “Gaikokujin Ginou Jishu Seido.” For those who claimed they knew what the program is, I then asked each person to describe certain aspects of the program. “Which ethnic group makes up the most of the trainee program? Can you describe any problems with this labor?” I was shocked by some of the answers I heard. All three boys claimed they watched the news either daily or almost every day, and two boys also claimed they read news on the internet every day. Despite this, none of the students I initially interviewed knew about Japan’s labor violations. Two boys spoke of problems between Chinese trainees and Japanese companies as rooted in the countries’ “different cultures.” One of them said he thinks Chinese workers benefit from the trainee program and claimed that the Chinese interns, not the companies who use them, were the troublemakers. The third boy mistakenly thought the program was costly for Japanese companies, when in reality it is actually a cost-cutting method that makes its profits off the backs of low-wage workers.

One of my Meiji supporters sneakily took this photo while I was interviewing another student.

One of my Meiji supporters sneakily took this photo while I was interviewing another student.

Later in the day, I spoke to another Meiji student who was slightly more knowledgeable on the trainee program. While she was unaware of certain labor violations, she understood that most trainees cannot actually find work in Japan once their 3-year contracts are filled and that they often become desperate after their contracts run out. The most shocking thing about my exchange with these four students was the way most of them spoke about Chinese stereotypes. According to news these students saw on TV, Chinese were seen to be loud, rude, and in some ways incompatible with the social norms of Japanese society. Despite these negative media portrayals, all four students spoke highly of their Chinese friends. It gave me hope to hear that meeting Chinese people in their everyday lives opened the eyes of Meiji students and allowed them to see the Chinese beyond their stereotypes. Given that the students cannot seem to rely on media to resolve conflicts between China and Japan, it is reassuring that they can still have strong interpersonal relationships with Chinese people.

Adventure to Lake Yamanaka

Filed under: Tokyo,Travel,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 9:24 am

By: Andrea Munoz

I awoke to the bright Japanese sunrise peering though the window. Today, June 5, was the day we all set off to Lake Yamanaka. I had gotten ready in record time, so I turned on the TV in my room at Sakura Hotel. Since my research project is about how American comic books influence Japanese culture, I was curious to see which morning anime was being aired. Surprisingly, anime wasn’t as prominent on TV as most Americans would think. Most channels aired the news, talk shows and one channel featured a show on DNA. Only one channel had cartoons but it was geared toward very small children.

USC & Meiji Students waiting to go to Lake Yamanaka.

USC & Meiji students waiting to go to Lake Yamanaka.

At 10:00 am, equipped with our bags, we walked to Meiji University to meet up with the Meiji Students. The bus ride to Lake Yamanaka was about 2 hours. My bus buddy; Haruka, and I spent the time talking about music (she enjoys the band Owl City) and playing card games with the other Meiji Students. They knew many of the card games I had grown up playing. For lunch we stopped at a food court and I had the chicken curry, which was very good! There was a popular ice cream shop near the bus so many of us grabbed a cone before resuming our trip.

My lunch.

My lunch

After lunch mochi ice cream on the bus. (Blurry because it's too awesome to be in focus)

After lunch mochi ice cream on the bus.
(Blurry because it’s too awesome to be in focus)

The views on the way to the lake were amazing! Mt. Fuji stood in our sight. The image appeared as though a postcard, the beauty of Mt. Fuji surrounded at its base with houses and forests made for an unbelievable memory. We arrived at the Lake Yamanaka Seminar House and unpacked in our Japanese traditional rooms. I roomed with Chris and three Meiji students: Rina, Misaki and Haruka. They were pretty awesome. :D

View of Mt. from the bus.

View of Mt. Fuji from the bus.

USC & Meiji checking into the seminar house at lake Yamanaka

USC & Meiji checking into the seminar house at Lake Yamanaka

Dinner started at 6:00 pm sharp but before we all went to eat, I checked out the traditional baths. It was really relaxing. After dinner, there was a little downtime before the 9:00 pm party. Almost everyone took this time to work on their presentations, based off of their research topics. In my presentation, I discussed the popularity of American comic books in Japan and how the Japanese felt about them. Yuri and Misato allowed me to interview them. I was surprised by their thoughts on American comic books. Misato said she read Spiderman but never watched any of the movies. Yuri told me she disliked American comic books because they were not かわいい (Kawaii = cute). This concept of かわいい is very important to Japanese culture and its influence is very prominent in Japan.

Yuri, Misato, Steve & Andi working on presentations

Yuri, Misato, Steve & Andi working on presentations

A few studious USC students working very hard on their upcoming presentations.

A few studious USC students working very hard on their upcoming presentations.

Dinner with USC and Meiji students.

Dinner with USC and Meiji students.

After finishing the presentation, we did a quick ice breaker to recall everyone’s name then….we had a party with the Meiji students!!!!! It was so fun! We all were dancing, eating and talking.  It was great to get to know the Meiji students during this time. I can’t wait for tomorrow so we can all share our presentations and learn what everyone else has been working on during our stay in Japan.

The after dinner dance party!

The after dinner dance party!

June 8, 2015

Perceiving the Other

Filed under: Class,Culture,Yamanaka Lake — geajapan @ 10:55 am

By: Luis Vidalon-Suzuki

June 6 is our second day at Lake Yamanaka, and we are finalizing our presentations that we will be delivering to the Meiji students. In these presentations, we will be displaying what we are researching and what its significance is to globalization. Some of us were nervous, but we all felt confident in our research material. We have definitely been having fun in Japan, but we never lost sight of being a critical tourist. These presentations would show the Meiji students that we have developed insightful topics and have analyzed them in thought provoking and insightful ways. For me personally, I used this presentation to work on my essay as well as presenting to the Meiji students. I organized my slides in that they would flow in a similar manner as my essay. By organizing my slides like this, I know exactly what I will be looking for in my time at Japan.

Before my presentation, many of my classmates gave fascinating presentations about their diverse and deep research topics. It is clear that we are all passionate in the topics that we have chosen. One topic that struck me was the status of Zainichi Koreans in Japan. Prior to my trip to Japan, I was not aware of the discrimination that this minority faces in Japan, both legally and socially. My classmate, who has been researching on this topic, presented the material in a manner that made me critically analyze Japan and its role in dealing with minority groups. Japan is not very different from the United States. Both appreciate minority groups to a certain extent yet discriminate against them through social and legal manners. By showing the similarities between the two cultures, it gave the Meiji and the USC students a more tangible way of expressing the heavy burdens facing this community.

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USC student Joyce Lee speaking about Koreans in Japanese society.

This tied into my research project as well. In Japan, the English education is sub-par at best, and countries like China and Korea are vastly outperforming them in terms of speaking and listening in English. This compares to the education crisis in the Unites States. Right now, funding is being cut in education, and more focus is spent on testing the students rather than engaging them in the course material. There is a similar state of education in Japan. Although I am not entirely sure of the testing culture in the Japanese public education system, strong parallels can be made of the other aspects between the Japanese and American systems.

This reminds me of a concept that was presented to us on the first day of the course. In The Lady and the Monk, Iyer explains that perceptions of other cultures are subjective; this means that the same criticisms that can be made to other societies can also be made to one’s own. After listening to all the presentations today and reflecting on my own topic, I have come to realize that there are significant weaknesses in both Japan and America in terms of education. The roots of the problem are, in my opinion, similar. For the remainder of my time in Japan, I am going to take Iyer’s concept into mind and try to make comparisons and contrasts between Japan and the United States.

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USC students Andi Munoz and Steve Nguyen enthusiastically presenting about anime in Japanese culture, all while cosplaying in their favorite characters.

American School, Korean School, and Shin-Okubo: 3 Diverse Areas of Tokyo

Filed under: Class,Culture,Exploring,Tokyo,Travel — geajapan @ 10:50 am

By: Joyce Lee

Rainy season is approaching in Tokyo, so it was no surprise we woke up to scattered showers and gloomy skies. Nothing could break our spirits though! Umbrellas in hand, we braved the pouring rain to continue onto our planned day.

Our trip for the day had 3 main destinations, each one visiting diverse groups of people living in Tokyo. My project focuses primarily on how nationalism affects Koreans living in Japan– not simply through an understanding of diplomatic tension, but through analyzing how the average person feels the effects through everyday life. Most of my project is conducted through in-depth interviews and observations, which made today’s excursions to meet lesser-known groups in Tokyo exciting.

We started off our day at the American School in Japan, a high school located in Chofu City, Tokyo. The school follows American curriculum and closely resembles a stereotypical high school in the United States. With 98% of all ASIJ graduates going on to attend college, the school is ranked as one of the highest ranked international schools in the world.

 

ASIJ

The American School in Japan on a rainy day.

We were given a tour of the school by 4 ASIJ students who were also Fall 2015 USC admits. Roughly 38 nationalities are represented within their K-12 grade system, which gives the students a uniquely diverse perspective within a homogeneous society like Japan. A significant amount of their student population is Korean, which was relevant to my topic on the effects of Japanese and Korean nationalism on Korean immigrants. Through interviewing students on the campus, speaking with a teacher of the high school, and observing the school’s social dynamics, I learned a lot about how nationalism affects the small group of Koreans attending the ASIJ in Japan.

Principal Kathy Krauth pointing out the clean and sleek facilities inside the ASIJ High School.

ASIJ teacher Kathy Krauth pointing out the clean and sleek facilities inside the ASIJ High School.

Following this, we traveled to Joseon, a North Korean School. Somewhat contrasting the American School in Japan, Joseon placed significant emphasis on maintaining Korean roots, heritage, and pride. Recently the school has faced much protest and discrimination due to their ties to North Korea and as Zainichi-Koreans. Diplomatic tensions between North Korea and Japan as well as Japanese ethnic nationalism have played a large role in the school. We were able to interview the Vice Principal of the school and 4 students who talked about their sense of pride in culture and heritage, their awareness of discrimination, and their experiences living in Japan. The discrimination that they face on a daily basis reflects the general anti-Korean sentiment present across Japan today. Not all people living in Japan share this anti-Korean sentiment, but it’s clear through protests and demonstrations that this feeling exists.  The trip was eye-opening and showed a real example of how intense nationalism can in some ways be damaging to groups of people within a nation.

A look inside the Joseon middle school classroom.

A look inside the Joseon middle school classroom. The kids are learning English.

Following our event in Joseon, we traveled to Shin-Okubo, Japan’s Koreatown, where we enjoyed a crazy elaborate dinner of Korean BBQ, abundant side dishes, ddukbokki, bibimbap, and soups.

An array of side dishes, Samgyupsal meat on the grill, and a choice between tea and water cluttered our tables at dinner.

An array of side dishes, Samgyupsal meat on the grill, and a choice between tea and water cluttered our tables at dinner.

The highlight of the evening was being able to interview the waiter (in Korean) about his experiences living in Koreatown, what brought him to Japan, and his insights to discrimination in the country. He was incredibly thoughtful and hilarious in his answers, often considering the different aspects of both Japanese and Korean culture. He handed me a 5-pack of Shin Ramen (A well-known Korean brand of ramen) on our way out with a wink.

The Shin-Okubo restaurant owner fighting on with us.

The Shin-Okubo restaurant manager ‘Fighting On’ with us.

Despite the crazy rain, we enjoyed an action packed day where we were able to experience Tokyo in different ways. As much of my project is based on in-depth interviews, I found today to be an invaluable opportunity to meet people one-on-one. For future travels on this trip, I hope to continue to experience these unique aspects of Tokyo and the amazing people the city has to offer!

Anime is Everywhere and for Everyone

Filed under: Culture,Tokyo — geajapan @ 10:41 am

By: Eric Parra

To a bunch of culturally naïve American college students, Japan has a lot to offer. There are lush green forests, an amazingly efficient train system, and loads of vending machines. My experience, however, has been driven through anime, which is literally anywhere and everywhere you look.

You can find small comics like this all over Japan, to both entertain and educate you. Sometimes it takes more than just words to get a point across.

You can find small comics like this all over Japan, to both entertain and educate you. Sometimes it takes more than just words to get a point across.

A particular favorite anime of mine is a show called One Piece, which coincidentally has an entire theme park dedicated to it in Tokyo Tower. If I had to think of a comparison, I would say that an American equivalent would be like Universal Studio’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter park, which is only slightly bigger. But this is a cartoon show based on a comic book series for young boys ages 8 through 15, and it’s been out for three months now, so I figured it would be pretty empty. What I saw instead was a large and diverse group of people that filled up multiple lines with waiting times of 40 minutes per attraction. There were young kids with their mom’s and older siblings, teen boys hanging out with their friends, 20 year old girls waiting to play themed games, and even a few couples on dates holding arms and eating in the One Piece cafes.

Lots of people were excited for One Piece, but not as much as this college local who had her favorite character tattooed to her leg.

Lots of people were excited for One Piece, but not as much as this college local who had her favorite character tattooed to her leg.

I did not expect to see so many couples at an amusement park for a series about pirates fighting each other. This couple was taking selfies of them and their One Piece food, clearly die hard fans.

Back home, One Piece is an unknown series that I just happen to like. In Japan, everyone I’ve asked seems to be able to list off all of the characters whether they like the show or not, simply because of its large presence. Whether it’s anime, advertisements, or just word of mouth, series and cartoons like One Piece are just a simple part of daily life, whether you’re a kid or an adult.

I was able to ask a few people of what they thought about anime and manga, which feels like a weird question if I were to ask my friends back home, but the people of Tokyo all told me that anime and manga are staple entertainment. In fact, they were surprised when I mentioned that Americans think that cartoons are meant for kids. In Japan, cartoons are for everyone, and everyone recognizes the many characters that you see everywhere, whether they’re from a show or just on a bottle label.

After I randomly picked out an orange juice bottle to drink, a Meiji student, Yuri,  told me that the smiling face on the cap is named Nacchan and is very beloved.

After I randomly picked out an orange juice bottle to drink, a Meiji student, Yuri, told me that the smiling face on the cap is named Nacchan and is very beloved.

I talked to a student at an American school in Japan named James, who told me that some manga is specifically intended for adults. You can see kids reading their manga on the playground and businessmen reading their manga on the trains. James also told me that manga is a valuable learning tool that taught him how to read and write at an early age. It’s an essential and daily use for anyone.

It seems clear to me that there is a big difference in how cartoons are portrayed in the media between the United States and Japan. Americans are starting to recognize the value of mature themed graphic novels, like the Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, but you’ll still get a strange look if you’re flipping through a comic book in a public place. Japan however, knows that there are comics for kids, and comics for adults, and like any form of entertainment, they help pass the time and provide something to think or talk about with others. I’m interested in seeing what other influences cartoons have had in Japan and if there’s a difference in opinion on anime between Tokyo and Osaka or Kyoto.

I still can't believe that there's an entire theme park for a comic book series.

I still can’t believe that there’s an entire theme park for a comic book series.

 

June 5, 2015

A-Meiji Experiences

Filed under: Class,Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:48 am

By: Christina Brown

A good handful of the students started out their day with a scenic run around the Imperial Palace (we later realized at least three or four students separately took almost the same picture of the route). The class headed over to Liberty Tower–a twenty-three story skyscraper that blends in so well in the urban scenery of central Tokyo, you would hardly know it was part of the campus of Meiji University. We discussed Ruth Ozeki’s novel, foreign perceptions of Japan, and how the seemingly stark contrasts between Japanese and American children are more like two sides of the same coin rather than incomparable differences–a great topic to segway into the highlight of the day: finally meeting the Meiji University students! The professors and international coordinators all gave a few words before starting the mixer (our own Professor Kurashige of course managed to work in the course material AND a few jokes into his speech). During the speeches, a Meiji student leaned over to me, her eyes fixated on the buffet, and whispered, “I didn’t eat breakfast. I’m SO hungry. You are American, you can push to the front of the line so we can eat first.” As soon as the speeches concluded, she bolted to the front of the line. The Meiji students were absolutely delightful. Speaking to us in English and warmly receptive of our broken Japanese, they showed true enthusiasm for getting to know us and showing us around their city. We played ice breaker games, talked about places we wanted to see in Tokyo, some geeked out about our favorite anime, comics, and games, and made plans to explore the city and meet back up for dinner at Liberty Tower.

Turns out Andi, Eric, and I all separately stopped at the same spot for a photo during our run! lol 2 cool

Turns out Andi, Eric, and I all separately stopped at the same spot for a photo during our run!

Some students went to Asakusa to see the Sky Tree, temples, and shops, but my group quickly went back to the hotel to change into our cosplay before hitting up Akihabara, the otaku (nerd–in a good way of course) and anime center of Tokyo. Steve and I dressed up as Kurisu and Hououin Kyouma from “Stein;Gate” and Andi sported her yukata and a pink wig. Our guide, Meiji student Hiroki, bravely lead the three crazy gaijin to a nerd’s paradise. We went into cosplay shops and anime stores–the only kind of shopping these two tomboys can handle–and then to an arcade to get our pictures taken at one of those photo booths that puts makeup on you! After a few hours in Akihabara, we headed back to Meiji to meet up with the others for dinner.

El Psy Congroo

Andi, Steve and I in our cosplay

Rina, one of the Meiji students had just found out she got a job, so everyone was ready to celebrate! We went to a trendy Teppan Yaki restaurant nearby (Teppan Yaki is a Japanese style of cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook the food). We ordered the “mixed” dishes and I’m not exactly sure what was in it, but it was SO good! The restaurant had just recently opened and we were all very excited to give the waiters and cooks our feedback that the food was cool and delicious.

I think I said "totemo oishii desu" four times!

What a good looking group of kids! Congrats to Rina on her acheivment!

Yuri is simply delightful. She's spunky and full of energy. She took to calling Eric Totoro because he's cute a loveable...could professor be onto something???

Yuri is simply delightful. She’s spunky and full of energy. She took to calling Eric “Totoro” because he’s cute and loveable…could professor be onto something???

We decided there was no better way to conclude our fabulous first day with the Meiji students than with the ancient Japanese art of karaoke. We ordered a pitcher and sang Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Queen, Elvis, and Jimmy Eats World (little known fact, Jo rocked Billie Jean)! We danced, laughed, and bid farewell to Rina and Yuri–making plans to go to the beach and temples of Kamakura for the next day.

Andi and I singing Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie (S+ Tier Stuff)

Andi and I singing Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie (S+ Tier Stuff)

It was a long day, full of action, and we all went to bed having no doubts that Professor was spot on when he said we’d forge strong friendships with the Meiji students!!!! By the way, Steve, Andi, and I are writing our research papers about Japanese perception of Western pop culture and the global youth culture that comes from the world-wide appreciation of anime, cosplay, games, and manga–SO even though it SOUNDS like we were just having fun, it was actually very serious research!

Proof that we are studious  even on vacation

Proof that we are studious even on vacation

Looking for the Chinese in Japan

Filed under: Class,Culture,Los Angeles,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:36 am

By: Sophia Li

When I purchased my roundtrip ticket to Tokyo less than two months ago, I was incredibly excited and grateful for the opportunity to explore a new country, no less one that has developed such a “cool” reputation. Everything from high-tech robots to Hello Kitty has made me want to come to Japan.

A street in Yotsuya.

A street in Yotsuya

And yet, as I was frantically packing at 5:30 the morning of my flight, I felt a little uneasy about engaging with Japanese culture. Both my parents grew up in China, and suffice it to say my mom does not exactly like Japan. The Rape of Nanking was not that long ago, and the fact that there are Japanese nationalists who refuse to own up to Japan’s dark history makes me rather uncomfortable. Of course, the United States has committed its own share of unspeakable crimes, and there are plenty of problems in America currently. Issues in Japan are not worse than issues in the United States simply because I am not as familiar with them, and I recognize that fact. At the same time, I think that in order to be a “critical tourist” as our guest speaker Ryoko Nishijima and Professor Kurashige have instructed us to do, it is necessary to take the good with the bad, and to not let Japan’s wonders blind me from being able to see its problems.

It is not enough to just make observations about Japan; my goal for the next two weeks is to contextualize my experiences within Japan’s political and historical landscape. With all of that being said, I have loved Japan thus far. I love that Japan is so pedestrian friendly. Los Angeles could learn a lot from Tokyo. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my first couple days in Japan is find places to throw away my trash in public.

"Pedestrian Paradise" in Akihabara.

Pedestrian Paradise” in Akihabara.

Luckily, I’ve been able to get by on the 10 or so Japanese phrases I know. Most Japanese workers know enough English, even if only a few words, to bridge the language gap. Something that has surprised me is I have not yet met or spoken with any Chinese people (that I know of). This is surprising to me considering our Teaching Assistant Yu “Toku” Tokunaga taught us that Chinese immigrants make up the largest foreign population in Japan. I have probably interacted with Chinese workers without recognizing that they were Chinese, but I have not noticed their influence on Japanese society. In comparison, Koreans are a smaller foreign population as far as nationality is concerned, yet their influence can be seen with the popularity of Korean culture and a large number of descendants of Korean immigrants live in Japan.

Japan has exploited Chinese labor through “trainee” programs, which claim to prepare Chinese workers for jobs but in reality just contract out minimum wage work. These programs are three-year contracts, at the end of which Chinese workers must leave Japan and return to China, often with no better skills than the ones they entered Japan with. For example, Toku once interviewed a Chinese trainee who wanted to become a tour guide but her work consisted of inspecting computer chips for several hours every day. At least from what I have observed so far, the Chinese immigrants who work low wage jobs seem to function as an invisible minority in Japan, particularly because many factory jobs are located in rural areas, out of sight from Japan’s metropolitan areas. Even though there are Chinese people who do work in visible places, like convenience stores, I have been unable to find “Chinese” elements in Japanese society other than kanji, Chinese written characters that are used in the Japanese written language.

I hope to speak more with scholars from Meiji University in the next week to get a better understanding of how Chinese workers function in Japanese society.

Old versus New

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:29 am

By: Ye Sol Shin

On Sunday, May 31st, we visited the shrines of Asakusa as well as the busy streets of Akihabara. There was a stark contrast between the two locations, in terms of the buildings, people, and more. However, both Asakusa and Akihabara make up critical components of the foreign, or “western” perception of Japanese culture. Asakusa is a district in Tokyo that is considered an “old town” part of the city. We saw very elaborate and traditional temples, including the Sensoji temple, which is a very famous Buddhist temple built in the seventh century. Asakusa was swarmed with tourists, specifically foreign Asian tourists from China. We also walked down a famous street for shopping called Nakamise, which sold many traditional souvenir-type goods and Japanese snacks. Many tourists were popping in and out of the vendors’ stores throughout Nakamise, and buying things like traditional Japanese fans, katana swords, and good luck charms. It was amusing to see how at the food vendors stalls that sold small Japanese snacks, tourists were touching and grabbing at different snacks, even though there was clearly a sign that said “Please do not touch, the shopkeeper will attend to you.” However, even when the shopkeeper saw the tourists grabbing at the snacks, he did not show anger but rather politely asked them to stop doing so with a worried expression on his face. I felt like David Mura from his memoir Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, in which he felt embarrassed for his wife when she was talking loudly in the subway train in Tokyo. Because I am a Korean American and can be easily associated as an Asian tourist visiting Japan; I felt almost ashamed to see other fellow tourists act rudely in front of Japanese shopkeepers. While we were in Asakusa, we saw a traditional Shinto wedding take place at one of the temples; it was so interesting to see this quiet, ceremonial ritual take place and then look outside the temple to see the hoards of people walking about and yelling at each other. To me, the Shinto wedding taking place in a hugely popular “touristy” attraction in Tokyo validates the fact that traditions and Japanese culture still prevails in a newly globalized Japan where technology and tourism play such an integral part of society. While the Japanese have embraced technology and tourism into their everyday lives, this does not mean that they have completely changed into a western society, or else the bride and groom would be wearing the traditional wedding dress and tuxedo, not traditional Japanese ceremonial clothing.

Sensoji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa

Sensoji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa

Busy streets of Asakusa

Busy streets of Asakusa

 

The traditional architecture in Asakusa was completely different from the tall buildings in Akihabara. The LED signs on the buildings of Akihabara were hard to turn away from – they were everywhere and all displayed different things, such as maid cafes, anime, and more. Akihabara was a colorful and chaotic jumble of people walking quickly around you. While the same sort of organized chaos existed in Asakusa, the difference was that most of the people at Akihabara looked like average Japanese locals. Akihabara may be a tourist attraction for foreigners, but it’s also a place for Japanese locals to hang out and shop. The goods that were sold at Akihabara were also completely different – instead of traditional Japanese souvenirs, Akihabara sold electronic merchandise at every corner. There was one particular electronic goods vendor that stuck out to me in Akihabara – there was a shopkeeper in front of his shop unloading batteries into a box in front of his shop. What was interesting was that people literally surrounded the shopkeeper and watched him unload the batteries, visually picking out which ones they wanted to buy after he was done. This kind of behavior was completely different from the behavior I saw from the tourists in Asakusa – each person was patiently waiting to buy a pack of batteries in an overcrowded street. At Akihabara, I was looking for things to purchase that I could “only buy from Japan,” such as small trinkets and souvenirs. Again, I felt a connection to David Mura, who also observed the “commercial mecca” (Mura Kindle 253) of Japan but did not feel a need to eagerly buy goods. Mura states, “the commercials on the TV screens, the ads in the magazines, on the billboards, were not designed for my desires or my American ego” (Mura Kindle 253). I felt exactly the same way. While everything looked fascinating, shiny, and new, I did not have any urge to purchase the goods and rather observed the Japanese consume around me. The maid café in Akihabara was also an entirely foreign experience for me and other USC students who went together. Again, while I found it fascinating to see Japanese locals come in and order elaborate parfaits and purchase services from maids dressed up in French maid costumes, I felt no desire to purchase the same goods or services. The 1,000 yen I gave up to go into the maid café wasn’t entirely a waste, but that one experience at the maid café was enough for a lifetime. While it is easy to think critically of the Japanese for liking and paying money for services that may seem to be derived from a fetish, my TA gave me an interesting explanation for why these types of services exist. Many Japanese “otaku” men who came to Tokyo from a smaller town or village may have never been able to share their love for anime with other people around them. The maid café was like a haven for these men who could enjoy the anime “maid” culture, interact with others who are interested in the same things, and overall have a fun time. Like Mura, I felt “disburdened” (Mura Kindle 253) by the fact that I don’t necessarily need to understand the totality of Japanese culture in order to immerse myself in the culture or have a fulfilling time.

Akihabara

Akihabara

Our maid asked us to pose like a kawai neko (cute cat)

Our maid asked us to pose like a kawai neko (cute cat)

In general, it was fascinating to see two entirely different parts of Tokyo. The Japanese really do a good job of integrating new into the old; even though it seems that the Japanese are obsessed with “new” and shiny things, that is not necessarily true. The consumer culture of Japan most definitely “attested to the Japanese fascination with newness” (Mura Kindle 253) and beautiful objects. However, the Japanese do not “equate beauty with frivolity” (Mura Kindle 253). The Japanese are eager and admire the fact that their country has invented and come up with beautiful and technological advanced products, but there is still an appreciation for the beauty of traditional rituals, such as the Shinto wedding that happened in Asakusa. Japanese consumerism can be portrayed as a successful capitalistic economy, but it also has deeply rooted cultural meanings that I plan on exploring more throughout the rest of the trip.

May 30th, 2015: Arising New Questions

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 9:20 am

By: Jennie Lam

On only our second day in Japan, we were fortunate enough to have a free day. With such freedom there was so many things to do and see that I couldn’t decide where to begin. In addition, I felt I had to pick a place or activity that related to my research of exploring the Japanese’s perception on Chinese food as well as the contribution of the dominant culture on the current adaptations of the foods. I stopped myself from becoming overwhelmed and decided to start simple and get some breakfast down in the lobby of Sakura Hotel in Jimbocho. While I drank my tea, I decided to temporarily ignore my responsibilities as a student and allowed the traveler in me to take over. I thought about where I wanted to go most and remembered that there was a small town in Tokyo that I had seen pictures of, that fascinated me. It had lots of trees and some interesting old fashioned looking shops and homes. It was the “perfect” little neighborhood that I could walk around and just enjoy the balance of nature and civilization that Japan is well known for.

 

Walking up the street of Shimokitazawa

Walking up the street of Shimokitazawa

I took the train to Shimokitazawa with a few of my fellow classmates and found something I wasn’t expecting. The town was more western than it appeared in the pictures I had seen. There were even more western styled restaurants than Japanese style. It turned out to be a mini hipster shopping town. Despite that, I didn’t want to dwell on my drop in excitement and came to a conclusion to make the most of it and walked around anyways. There was still the hint of the harmony between civilization and nature, which eased my slight disappointment. During my walk, I spotted another Family Mart, the fifth I’ve seen since arriving in the country. I thought to myself that it must be a big chain convenience store in Japan, and ended up going in to get a small snack.

 

Drink aisle in Family Mart

Drink aisle in Family Mart

While looking around, I realized that there weren’t that many Chinese products besides instant ramen. To my knowledge convenience stores are on an exponential rise in popularity among the youth in Asia, especially in Japan. I’ve also noticed that all those stores sell pretty much the same things, which shows what products are most popular among the Japanese and reflects their tastes in food. This leads me to wonder whether or not the Japanese enjoy Chinese food. Why aren’t there a lot of Chinese food products sold in convenience stores? Does preference really have that much of an influence or is it just because this is Japan and there should naturally be a dominance of native food. What are the Japanese’s opinions on this lack of Chinese foods in convenience stores and why do they think that is? Or perhaps Chinese and Japanese foods aren’t that different and there is a blend of both that isn’t that noticeable to them yet. These are all questions I plan to address in my future excursions.

June 1, 2015

Can’t Speak Japanese? No Problem!

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo,Travel — geajapan @ 3:00 pm

By: Luis Vidalon-Suzuki

The day had finally come! We would finally be leaving Los Angeles to travel to the fascinating and unfamiliar country of Japan. Most of us did not sleep a wink the night before, yet we all remained wide awake due to the excitement of the adventure to come. In the airport, we navigated around the busy foot traffic of tired travelers and found our way to our gate. Witnessing the diversity of the individuals in the terminal, I recalled Ms. Ryoko Nishijima’s presentation about critical tourism. As gaijin (foreigners), we needed to accept the Japanese culture while simultaneously analyzing, diagnosing, and criticizing certain aspects of Japanese culture in an objective manner. Each one of us students would begin observing how globalization has affected the romanticized country.

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Before our eleven-hour flight, we all forced a smile on our painfully tired faces in our terminal at LAX.

After a long eleven-hour flight, we exited our plane enthusiastically, realizing that we were walking on the other side of the globe. Noticing the Japanese characters on the signs, there was no doubt that we were no longer in the Western Hemisphere! But Japanese was not the only language written on the walls. Alas, an astonishing amount of English translations were conveniently placed next to the Japanese to make it easier for non-Japanese speakers to take in the information. Even though the English language had permeated the Japanese language and culture, the most shocking moment came when we went to the train station. The very first business that we saw was Starbucks Coffee! Interestingly, our initial encounter with a business in the Japanese station was with a foreign company. And this encounter was not exclusive to Starbucks; when we arrived to Tokyo, we were bombarded by signs advertising H&M, McDonald’s, and Louis Vuitton. Before we even arrived at the Sakura Hotel in Jimbocho, it became apparent that Western influence and language had made a deep mark on the Eastern culture. In fact, it had been ingrained and intertwined into everyday life, making the English language a powerful apparatus within Japanese society.

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As we eat our first meal in Japan at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, it is easy to recognize the English menu provided by the workers. This seems just one example of how Japanese society has acclimated to Westernization.

English has clearly made a mark here in Japan. Becoming a seemingly significant part of the culture, I wonder how the intrusiveness of the Western language affected other parts of daily life. In this trip, I am researching how Westernization of Japan has developed curriculum so that English seems like a necessary and beneficial subject to teach in the public education system. As a foreign language, it is fascinating how English has become an integral part of Japanese society; even something as simple as writing romaji on the billboards subtly coerces each person who reads it. As a critical tourist, it is imperative that I continue to observe language in this manner throughout my time in Japan. Realizing the subtle importance of certain factors is imperative to developing thought-provoking discourse about the alterations to the Japanese language. As a personal goal, I intend to go about each day examining the culture while simultaneously enjoying my invaluable time in this new country. I cannot wait to see how each one of us will develop in regards to personal growth and academic progressions in the next two weeks!

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Here we are trying to look pretty next to Miss Universe Japan, who we spotted in LAX. As a half-black and half-Japanese woman, her coronation as Miss Japan sparked intense controversy about race and what it means to be Japanese. She is a walking example of how foreign influences have affected Japanese culture.

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