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Archive for the ‘ Learning ’ Category

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Japanese Names

I have an embarrassing admission. It took far too long for several sources to explain to me what is up with Japanese names. Names are one of a handful of cultural issues I readily acknowledged as being different than my Western tradition before I began preparing for my trip here, but, it took me some time asking questions here in Japan before I developed an understanding, so I thought it might be worthwhile to try explain what I’ve learned, if only to hasten my comprehension.

Alright, well, we all have this vague understanding that given names come after family names in Japan, making our contemporary American conception of “first” name fairly meaningless and confusing. Moreover, the family name taking its place in the front of a person’s name is a firmly Asian tradition, from China to Indonesia to most Middle Eastern countries of which I can speak.

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Have I mentioned enough how rare my opportunity is here? I have probably shown time and time again that, unlike most people, I don’t believe even what I think. I believe through research and comforting, warming numbers, a hollow pursuit that inevitably leaves me questioning how reliable any statistic I find may be anyway. Everyone knows what old Mr. Twain said; to paraphrase: there are three types of lies, a regular lie, a boldfaced lie, and statistics.

Still, I have nothing else, so, it is just that which I bring you. The clearest way for me to convey how outrageous that it is that I am studying in Japan is to first remind you how fortunate I am to even be pursuing education after my high school graduation. I shared my childhood with a handful of friends who didn’t go, went but dropped out of, or haven’t yet gone to a college, four-year or otherwise. I also have friends who had the money, the family stability, the desire, and the maturity to start and continue an education. I guess most of my closest friends are in the latter group, making my experience an incredibly inaccurate portrayal of American life. I fear that too many people who did get the chance to or be around those that did acquire a Bachelor’s degree don’t realize how relatively uncommon graduating a four-year university is.

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The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has been on a speaking tour through Japan this past week. He was engaged in Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the west, where he said, “Buddhism is a science of the mind,” and then moved through Hiroshima, where he added his own appeals for nuclear abolition. On Friday, November 10, he was in Tokyo. On that day, somewhere in Shinjuku, just an hour or so by bicycle away from me, was the fourteenth in a successive lineage that is traced back to the 14th century of Buddhism’s highest spiritual leader.

More than 70 years old, the current Dalai Lama, “spiritual teacher,” is Tenzin Gyatso. He is known the world over and in the West, he is always associated with peace, spirituality and tradition. However, that tradition, like so many, has come crashing into the political world.

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t is Thanksgiving in the United States, isn’t it? I suppose that means no one is likely to read this, but I’ll write it anyway. Here in Japan, Thanksgiving is even less recognized than Halloween, which is only seen with some scattered store displays and small celebrations by Westerners here in Tokyo.

Sometime between late September and early November in 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is now known as the first Thanksgiving, though it didn’t become an annual event and wasn’t even called a thanksgiving, which would have been considered a religious, not a celebratory event. It is just that needless information that I have crammed in my mind that should have told me that this time of the year was a foolish one to be away from the country I love.

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Sempai and Kouhai

Here is another quick Japanese culture lesson for you. If you know someone who grew up in the country, ask his him who his sempai and kouhai are. Almost without question, he will have an answer.

[sem-PIE] and [co-HIGH]

Japan is, people like to say, a country of obedience and community, without the independence of the West. One of the clearest examples of this, and one of best ways this structure is passed on is through this mentor-like system. While it might refer to seniority in a business or some organization, most usually every person grew up under the tutelage of someone just older, his sempai [sem-PIE]. It is the responsibility of the sempai to guide and advise his younger half, his kouhai [co-HIGH], the best he can. In return, it is generally understood that the kouhai must respect and follow his sempai. Just a few days ago I went out to a bar with a group of Japanese college students I had befriended. While, I believe, it more common to find a group of American friends all similarly aged, the sempai/kouhai dynamic changes things.

I was there, drinking Suntory and eating tonkatsu and fried potatoes with the group’s grand sempai, a 33-year-old, whose kouhai was 26-years-old, who was sempai to a 25-year-old, who was sempai to a 23-year-old, who was sempai to a 22-year-old, who was sempai to a 21-year-old, who was sempai to a 15-year-old. If they got into arguments, the sempai would always make the peace, and there was a genuine respect for one’s sempai. Granted, normal social skills skew the presence. The 22-year-old was clearly the most popular, most athletic and most out-going of the group, but he knew his place and didn’t question it. It is this, the sempai and kouhai system that might be one of the clearest ways to describe how much of Japanese society is structured and remains. It is surprisingly refreshing to find such a tradition still so active.

Jaa ne,

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Know Your Enemy

The usual lecture of my thrice-weekly Modern Japanese History class was interrupted the other day. My professor decided he would share with us a slice of the World War II era American perceptions of Japanese society.

Enmeshed in brutal and racially-infused Pacific-based war with the Japanese, the American government took to one of the great political tools, one that hit its most flagrant peak in the twentieth century: propaganda.

Towards the end of 1944, the U.S. government contracted famed director Frank Capra to put together a film that could introduce the American people to the Japanese, who, at the time, were even less known and understood to most Americans than they are now.

The result was “Know Your Enemy,” a 63 minute collection of Japanese newsreels and U.S. military films narrated by American actor John Huston, leaving the audience with nuanced half-truths, implicating assumptions and poorly researched declarations leading my Japanese classmates to wild laughter. The Japanese were involved in similarly heinous anti-American, self-aggrandizing racial superiority, but it always stings a bit to see the foolishness of U.S. mistakes of the past.

Watching the film made by Capra, yes, the Frank Capra that directed It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was fairly troubling. Probably for the best, in the end, the film was not released in American movie theaters, as, upon completion, the war was in its final stages and Capra’s negative portrayal of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito did not fit the U.S. military’s decision to offer Hirohito clemency from war crimes.

It was, in the end, released as an academic tool and acknowledgement of past foolishness, excused by wartime, but it certainly made me, as so much can, think about the Truth, yes, Truth, in the information I find and news I absorb. For anyone who has followed my writing, you know that is often impenetrable, stuffed with facts and figures, historical data and future projections. I try to imagine being an American moviegoer in the 1940s and deciding to see Capra’s “Know Your Enemy.” In the end I would watch an hour of innocuous video, altered by the constant narration labeling the Japanese people as “sinister” and hopeless in their “obedience for their emperor’s command.”

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The Bento

I was left trying to make a comparison yesterday. It is moments like that, when I feel more versed in something Japanese than its American counterpart, that I feel I have been in Japan for too long.

The Bento. It might be best translated as a ‘boxed lunch,’ but boxed lunches in the United States died generations ago. They are so common that I have become so familiar with their name and their use, that I have neglected to ever mention them.

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The Forgotten Japanese

Japan is for the Japanese, no?

When I interviewed Donald Richie for my fourth episode, he described Tokyo as being one of the world’s most diverse cities. Clearly, the capital of Japan is one of the world’s largest, bringing business, political, entertainment and social group members together from around the world. But, what about the country as a whole?

According to CIA statistics, Japanese territory is peopled by a population of 127 million, 99 percent of whom are ethnically Japanese. Is there diversity in that?

Well, there are certainly subsets of that group with personal distinctions.

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Government Buildings

It was a beautiful day yesterday. As winter creeps in on Tokyo I thought it was an obligation of mine to do something with it. Newton, the bicycle, and I took a tour of the governmental heart of Tokyo. I occured to me that I couldn’t live in Japan’s capital for four months and not see its political home. I rode an hour or so to the Chiyoda city of Tokyo, not far from the Imperial palace, and found myself where Japanese diplomacy is done.

Chiefly, Chiyoda is home to the National Diet Building: the country’s legislative arm, Japan’s Congress.
Japan’s bicameral legislature is not only responsible for day to day policy, but also for electing the country’s prime minister, currently Shinzo Abe (Think the in-power Congressional party electing the American President).

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Japanese Addresses

Here is something else to be learned about Japan. Addresses are done a bit differently than they are in the United States. See, except for major roads, the streets of Japan are not named.

Instead, the 47 prefectures of Japan (think, states) are divided into cities and towns (Tokyo has 23), which are then subdivided into neighborhoods and blocks. I will use the address of my school as an example.

2-8-12 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku
Tokyo 106-0047, Japan

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