Sunday, January 3, 2010

Japan in Retrospect

Tokyo was amazing.  We loved every moment of our trip.  One thing we talked a lot about is how our perception of Tokyo might be vastly different than that of other Westerners.  Because we came from Korea, Tokyo felt very Western to us.  For some people that might ruin the experience and leave them with the feeling that their trip was inauthentic.  But, for us, it gave us the opportunity to visit another culture, one in some ways like Korea and in others very like America.  I won't say we don't see any downsides to industrialization and Westernization (or Americanization, which may be a better way to put it), but it's difficult to be disapointed in Japan's Western qualities when the nation has been embracing elements like open trading and capitalism since the Meiji period.  Of course, Japan is still it's own culture and we tried to experience that as organically as possible in less than a week.  We went to anime shops, ate Indian food in the Harajuku district and ate sushi in a cloud of cigarette smoke near some Japanese salarymen having a very passionate discussion.  We scarfed down tempura while people waited in line to come into the shop and we went into 100 yen stores to see what was there.  We were lucky to stay in a district less visited by Westerners, but no one stared at us or acted confused during our interactions with them.

That was the main difference we found in Japan.  The people.  While Korean's are very friendly, everything feels phony here.  The nation is very conscious about how it conducts itself that the mentality bleeds right into its people.  South Korea wants desperately to be a world power, but it has some strange notions about who it needs to be to get there.  If Japan is middle aged person (feeling comfortable in their own skin, but open to new ideas) then South Korea is its awkward teenage sibling (trying on personalities until something fits and works).  It's very difficult to explain and I'm not studied enough in Sociology, History, or Anthropology to feel comfortable really diving in and analyzing this.  But, I can tell you that the structure of feeling (the "feeling" that a culture has which is made up of its memories and shared experiences) in Korea is still so isolated and isolating that we've been here four months and we don't think we'll ever be a part of it, but we spent six nights in Japan and felt as though we could easily be absorbed.  Now, admittedly, this could come from how much more Japan has in common with the U.S. than Korea does, but I never once felt judged or alienated in that country.  I never felt like I was a burden and while everyone always helped us when we asked, it never felt like a false transaction of kindness, as it tends to here.

Only one person stared at us.  A little girl (around 12, maybe) in line for coconut ice cream in Disneyland could barely keep her mouth shut.  And her gaze was one of awe and interest, rather than of confusion and judgment.  On a somewhat side note, living as minorities has changed our perceptions of the world.  And not all for the better.  Though it's mostly in jest, we tend to assume that our race is always accounted for in dealing with people.  That person didn't hold the elevator?  It's probably because we're white.  Your students didn't show you any respect?  It's probably because you're white.  It's difficult not to do.  But, in Japan, there wasn't any of that.  Granted, we spent the large majority of the trip in the capital city, but we've been to Seoul numerous times and while it's more Western and convenient than Jecheon, it still packs the same alienation.

The one time we did leave the city (other than for Disneyland) was to go see Mt. Fuji.  That adventure did not go as planned.  It wasn't a great decision in the first place, but I really wanted to see it.  The weather was clear, but freezing and we didn't realize that transportation would be so expensive and time consuming.  Log story short, we made it to one bus stop before the recommended station for viewing and got of the train under the impression that we need to transfer.  We didn't.  We should have stayed on the one we were originally on.  So, three missed trains later, we decided to pack it in and go home.  No one's fault but our own.  We got a couple good pictures, though.  My advice is that if Fuji-san is important to you, visit Japan in any season but winter.  The stop that we accidentally stayed at for an hour and a half (we kept missing trains and making poor decisions) was in the country.  The station had a little mall and the whole thing was a lot more reminiscent of Korea than anything else we'd seen in Japan.  But, the people were not like small town Korean people.  The teenagers in the mall never gave us a second thought and the station manager pitied our stupidity, but never showed an ounce of judgement.

An innovative bottle/can of coke from one of the vending machines at a station stop on our way to see Fuji-san.

Fuji-san with some fog.

Proof that we were there.  Standing on a train platform.  Travel is not so glamorous.

Fuji-san is very symmetrical.

We saw Fuji-san on New Year's Eve day.  But, after missing our train(s), it turned into night.  It was a full moon.

Other than the general mental and emotional atmosphere of Japan, we did notice one very specific difference.  Sex is a big part of the culture there and there seems to be less stigma.  Granted, I'm not so sure I think Hentai with graphic covers and toys and comics for kids should be two feet from each other in the same stores.  But, in anime there is a very fine line between what's appropriate for children and what's intended for adults and anime is a huge part of Japanese culture.  We didn't take any pictures because I didn't think they'd be appropriate to post and I figured a simple Google search would give you any necessary visuals.

I know that I've been very broad and that I've spoken in generalities, but that's what we gleamed from our short stay in Japan.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.  I'll be happy to answer them, as I can't ever remember everything myself.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.  Tomorrow it's back to the daily grind for us!  Good night!


  1. What a awesome trip. Too bad your Fugi-san trip had its issues, but it keeps it real.
    I think that the United States has some real unhealthy views on sexuality. Such as the notion that the human body unclothed should never be viewed outside the confines of bedrooms, and is viewed as dirty in our culture. Women are persecuted for feeding their babies in public for petes sake. No other country (that I am aware of) view the female breast as a sexual object. Anyway I could go on and on but I won't. Kudos to Japan and Europe for evolving in that area

  2. I forgot to ask , on New Years Eve, what were the planks of wood with Japanese writing on them that were being burned in the fire?

  3. I actually have no idea about the wood in the fires. Obviously, they have some significance, but I don't know what it is. My Google searching hasn't yielded anything, but maybe if you tried you'd find something.

    As for Japan's stance on sexuality, it DEFINITELY still has it's problems. While the human body may not be seen as dirty, a woman's body is still always overtly sexual. Girls are sexualized at a very young age (prepubescent) and girls=sex has become a social norm for Japan. You should see some of their school uniforms. I mean, I understand that some girls like their skirts to be 2" long, but these tiny things are sanctioned by school officials. It's pretty intense.

  4. Oh, dang on the transport issues to Mt. Fuji. That would have been a spectacular way to end your trip.

    While I agree that our own culture is way too puritanical when it comes to exposing our bodies, I think the Japanese are in the throes of societal pedophilia. Creepy. And, while breast-feeding and exposing breasts at the beach is definitely more accepted in Europe, that doesn't mean that breasts aren't sexualized. Just google for photos taken by European photographers of Bridget Bardot or Gina Lollabridgida. Anyway, enough of that...

    I'm really having a hard time reconciling the attitudes you're experiencing with what I experienced. As you said yourself, you are making assumptions. But if it has changed that much for the worse, it makes me sad.

    Well, I hope you returned refreshed and that Julia is starting the new year off in a better mood!

  5. Oh! Love the coke bottle/can.

  6. I think that our differences in experience can largely be boiled down to the difference of visiting a nation as a tourist and living and working within a society. Granted, we only visited Japan as tourists, so I understand that there are some holes in our conclusions. But, to (again) be a bit too cut and dry about things, foreigners are still barely welcome in Korea. We are seen merely as tools. They care about us only as far as it effects their bottom line (to be clear I mean this on a personal level and not in the obvious business realm where you'd expect it), and we are not alone in our feelings and it is not only those within our profession that feel alienated. Foreigners are criminal disease carriers at worst and simpletons at best. No country is perfect (or anywhere close), but when bus drivers pass you because there aren't any Koreans at your stop there is a problem. We don't wish libel South Korea in any way and we don't want our readers to see us as whiners, but we must be honest about our experiences. We still believe that this country is a worthwhile place to visit, but a year is a long time to live in a culture that does not fit you.