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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2011-04-17 Cherry Blossoms

Somehow, the last bit of spring break, the first week of spring semester classes at Doshisha, and the prettiest season in Kyoto have all come and gone before I’ve had the leisure to collect my thoughts to write a journal!

At the tail-end of the break, fellow Japanese major Ariel came down from Aoyama in Tokyo to visit the Kansai area. We met up in Kyoto and then traveled together to Hiroshima. It's a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains and built out on a large river delta. We spent a rainy day at the Peace Memorial Park. An elderly survivor there was folding origami cranes and, seemingly delighted with my Japanese, gave me one, probably the best omiyage (souvenir) I have ever received. The next day under brilliant weather we went to Miyajima island, and I quickly fell in love with its gorgeous “floating” shrine, half-tame deer, delicious oysters, and amazing views from the top of Mt. Misen. We also crossed the line from being typical foreign tourists to typical Japanese tourists: we visited an onsen (public mineral bath) every evening, and information on those was only in Japanese! Talking and laughing hisashiburi ni (after a long time) with Ariel was a lovely break; I caught myself from time to time thinking, “I haven’t thought a bit about the earthquake all afternoon; I’ve been able to laugh again!”

After the tensions surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plants has subsided somewhat, the initial shock has worn off as well. Life goes on, but so do the needs and the suffering. The real work, the clean-up and rebuilding, is just beginning in the affected areas. I have to be impressed with the response of Japanese Christians. My pastor drives weekly all the way to Fukushima to deliver donated gasoline, water, and food to small communities close to the plants, where government aid workers refuse to go—and gets back to Kyoto in time to preach the sermon on Sundays. I wonder when he rests! It’s people like him who keep this country strong, I thought.

Last weekend the sakura (cherry blossoms) bloomed. The Japanese really do love their most iconic flower and the trees are planted everywhere—even our quiet little lane, lined with sakura, became lively and crowded with Japanese tourists out to look at the flowers on the weekend they were mankai (in full bloom). The prettiest days though were when the blossoms began to fall. It’s a typical scene in many a sappy Japanese drama, but there really is something romantic about being enveloped in a gentle “snowstorm” of whirling petals, and brushing one or two out of your friend’s hair. But it is true I have never been so glad for the stock of allergy medication I brought from home—the pollen has been really bad!

Sakura in Japan are a sign of rebirth, the swift passage of time, and the new academic year. Classes began last week and it’s not been easy after 2 months of pure laziness to adjust to waking up early, making obento, and doing homework, but I am glad to get back to studying intensively. Campus is full of new faces this semester; many close friends in the dorm left and new students have moved in, and socially I’m having to start from scratch again. At church and in the circle (club) I’ve joined on campus the novelty of a gaikokujin in the group has worn off and I often get left out of conversations if I don’t actively speak up. I am trying to be less of “the exchange student” and contribute a bit: planning and inviting Japanese friends to events instead of always being the invited one, and doing my best to “read the air” (the unspoken guide to Japanese social interactions), for example. All are small changes that make me think I’m finally adjusted to living here.

On a related note, recently I had to submit my mid-term report for the Boren scholarship I received last year. One question was: "What are some ways you’ve had to adjust culturally?" I was stumped; I couldn’t think of anything! True, I’m living in a dorm and not with a host family, so I can cook and clean as I please without having to adjust to someone else’s lifestyle. At first I could only think of small things. I walk on the left sides of sidewalks. I keep quiet on public transportation. I don’t blow my nose in public. I eat Japanese food with chopsticks. I eschew the casual dressing habits of the typical American college student. I take off my shoes on entering my room. I can satisfy a carb-craving with rice instead of bread. I don’t sit cross-legged, wear sunglasses, or hang out with boys. But those are nearly all things I did at home anyway! Also in America I’m too quiet and shy, but here in Japan those are virtues. It’s very nice to find a foreign culture, usually something strange and incomprehensible, actually suits one’s personality somehow. I’ve been told I’m “nihonjin rashii” (just like a Japanese) many times—flattery, since I know at my core I’m unchangeably American, but it makes me think maybe living here long-term isn’t such a crazy idea after all. Of course there are things about Japanese culture I don’t like: the hierarchical or group pressuring that takes no regard of the target’s feelings, the way individual identity depends so heavily on group memberships (this can be a very nice thing, though!), and on a rather funny note the appalling lack of gentlemanly behavior among the Japanese male population. There are also things I don’t notice or forget to do until too late, like thanking someone for something they did for me again the next time we meet, even if it is weeks later!

I do have a feeling going back home in just over 4 months will be a bit of a reverse culture shock. The sakura, so beautiful and yet over too soon, reminded me of how quickly this year really has flown by. The idea of going home is still arienai (unbelievable) but that day in August I know will come all too soon! All I have to do is use the time that is left in this final semester jouzu ni (well)!

~Leah Sedy

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