So it’s finally that time: In 12 days, I’ll be leaving Japan! Time has passed so quickly that I hardly feel like I’m qualified to make a post about my changing impressions of Japan. I think I would need to be here for ten years, at least, before I could really get a full grasp on what it is to be Japanese. However, within the scope of my limited stay here, I can definitely say I have learned a ton about Japan and Japanese culture.

Looking back on my first post about power lines, I can’t really say my views there have changed much. I still think there are a crazy amount of power lines here in Japan. But, if I had to pick the one thing that’s changed the most for me, I would say it would be my view on how the rest of the world views Japan.

This is a photo I took when I first came to Japan. Though I came to Japan to study, of course, every weekend I was out playing the tourist. Who wouldn’t be, in an interesting place like Kansai? But looking back at the photos I took, I realize that they’re exactly what people would expect of travel photos from Japan: Temples, shrines, women in kimono, beautiful nature scenes, and so on. Even though from the very start of my trip I began to see the way Japan actually exists, my photos show how much I was influenced by etic perspectives.

Fortunately, due in no small part to my Visual Anthropology class, I soon began to see Japan for what it actually is: A country full of individuals, just like any other country. Yes, there are unique cultural elements that are native only to Japan, but these things are only a small part of the stuff that makes up the whole of what it is to be Japanese. So for my last photo, I present this one:

This photo is “generic,” just like my first one, but the important thing here is that you can’t tell this comes from Japan. It does, but that’s not the point. This same photo could be taken from anywhere in the world. For me, my real changed impression on Japan is just that: Though this country offers some amazing and unique things that you can’t find anywhere else, it also is very similar to what I’m used to. Things like culture and tradition are transcended by everyday interactions between people. So while a lot of the rest of the world still views Japan like this, and though there is of course a kernel of truth in it, I hope that what I take away from Japan is a more open-minded viewpoint on foreign countries in general.

Thank you, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog!

This week’s post concerns the topics of politics and conflict in Japan. I decided to interpret this theme in a broad sense, and so this post is going to be about the conflict is approached, both in ancient and modern Japan.

When discussing conflict in Japan, it is valid to point out that Japan has been a country of conflict for centuries. From  internal strife to being involved in world wars, Japan has seen its share of struggles. One can look at how ancient Japan approached warfare and see that this country has been dealing with conflict for a very, very long time. Take one of Japan’s most famous castles, Himeji-jo, located in Hyogo Prefecture:

Himeji-jo is a perfect example of how Japan used to deal with conflict. With myriads of warring clans and factions all vying for power, having a massively defensible fortress like Himeji-jo under one’s sway could cement victory almost flawlessly. In fact, though Himeji-jo is outfitted to the teeth with battle defenses, the castle itself has never been besieged. Defense upon defense, from the labyrinthine pathways to the castle to the hundreds of holes which soldiers could shoot through, proved to be so imposing that no one ever tried to attack the castle. [1] In the ancient days of Japan, when the most conflict arose over land ownership and local areas of influence, the Japanese had defending themselves in such conflicts down to an art.

However, today, one can see the radical shift that’s been made regarding major conflict in Japan. Gone are the days of major battles over land rights: In modern times, some of the biggest conflicts happen right next door to places like Himeji-jo, but these battles are fought in high-rise skyscrapers and via the internet.

Conflict today deals with international relations and business endeavors. Yet, one can seen how those ancient concepts of dealing with conflict persist in the modern realm. Japan is still seen by some as a fighting nation, and one that it’s not even worth it to do battle with: Japan is second only to the US in GNP for 2009 [2], and though there is much talk of the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, there are already hundreds of proposed solutions to these issues. Even though there has been a great change in the conflicts faced by Japan, the Japanese approach to solving these conflicts has not seem much change over the centuries.

Next time, Changing Impressions of Japan!

Today’s post theme is up to us, so I choose to continue discussing religion in Japan! Last time, I talked about religious syncretism within Japanese society. Now, I wanted to talk about the concept of sacred versus profane, and how it effects religious practices in Japan.

As I have explored numerous temples and shrines during my stay in Japan, I feel like I have gained a deeper insight into the duality of Japanese religion. Like I covered in my last post, there is a two-sided relationship between Shinto and Buddhist practices in Japanese culture. It could be argued that Japan’s combination of Shinto and Buddhism itself is an example of sacred versus secular: Shinto, as a religion, covers the secular daily life of Japanese people, while strictly sacred rituals are usually relegated to Buddhism.

Via the same token, religion in Japan in general presents a very different view from most Western cultures on what is considered sacred. Take my first photo:

This is one of the countless smaller shrines contained within the Fushimi Inari complex in Kyoto. To a Westerner, actions like folding dozens of small paper cranes or leaving unwrapped food in a “holy” space would seem very strange, not only because they are different religious rituals, but because they seem like such every-day actions. But to the Japanese, there is a religious lesson to be learned in every action, and even the most mundane activities can serve a higher purpose. This is the reason for a more flexible definition of what is sacred and profane within Japanese religion.

Of course, a hallmark of nearly all religion is the marked difference between what is considered sacred and profane, and Japanese religion is no different in categorizing these differences. However, while in the West much of the boundary between these ideas is based on personal action, in Japan, the boundary is more commonly defined in actual, physical spaces. The torii found at every Shinto shrine are a great illustration of this idea of physical spaces being sacred:

Thought Shinto may not be exact about what actions are constituted as sacred or profane, they are very specific about what places and things are sacred, and these “gates” (also at Fushimi Inari) are a physical marker of these boundaries. Though the torii have no fence and no door, they still clearly signify that what is inside is different from the outside. They are a powerful symbol of the way that Japanese organize the world, associating the inner with the sacred and the outer with the profane. The “inner” is peaceful, spontaneous, healthy, natural, simple and good; the “outer” is troubled, dirty, chaotic, ill, false and bad. These ideas are, to me, what make Japanese spiritual concepts so interesting and different from Western religion.

Some ideas discussed are borrowed from this essay by Minoru Sonoda, and from this essay by Randall Nadeau.

Next time, Politics in Japan!

So this week, we’re discussing religion. This topic is HUGELY broad, but here, I wanted to talk about religious syncretism in Japan. First, can you tell me which of these buildings is a Shinto shrine, and which is a Buddhist temple?

Kiyomizu Temple - Copy

 

Yasaka Shrine

Unless you happen to be particularly skilled in Japanese and can read the sign, I’m going to guess that you probably can’t tell the difference. To clear up the question, the first picture is Kiyomizu Temple, and the second is Yasaka Shrine, both located in Kyoto. The point here is that Shinto and Buddhism have blurred so far into each other in Japan as to be nearly identical. Most Japanese people that claim a religion claim both of these, and don’t feel any conflict over owing allegiance to the two at once.  This blog post, which goes by that title, details some of the history of Shinto and Buddhist religious blending in Japan, as well as how Confucianism and Christianity have melted into the pot. Some of the more interesting points mention that Shinto was only named “Shinto”  in order to distinguish itself from Buddhism after its introduction, and that because Japan’s writing system originated with Chinese Buddhist missionaries, many words and ideas in Shinto came from Buddhism.

Though Shinto and Buddhism have become incredibly similar, there are still differences between the two religions. There’s a phrase that’s commonly used to describe this situation—people in Japan say that they are “Born Shinto, Die Buddhist.” Whereas Shinto focuses on activities of living, Buddhism was adapted in Japan to focus on activities involving death, and thus the two religions compliment each other. Shinto is concerned with the placation of kami (spirits), whereas Buddhism looked to personal salvation. Shinto is this-worldly, and Buddhism is other-worldly. Shinto sees death as defilement, whereas Buddhism sees it as central. Shinto takes care of the rites of passage through life, while Buddhism is associated with funerals. This complimentary dualism is what has allowed Shinto and Buddhism to coexists so peacefully in Japan.

Next week, free choice topic!

The theme of Gender in Japan is one that is near and dear to my heart. Aside from my lovely Visual Anthropology of Japan class, I am also taking a class called Onna to Otoko, which deals with gender and sexuality in Japanese culture. That made this particular post both easier and more difficult for me, since I’ve been studying the subject for over 2 months now. I could go on and on about a myriad of different gender issues in Japan, but the one I’ve decided to focus on is the predilection within Japanese culture to gender things that… really don’t need to be gendered.

For instance, check out these sponges. Yes, I’m making an entry about sponges:

DSCF1583Men’s and Women’s Sponges

These can be found in any local supermarket. The thing that makes them special, for me, is the fact that Japanese people feel the need to market them specifically for the different genders. Here’s the kicker: I forked over ¥200 just to see if I could tell a difference between these two products… and I can’t. They are, aside from color, exactly the same. So why do Japanese companies think that they can profit by marketing these products as gender-specific?

Well, from all of the readings I’ve done in my gender studies class, I would say that it’s because of Japanese society’s rather strictly-enforced gender norms. People who study sexism in Japan, like Endo or Kameda, could describe to you in detail the roles that men and women are relegated to (much more eloquently than I can). One of the main topics they propose is that “the gender differences we perceive are the products not of biological factors but, rather, the result of socialization and education that occur in the home, the school, and other institutions within society” (Kameda 107). Though I’ve now read countless papers that outline the reinforcement of gender norms though broad areas like language and religion, I would like to propose that exposure to small, everyday repetitions of said norms also help to reinforce stereotypes. Though, as I said, the sponges I bought turned out to be exactly the same, I’m sure when people buy them they have thoughts like “Oh, the women’s sponge must be softer, for delicate, feminine women” or “That man’s sponge must be rough and well-made to stand up to a man’s strength.” It’s concepts like these, reinforced though common items, that keep ideas of what’s onnarashii (womanly) or otokorashii (manly) firmly in place. Here’s another great example:

Men's PockyMen’s Pocky

Now, though there are countless (delicious) kinds of Pocky, the kind that is marketed as “Men’s” is advertised to be “not as sweet” and more mature than the other varieties. The idea behind this being, apparently, that masculine men don’t enjoy sweet “girly” candy. These sorts of ideologies saturate Japanese society—They’re practically impossible to escape from. Almost every children’s cartoon or mascot has a “girl” and a “boy” figure: A good example are the mascots of the Hanshin Tigers. (No offense aimed at the Tigers, of course.) The team has two mascots; a boy character and a girl character. In all the images I’ve seen of them, the boy is always playing baseball, while the girl is cheer-leading, praying for the team’s success, or just standing around looking cute.  Though I’m sure some Japanese people might argue that two mascots more equally represent the genders, having a ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ mascot that reflect those respective gender norms does nothing but propagate those societal stereotypes.

In closing to all this, I would definitely mention that all of these views come from a liberal, American female. As much as I try to avoid projecting my values onto certain things,I feel that the gender situation in Japan has flaws that lead to some negative outcomes for those involved. I’m not saying that all of it is bad, I’m only saying that as I see it, there is some room for improvement, and as long as gender stereotyping remains a mainstay of the culture of Japan, I can’t see those changes happening any time soon.

Edit: If you’re interested in further ideas about “Men’s Pocky,” one of my classmates posted about it as well! http://barefootundersakura.blogspot.com/2009/11/from-manly-to-girly.html

Next time, Religion in Japan!

So this week for the topic of globalization, I wanted to talk about something near and dear to my heart: Food! Of course, food of all kinds is in no short supply in Japan, and I’ve tried a vast range of it since my arrival. But of special interest to me are the variety of imported fast-food places I see everywhere.  We even have a few on our very own campus:

DSCF1502

I see tons of students, both ryuugakusei and Japanese alike, sampling the wares of these fine establishments. But how exactly do Japanese people feel about all of these foreign restaurants?

First, I would quote my Japanese teacher from back in the US. He’s a Japanese ex-pat, but he definitely seems to feel that life in Japan is far superior to life in America in almost every way. One day, while discussing fast food with him, he distinctly blamed the influx of McDonald’s in Japan not only for the skyrocketing childhood obesity rate, but also for the increase in heart disease among adults (and he probably would blame it for shortening lifespans in general). While this extreme view may not be exactly accurate, my sensei’s rather vehement reaction to American fast-food in Japan seems to not be held by many other Japanese people. My first endeavor into a Japanese McDonald’s, documented in the camera-phone photo below, was pleasant as well as very similar to any experience I might have in a McDonald’s back home.

Makudo

Yum, nothing makes you homesick like a (slightly overpriced) burger and fries.

If observing any of the students eating at McDonald’s can say something about their feelings towards imported fast-food, I would say it seems like most people accept it as a normal part of life here in Japan. I feel like the fast- food restaurants here aren’t very different from the ones in the US, or anywhere else in the world. As mentioned in the video we watched this week in class, the Japanese have a tendency to take what they like from a foreign idea, and sculpt the rest to suit their needs. Sure, you still get the occasional monstrosity like the one featured below…

TAMAGO MEGA BURGER!

But most of these kinds of things are promotional, and the ‘strange’ ones that commonly show up on the menu really aren’t all that strange: An ebi or shrimp burger in a country which uses seafood as its primary protein source is a pretty logical choice.

So in a final question, is the importation of fast-food restaurants corrupting the culture of Japan? Well, in a very interesting article on Japanese food by Cherise Fuselier, she notes that fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s actually espouse some very important Japanese values. Sure, they do introduce some very fatty and high-calorie items into the Japanese diet, but it’s no more unhealthy than some Japanese food is. What McDonald’s and other imported fast-food restaurants do provide (unlike the Japanese versions of fast-food, i.e. ramen stands) is a reason to gather and share a meal as a group. Making a meal a group affair is one of the draws of dining at imported fast-food restaurants, and one that reinforces the Japanese value of togetherness. So before you complain that McDonald’s is corrupting the food-culture of Japan, or that Japan is corrupting the precise recipe of your favorite burger, think about some of the good features of fast-food globalization. After all, if we didn’t have McDonald’s in Japan, we couldn’t get gems like this:

You should watch the commercial.

Next time, Gender in Japan!

 

 

So, as a preface to today’s topic, I feel the need to say that I am in no way an expert in either the area of sports, nor in the area of physical recreation. Being a product of my environment, I’m much happier being inside and near some kind of electronic device than I am being outside… especially in the sunshine.

That being said, approaching the topic of sports and recreation in Japan is about as new to me as approaching the topic in any other culture. Nevertheless, I will try to be objective and pull out some distinctly Japanese features from this theme. And, having just enjoyed the national holiday, what better way to discuss sports in Japan than to talk about Health and Sports Day? So here we go!

Sports day is celebrated every second Monday in October. The holiday started up two years after the Tokyo Olympics, and its aim is just what it says: to encourage health and fitness amongst the Japanese populus. All age groups participate in the activities: Many schools hold “field day” competitions, and many neighborhood organize their own sports festivals, with events ranging from the usual sack race and 100m dash to the more interesting obstacle course or even a mock cavalry battle called Kiba-sen.

Kibasen.

I know a fellow study abroad student who was lucky enough to witness her host family child’s field day extravaganza, and she said that it was really a sight to behold. Back in America, I fondly remember the field day competitions held in elementary and middle schools… though some of these competitions probably weren’t quite as competitive as their Japanese counterparts, in hindsight I’m a little saddened that these competitions didn’t hold over into high school and beyond. I feel like it would be a good community building experience if some American neighborhoods had a Sports Day festival. Do I think we need a government-mandated holiday in order to have such a day? Maybe not, but I do think that the idea is a positive one. I mean, just look at how much fun these people are having.

Beichuan2credit for this photo

On the other side of Japanese sports, I have to mention some of the things I’ve observed about my university’s sports clubs. Now, I am aware that most Japanese schools take their clubs pretty seriously, but the level of dedication I’ve noticed just being around the sports clubs is really impressive. I apologize for the quality of this photo, but I snapped it as I was walking home in moderately heavy rain:

Photo-0006

See those tiny little guys? That’s the Japanese football team. And no, I don’t mean fútbol, I mean home-grown American football. They were out there, in the rain, yelling and running around just like the guys on the college teams back home. To see that kind of dedication, especially for a sport that’s not even very popular in Japan, was a telling sign of how seriously the Japanese take their sports. From the national Sports and Health Day to these school teams, I think that the Japanese attitude towards physical activity is both stronger and probably more positive than what we have in America. That doesn’t mean I think we should all immediately try out Kiba-sen, of course, I just think that America could probably take a little advice from Japan when it comes to sports and recreation.

Much of the information I used in this post came from here. Next time, Globalization in Japan!

So, for today’s theme, I wanted to talk about something I’ve found both interesting and slightly disturbing about Japan: “Purikura.” For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, I would refer you here for a definition, or here for a former Visual Anthropology of Japan student’s take on these kawaii little photos.

I’m sure you’re thinking, so what’s the big deal with purikura? Just like a ton of other fads here in Japan, they focus on cuteness as an integral ingredient, assuring its popularity amongst hoards of teenage girls. So yes, I could discuss how these things (covered in pictures of highly-retouched models) might reinforce a negative self-image amongst impressionable youngsters in general, but I wanted to touch on something specific in this post. Here’s the part about the purikura booths I’ve encountered that I find to be a bit, well, off:

Can you spot the common theme of these purikura booths?

Eyes 1

Eye 2

Just in case you can’t tell, both of these booths are advertising the fact that they not only enhance but actually ENLARGE your eyes. They’re the new “Jewella Eye” machines from Bandai, [link] and they come plastered with the slogan “120% Dekame Kakumei,” which I think translates to something like “120% Giant Eye Revolution!” Now of course, most of the purikura machines advertise some enhancement or another, be it making your skin flawless or your face look smaller. But to me, the though of an eye enlarger clearly points to the influence of Western media on the Japanese ideals of beauty. Having read multiple articles on the Asian/Japanese so-called ‘obsession’ with eyes, (here‘s one rather wry take on the subject) I know the steps people take to change their eyes range from special contact lenses to rather extreme surgeries. Looking at these facts, I feel like the Western stereotype of beauty has had some negative impact on Japanese fashion and popular culture. In looking to the West for the standards by which to measure themselves, Japanese girls are left feeling that they have to change, sometimes drastically, in order to fit those standards.

…Of course, I’m not blaming purikura machines particularly for these problems. Issues like these are created over a long period of exposure to certain ideals or stereotypes. However, I do feel like these particular purikura booths may be encouraging some social ideals that can have a negative effect on people. Maybe, in the future, issues like these might be taken into account in the design of purikura machines, but if my knowledge of American pop culture is anything to judge by, most people will just stick with what’s popular and leave the deeper considerations for others.

Next time, Sports and Recreation!

After spending a little time in Hirakata, there are a lot of things I could say about the neighborhood. I’ve also heard various and sundry things said about it by the other ryuugakusei (that’s foreign exchange students like myself), ranging from ‘really beautiful’ to ‘crowded’ to ‘kinda dirty, right?’ All of that aside, I feel like Hirakata is a good example of not only an average Japanese neighborhood, but an average neighborhood in general. Even on the other side of the world, neighborhoods really aren’t all that different. So for today’s post, I wanted to focus on one of the things that is a little different, at least for someone from America. I’m talking, of course, about the incredible proliferation of vending machines in Hirakata. They seem to grow out of every available nook and back alley, bathing you in a welcoming glow that promises good value, speed, and above all, convenience.

Vending 1

I find the vending machines really interesting, particularly because of the sheer number of machines available. According to japanguide.com, there is roughly one vending machine per every 23 people in Japan. What does this say about the culture of convenience in Japan? Well, in a place where people are usually rushing to get to class, to meet friends at the karaoke bar, or to catch the next train, it means a lot to have easy access to the necessities of daily life. Believe me, a quick cup of hot coffee between classes can be indispensably helpful. I have also seen a number of students, both foreign and Japanese, taking advantage of the ramen vending machine on campus as an alternative to fighting their way through the cafeteria crowd. Food, of course, makes up a large percentage of the fare to be found in vending machines, but the Japanese have taken a good idea and expanded upon it: One can find cigarettes, newspapers and magazines, and even disposable cameras in vending machines, all ready and waiting for use.

Vending 2

A welcome sight after a long, hard day.

So, is it a bit strange for there to be so many vending machines in a medium-sized residential neighborhood? At this point, I would have to say no. The machines are put to good use by residents and passers-by alike, and if nothing else it adds a nice ambiance to the streets lit by the colorful displays at night… I think I’m going miss both the convenience and the variety of juice box options when I leave.

Next time, Pop Culture and Entertainment!

So, our first topic, “early impressions of Japan,” has really thrown me for a loop. I’ve been studying Japan, and Japanese culture, for over three years now. Of course, when I first arrived here, everything wasn’t exactly as I expected… but I knew a lot of what to expect. I didn’t have a huge ‘culture shock’ experience when I got here; there were no social customs that left me totally lost or confused. So what to write about as an interesting early impression of Japan? I’ve never taken any sort of Anthropology, so what could I possibly write a legitimate response about?

I debated this topic for quite a while, and in the end, I decided to just go with honesty. The very first thing that really struck me about Japan: something it’s pretty impossible to get away from.

Power Lines

Power lines. It’s not that we don’t have these in the US, quite to the contrary. But I have been noticing more and more just how many there are in Japan. It is nearly impossible to get a clear photo of the sky from any spot in Hirakata City.

No. 2

After doing a little research, I found out that one of the reasons there are so many power lines crisscrossing the sky is because Japan doesn’t bury most of its’ utility cables like we do in the US. It’s both cheaper and more earthquake-safe to keep them above ground.  So there’s the logical reason, but what does living under a sky cluttered with wires say about the people of Japan?

To me, these power lines represent a constant visual reminder of modern society’s close connections to technology. Even though we have the same amount (or more) of wiring and cables in the US, it really plays into the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” In the US, I doubt most people take the time to consider our transformers and power lines, but here, where space is in such limited supply, the sheer amount of power lines causes one to take note of their existence. Especially in a place like Japan, a country so powered by its’ cutting-edge tecnology, living every day under these giant rivers of electricity seems only normal.  I feel like the power lines also bring to the forefront the idea of people using technology. The sight of all of these wires naturally makes one think about all of the people using electronics, both to communicate and to enrich their lives. Even the Japanese seem to see a significance to the profusion of power lines: One of my favorite anime series, Serial Experiments Lain, actually uses power lines as a motif to show the presence of technology (power lines) and its’ connection to the mass populus (represented by red spots in the shadows of the power lines). [link]

And Even More Power Lines

This last photo, to me, really puts the point into perspective: this power line is literally 3 feet in front of this window, yet, I would suspect no one has ever complained about it. The space constraints of living in Japan, in combination with the Japanese dependence upon electronics, has lead to an acceptance of living closely alongside modern technology. I actually find the scramble of power lines in the sky rather beautiful, in an artistic sense, and I think there are probably a number of Japanese people who would agree.

So, for other thoughts on the topic of power lines in Japan, here’s another blog with photos much like mine, and here’s a message board with a ton of comments discussing the same subject.

Next week, Neighborhood Hirakata!

This blog is a class project for my "Visual Anthropology" class; as such it is for educational purposes only. All photos here are taken by the blog author unless otherwise noted. If any problems with the posting of a particular photo is brought to my attention, I will earnestly review the problem and remove the photo if necessary.