Alex, outbound to Japan


I'm currently in D2770, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, right outside of Tokyo, and arrived the 23rd of August, 2015. It's been a little over two months since I've gone on exchange and quite a lot has happened.

Experiences had: Having lived in Saitama for over two months now, I can feel that I have immersed myself ever deeper into the culture and lifestyle of Japan. I've gone to all the major cities in Tokyo, such as Akihabara, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Odaiba, and the like, travelled to other prefectures and seen the Japanese countryside, and familiarized myself with my city.

It's definitely a humbling experience to go and see sights where one thousand years ago, people prayed to local gods and spirits. Similarly, it's breathtaking to see castles that have stood for centuries, or to visit the Imperial Palace, where the royal family (a line unbroken for two millennia) resides.

Japan is an ancient culture that has long been isolated and free to develop by itself, and thus still has feats of architecture and engineering that are much older than either of my home countries (Colombia and the US). Seeing, touching and feeling these works of art (and of war) puts my existence in perspective. In front of me, there is a piece of culture, a fragment of a nation's emotions, aspirations, and desires, that is much older and ancient than all of the places that I can trace my own heritage back to. That feeling allows me to really appreciate the vastness of the world.

Feelings: There are definitely ups and downs to exchange. No one has an exchange that's all roses and rainbows, but very few people have exchanges that are truly bad.

It's all a matter of how one views it. It's easy to believe that after a bad week (or two), that the rest of exchange will be equally unpleasant, or even worse. However, one will often find that, given enough effort and luck, the next day will be much more enjoyable and rewarding. For every boring, bad, stressful, or sad day, there will usually be many more that are good or fun.

But more than that, the entire experience of exchange makes one grow as a person – seeing new things and meeting new people, allows one's view of the world to expand. Both times, the sad or frustrating and the happy and joyous one, give one a chance to learn and understand.

Overall, I personally have felt quite comfortable and content (that's Japanese hospitality for you), but I do remember some days where I've felt bored or frustrated. The key is to not let it get to you too much – every day only happens once, after all. Savor the good things and let the bad ones pass.

Language: Every day I'm here in Japan, I fall slightly more in love with the Japanese language.

Japanese is what is known as an agglutinative language, which means that (similar to languages such as German or Korean), in Japanese, words are constantly put together to form longer and more complex words. This is usually done by way of adding together kanji (漢字), or a set of about 2000 logographic characters borrowed centuries ago from Chinese. For instance, the kanji 今 (now) and日 (day) can join together to make今日 (today). Similarly, the kanji for Japan (日本) can join with the kanji for person (人) to form “Japanese person/people” (日本人).

While on that topic, it's a common misconception that the Japanese writing system is impossible for foreigners to figure out. It's true that it's more complex than English, where a simple alphabet is used, but the complexity of the Japanese writing system adds to the character and beauty of the language (while still being reasonable).

Japanese uses two syllabaries, which are similar to an alphabet, but where each letter/character represents an entire syllable as opposed to a mora, or just a part of a complete syllable. Each of these has 46 characters, with some diacritics added when the sound needs to be slightly changed: さ(sa) → ざ (za). In total, slightly over 100 sounds exist in Japanese, so this system of having one character for every possible sound works quite well (in English, we would need thousands of such characters to adequately express phonetics). However, Japanese also uses a set of logographic characters borrowed from Chinese (common usage include just over 2000 characters).

This may be daunting for people used to alphabets, but the meaning of these kanji are rationally built. For instance, combining the kanji for “day/sun”日 and “birth” 生 gives “star” 星. The birth of a day is caused by a star, right? As such, learning kanji isn't simply memorizing 2000 (far more in Chinese, by the way) isolated characters, it's building upon less than two hundred radicals (building blocks). Here's another fun example: writing the kanji for “tree” 木 three times gives “forest” 森.

For those of you thinking about going on exchange to Japan (or Taiwan, where many more kanji are used), or anywhere at all, but are worried about the language: don't worry. Languages can be very different, at times even seemingly bizarre, but they always seem logical to the people who speak them. Problems often arise when trying to think “in English in Japanese [or any other language]”, but this is not because the language is intrinsically difficult, but because we are accustomed to thinking about grammar, vocabulary, and indeed, language in the way that our own native tongues view them. The most significant obstacle is thinking like a native speaker (for instance, in Japanese, thinking more about grammatical particles than about word order, since word order is important in English, but not in Japanese). After that, it's (mostly) smooth sailing. So if worries about the language are making you hesitate to go on exchange, don't worry: you can figure them out.

Everyday Life: I go to school five times a week, participate in the school's calligraphy club, and spend most of my time either at school, with my host family, or hanging out with friends. And, of course, studying Japanese.

I go once a week to Rotary meetings (which have provided, I think, a good way to keep track of my progress on Japanese, since I need to give a weekly speech), and about once a week to other, miscellaneous Rotary events.

Observations about cultural differences: Japan has often been described as a very traditional, rigid, culture. Drawing from its “samurai roots” and its “Confucian culture”, Japan, even in the modern world, is sometimes seen as a rather moralistic, old-style society.

In some ways, this can be seen as true: respect for authority and one's elders is paramount here, following instructions unquestioningly is the norm, interpersonal respect and distance is highly valued. But in other ways, it's not really true at all: there is often more cultural innovation in Japan, with works of art containing values and actions that are quite contrary to the rigid moralism of traditional societies (or even today's modern world), there are entire cities (literally) dedicated to sex, alcohol, love, and niche artwork that one can go to without being stigmatized by mainstream society, also entire cities dedicated to wild fashion and acute levels of self-expression that would simply be badly seen in other countries (would you really resist the urge to stare at a vampire maid girl walking down the street in the US? In Japan, it can be normal).

As such, I find that the traditional spectrum of “traditional to liberal” to be inadequate for expressing the character of the Japanese culture – or any culture, for that matter. It's easy to want to divide societies, nations, peoples, and individuals into neat little boxes, “conservative” or “liberal”, but the reality of the world is more complex. People don't think on spectrums, and if they do, they think on so many varieties and quantities of them that any particular one likely has little meaning with regard to the entirety of a culture.

People are people wherever you go, and the same complexity and richness of personality that one finds in some people in one's native land can easily be found elsewhere as well. Some people are rebellious both in the US and in Japan, some are conservative and genteel, most tend to be in the middle and act accordingly, sometimes preferring one or the other depending on the situation and context.

In general, it's true that Japan has a tendency to be more conservative and quiet than in the US, but yet this is also a misconception because it implies that the Japanese are always like this, when they can, in fact, show a richness, subtlety, and powerfulness of expression in private (or when drunk) that Americans often simply wouldn't be able to express.

Final Thoughts: Overall, I'm really quite joyous with regard to my life here in Japan, and truly excited to experience the rest of my exchange!

Thanks so much to the Rotarians and volunteers who have enabled me to go on this amazing journey and to grow (as I feel I have) as a person -- your efforts have been received with much gratitude. Once again, thank you.

To see my home page and some photos click HERE