Parker, outbound to Japan

As 2014 draws to a close, I find it especially fitting that New Year's is the biggest holiday here in Japan. Various ceremonies and traditions cast off the shackles of the year past, and celebrate the untarnished year in waiting. Temple bells toll 108 times leading up to the stroke of midnight, releasing the year's transgressions of the 108 sins of Buddhism. Friends, neighbors, and business partners exchange postcards in the hopes of continued pleasant relationship. Most everyone spends the first three days of the year with family, enjoying time off from work or school. These things and more apply to me, because after the festivities wrap up I'll switch host families and leave the home I've lived in for over four months...

But before getting into all that, I want to list a bunch of cultural observations I find interesting! With a bit of research it's easy to discover customs like the taking off of shoes indoors, but in my experience many interesting differences are largely inaccessible until witnessed firsthand. With that in mind, here we go:

- Pretend there is a person down the street, and use your hand to motion for that person to “come here.” Now motion for a nearby person to “go, shoo!”... Yeah, these are different in Japan. The motion you may have used for “shoo” -a flicking of the hand turn downwards- that means“come here.” Needless to say I had a lot of confused moments for a while, wondering what I'd done to make teachers and adults so angry. Turns out I'm just in the wrong place a lot.

- I mentioned that 2015 is upon us, but just as easily might have said the year 27. Documents here will be dated with one or the other. Why? Because the current Emperor Akihito ascended to his title 27 years ago, after Emperor Hirohito died. From that point onwards, the country entered a new “age,” and accordingly reset the year to one. Interestingly, Hirohito will never be referred to as such here, because after death emperors are posthumously renamed to their corresponding era. He is thus referred to as Emperor Showa, to match the 64 years of the Showa Era he reigned. “Reigned,” however, somewhat overstates his level of political authority, as the revised Japanese Constitution drafted under United States occupation after WWII diminished the position to less than that of UK's figurehead monarch. Despite this, the emperor remains a revered “face” of Japan.

- Japanese people LOVE vending machines. It seems that way, at least, from the sheer abundance of them. On the five minute bike ride home from school, I pass no fewer than eleven. From my experience, if in a place people exist, so too do vending machines. Riding around at midnight through the crop fields of a sparsely populated Okinawan island, I saw a solitary light glowing distantly. Lo and behold, upon closer inspection it was a vending machine. With no buildings or other signs of population in sight, I bought hot cocoa (yes, hot), and enjoyed it like some sort of creepy, oddly delicious scene out of a Steven King novel. Vending machines have everything from Red Bull to corn soup to chocolate milk and everything in between, always priced reasonably, and never out of stock.

- Almost without fail, Japanese people BACK into their parking spaces. It matters not where or when or how crowded the place in question might be, when it's time to park, it's time to put on the hazard lights and back into that puppy... Erm.. Poor choice of words, blame it on English disuse... In any event, it's not uncommon to see entire parking lots of cars facing uniformly outwards. Imagine a typical setup, with opposite-facing parking spaces sharing a common “backbone” of a white line. Even if the lot was completely empty, I'd bet most cars would back into a space per usual, forgoing the opportunity to pull through the center line to achieve the same ends. I've witnessed it.

- Do you know your own blood type, exactly? If the answer is no, you're like me and rather un-Japanese in that regard. Everyone knows their blood type here. On more than one occasion the question has been posed to me as a conversation starter (didn't get far). It's as integral a part of self identity as eye color... Which, now that I think about it, is a bit of a nonfactor for the homogeneously brown eyed population of Japan. Huh.. A cultural substitute of sorts?.. Either way, everyone knows whether they're A or B, positive or negative, etc. As for anyone who answered yes to my original question, can you go further and name the blood types of all your family members? If yes, congratulations! If no... it's okay, don't cry, just join me in ignorance.

- Japanese cars drive on the left side of the road... Wait, but I thought that only applied to places with a history of British rule? Wrong, but semi-related. The first reason for leftiness dates back to the Edo period (1600-1867) I described in my last post; a time when samurai and sword-bearing folk frequented the roads. Because most of said folk were right handed, their scabbards hung on their left hips. The better to defend against approaching attacks, samurai thereby took to walking on the left side of roads. This also avoided the incidental bumping of scabbards between opposing traffic, a problem with a pesky tendency to escalate into dueling and death... Britain enters the picture in the late 1800s, when newly opened Japan strove to rapidly modernize and westernize. The UK won the contracting rights to build Japanese railways, and continued their custom of left-sided transportation.

This both solidified the existing tendencies and ensured a thoroughly left-minded society that continues today. The “up” direction on escalators and stairs consistently occupies the left half, which resulted in a lot of awkward moments until I finally assimilated... The significance of this for those living in Florida? Not much, except that you really ought to watch out for me when I'm back behind a wheel again.

- At the risk of exhausting the subject, one more directionally related tidbit: Japanese timelines run from right to left! This forced some questioning of things I'd never given a second thought. Why am I so mentally conditioned to visualize the passage of time as a left-to-right movement, and who decided that was the “correct” way represent it? Different cultures write in different fashions and from different directions, so it shouldn't be so large a leap to extend that difference elsewhere. Time isn't a human invention, only the way we perceive and represent it is. Regardless, I'd never considered the concept, and it's interesting to imagine where other cultural, mental distinctions like that might lead...

But even more regardless, time has indeed passed and I'll be with a new family in few days. It's difficult to describe without sounding melodramatic... Rotary gave ample and appropriate warning about homesickness, but they failed to mention that it might extend beyond your biological family. Although I've lived in Japan for less than five months, the relationships I've formed here are very real and very strong.

Japan is not an easy place to make friends with peers to go out with after school or on the weekends. Everyone goes to school, then to their respective clubs which often end quite late and practice 6-7 days a week. Combined with the heavy emphasis on studying, this means that Japanese teens don't often “hang out” in the way I'm accustomed to in the United States. Rather, social circles are largely dominated by the club of choice, with other get-togethers occasionally happening on weekends. This isn't a complaint as much as an explanation; it's simply the way it's been in the very small bubble of my experience, and those of several other exchange students, past and present.

I only mention it to show how the potential problem is largely negated through the presence of my host family. In fact, upon typing that I had to go back and insert the word “host,” as I'd forgotten it as I so often do. That's telling of the way we act on a daily basis: they are my family and my constant source of conversation and laughter. As my ability to understand daily conversation has increased, especially since December, I feel assimilated in a way that I never expected.

As the month progressed, I often found that the highlight of my day was simply to come home, and share a long conversation with my host mom as we prepped, ate, and cleaned up dinner. It became a ritual of sorts. And while my kitchen skills improved slightly (Japanese knives are out of this world), my communication skills improved greatly, to exciting results. We've shared shared stories about family trips gone wrong, discussed philosophy (albeit in pretty broad terms), traded our dream locations to live. She's motivated me to get back on the Judo horse after several injuries.

As a family we poke fun at one anothers' tendencies, like the sleepyhead 19 year old, and the exasperation it causes the constantly nagging mom. That same mom nags and laughs at me, and my unprecedented ability to lose and forget my belongings, everywhere. I've cracked up at family banter, like when my host dad told his oldest daughter to tell the sleepyhead to get out of the bath, and she replied, “tell her yourself.”

But all the above and more took place in the home, often sitting in the same chair around the same table. It doesn't include the countless excursions and day trips both large and small that have peppered my stay. We've been to museums and aquariums, theaters, sky towers, rotary functions and dinners, grocery stores aplenty. We've shared just about every type of cuisine. We've visited an “onsen,” or hot spring bathhouse (the sexes are separated), and accordingly gotten quite naked together... Thrice. That tends to throw away some barriers.
I could keep listing, but it wouldn't capture the little moments, like high-fiving and giggling through panted breaths after running from the parking lot all the way into the train cabin right as the doors shut. Or napping contently on the way back home from grandma's house in the car, then settling down to watch Finding Nemo in Japanese together.

Those aren't moments that happen while living in a hotel, or among strangers. Those are moments of a family, and I'm so lucky and grateful to have joined the Shimamura family this past year. They've shaped my my stay completely, so hopefully I managed to touch their hearts a bit in return along the way. My host mom has teared up once already at the prospect of my leaving, so I think it's safe to say I did...

It's not goodbye, though, not yet! I'll drop in every now and again, the time has come to start the process over and do better. It's just another extension of the New Year: a new family, new conversation, new routine. This month marks the halfway point of my exchange... That's motivation enough to squeeze every-thing out of every-day! I'm excited for 2015, and the challenges ahead.

Thanks again to Rotary and the Deerwood Club for making this stay possible.

- But that's it for now, so bye, and あけましておめでとうございます!(Happy New Year)