Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A long post from Japan...

It's 11pm here in Kyoto, and I have to get up at 6.30 tomorrow to head to Osaka with Keiko to watch her at her job caring for disabled people... but it is hard to sleep here. Even in the centre of the city in Keiko's apartment I can hear the cicadas, and there is traffic sound, and a thin hum underneath it all of electricity. I have earplugs, and sometimes I like to wear them, but I'm listening to music instead and hacking into someone else's wireless internet.

So - Japan. I've been here just over 2 weeks already; it is ridiculous to attempt to summarise that here... but I can't sleep and that is when I write and maybe I can put something together.

When I first got here it all seemed so different. Everything slightly too small, all modern architecture shades of beige and grey, excessive neatness and efficiency, the criss-crossing telephone wires (above ground so as to minimise damage from earthquake) bewildering and messy, etiquette worries at the forefront of my mind, and my eyes tired from searching for the Latin alphabet... I'm starting to write a little like Bela. Not a bad thing. Anyway, it was exciting. Culture shock is the thrill on which anthropologists thrive! But it has been equally fun to settle quickly into the culture too, and feel comfortable, and know how to act without offending someone. I love reading people, and understanding a situation through body language and facial expressions. It's challenging enough to be enjoyable but also satisfying if I'm rewarded with a smile or a nod or the "nh" sound which equals "uh-huh" or "mm" of agreement.

I'm getting a surprising amount of pleasure from being able to use public transport here too, because I figured it out all by myself, because most people in England consider me completely incompetent at practical tasks, and because I did it without understanding any Japanese script. Here I can negotiate buses, subways, trains, even a taxi using my phrasebook. You may laugh, but I'm well chuffed.

Anyway now that I'm properly streetwise (ha), I can relax and enjoy chatting to my hosts and joking with them, playing with the Japanese grandchildren, and noticing the small differences and similarities that make people so interesting to me. Here they have the 3-second rule, parents wish children were better behaved, people think George W. Bush is stupid, they greet each other awkwardly with many bows much like the awkward English "should I/shouldn't I shake hands?" greetings... but the Japanese point to their noses instead of their hearts to refer to themselves, they rely on electric appliances much more than us (electric toilets, massage chairs and automatic lights being standard... but electric kettles rare) and use chopsticks, always take off their shoes indoors and have sliding doors. All trivial differences but good for anecdotes/anthropology.

As a Christian Cambridge student who notices sceptically the trends of the "arty" types, it is particularly interesting to me that there is a trend in Japanese students towards organic food, hand crafted goods, acoustic music, handwritten type, (much of which I am guilty of consuming) that goes hand in hand with a certain morality of "tolerance" and "spirituality". In England, people see Christianity as old-fashioned and intolerant, rejecting it for paganism or Buddhism. In Kyoto, students are rejecting Shinto and Buddhism for Indian forms of Buddhism and black magic.

So - how many of the Japanese stereotypes are true? Well much of the crazy stuff is real - cat cafés, public baths, swine-flu prevention masks, cartoon characters everywhere, hygiene obsession, commuters sleeping on the subway, mental electronic stores with 9 floors, ridiculous cheesy adverts, sleezy manga, sumo, geisha, origami... etc etc. but so much of that stuff is superficial, and much of the crazy stuff is for very select groups of people - my host families all think harajuku girls, purikura (the photobooths), the scary mask-wearers, manga obsessives, etc are weird, much like most brits with any common sense think Jordan is tarty. Maybe it's just that the Japanese find crazes very easy to take on, and I think that comes from a tradition of being self-controlled and obsessed with perfection and public image. That tradition is very hard to unravel historically, much like the British tradition of awkwardness or its class system.

So these are just my impressions of 2 weeks. There is much I don't understand and lots of that is because I am young and need some humility and need to stop pretending I have any idea I know what I'm talking about...

I'm having a great time both "researching" (i.e. gathering anecdotes and eating organic food from the café I want to compare to the Café Project in Cambridge for my dissertation - there you go, I did make a decision in the end) and sight-seeing. I've bought SO MUCH JUNK, including a great taster CD of Japanese acoustic music by a girl playing guitar and singing at a market. I had to make up the names of the tracks from what the music made me think of and the small bits of Japanese lyrics I could understand so...

Currently listening to:
Sayonara Sakura,
Mist on Kyoto Mountains,
Toy Department,
1, 2, Hear This,
Chatting to Meg,
and Have you forgotten me yet?
- all from Ana Aniko's Acoustic EP

Plus various tracks from Sam's life-enhancing CD and Regina Spektor's Far

Ever Fallen In Love - The Buzzcocks
I'm Yours - Jason Mraz
Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
Annie's Song - John Denver
Homeward Bound - Simon & Garfunkel

--- over and out. photos another time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks!well worth the wait...xx