Some final thoughts on Japan, its culture and society


This will be the last post for this year I hope on my trip to Japan, it will include my thoughts on what I have seen while working and traveling around Hokkaido, and of course some of my favorite pictures. I hope to expand my blog somewhat with posts about various aspects of Japanese culture and society that interest me, along with anime and manga obviously.

I would point out that this post is merely my observations and musings about what I experienced and saw; it is not necessarily fact or anything. Also, I thin sunsets will feature quite heavily here, I did love the sunsets that i saw in Japan.

I enjoyed my time in Japan, and I think learned a lot more about the culture by working at a summer camp for four weeks than I would if I had been a simple tourist, visiting landmarks and famous places, although some of that did happen in my last week.

The people that I met were fascinating, at first quite closed, and I would say quite cautious, especially the kids, however after a week they gradually opened up to not only me, but also the other volunteers. To begin with they seemed to be the reserved Japanese that I had heard so much about. They were all very polite, and of course I was polite in return; of course throughout the entire camp we were polite to each other, but I think that is simply a part of the culture.

The first week of the camp was spent cleaning and preparing the school for the kids arrival. Throughout the process I noticed that the staff gradually began to open up to us more, this was most apparent over dinner when the beer and shouchu was brought out. There must be some universal rule that says when you drink with strangers you begin to get a better idea of what they are like. After this first week I think the staff had gotten used to us, although I think it took a further week for them to fully open up as it were.

The kids were a different story, at first many of them were very nervous around me, I think perhaps this was largely down to my overall appearance and that I am European. It took a few things for the kids to get used to me I think. Firstly we had the ipatsuge (not sure on the spelling) on our first night, during this all the volunteers had to perform a short sketch that didn’t necessarily have to make sense, but had to be funny. This was an obvious icebreaker, along with the staff sitting at the same tables as the kids so that they could get used to us.

The second I think was our first activities; these were a trip to the sea and one to the river, along with a few other small activities. During these days I basically messed around, jumping off of breakwaters, paddling an inflatable canoe (Duckie) and messing around in the sea and river. I feel that the act of playing with the kids and showing that I can have as much fun as they can was helpful.

The final thing that helped as far as I can see was the 40km walk. This walk was pretty nasty at some point for everyone who took part, the shared experience of pain and exhilaration brought everyone closer together.

The whole experience as fascinating and strange; the Japanese can have as much fun as anyone else, but it seems to take longer to ‘earn’ their trust as it were. But once people get used to each other the fun really starts and we started joking, laughing and generally having a good time, although the politeness was still there, something I got used to, but still find very curious.

There were a few things that struck me about the camp though; some of them I found vey strange and probably reflected the culture.
Firstly, the time that it took to get anything prepared was extraordinary; we had 30-45 minute meetings with the kids explaining what the next activity was about, the dangers and why they needed particular equipment. We also had extensive staff meetings at night as well, summing up what happened during the day and being told the plan for the next day. These would all be book-ended by greetings such as O-tsukare-sama deshita (お疲れさまでした), which roughly means ‘thank you for the hard work’, along with other such greetings.

Now I know that these greetings and phrases are deeply embedded within the Japanese society and culture, and as such are immensely important and I would never dream of not saying them. I also understand that there is a need for safety instructions, however I sometimes felt that the meetings took too long and were taking time away from the actual activities. If it were a camp in England, most of the safety instructions would be done when we were at the venue; but of course different country, different culture, different ways of doing things, which I found fascinating nonetheless.

I also found it curious that many of the older teenagers who were at the camp, those in High-School had brought much of their homework with them. For me the summer is about relaxing, and if I were at that kind of camp I would want to enjoy myself and not concentrate on studying. But during some of the free time I saw them working on many of their subjects such as English, Maths, Kanji etc. There is something about the Japanese education system that I am not fond of, I think it puts too much emphasis on test scores and too much pressure on everyone, doesn’t matter if they are in Junior-High, or are taking their college entrance exams. Clearly the system has had a positive effect on the country after the war, and was a major reason for the countries growth, but I think any system that has people doing homework on a summer camp in Hokkaido, especially when they are from Tokyo is slightly flawed.

One thing that was a constant feature of this camp for were the whiteboards, they appeared everywhere and were sued in every meeting to show everyone the days schedule, along with illustrations and explanations of what was needed that day. The whole thing was slightly bizarre but did make sense, since having something written down is always a good idea; it is simply one of the things from the camp that was a constant feature and will likely stick with me.

I found being a Gaikokujin (translated as ‘someone from another place) in Hokkaido was a curious experience, especially since I barely saw any other Europeans, although I am certain there were other people from Taiwan, Korea or China. There were a number of occasions where groups of people came up to me and asked to have their picture taken with me, this happened at the camp, but also in Sapporo and the other towns that I visited. This was especially the case in Sapporo, and of course during the jam session that I described in my last post, clearly having long curly hair makes you stand out in Japan, not that I am complaining, it was great fun.

The food as well was spectacular; the food at Shizen-Gakko was great, three meals a day, all absolutely delicious. I found myself eating about three times the amount I would eat at home, but also eating many things that I either didn’t know the name of, or I wouldn’t usually eat at home, my attitude became one of simply eating what was in front of me and not trying to find out what it was exactly, since it all tasted great. I had many amazing meals, and even the combini food and bento boxes that I bought for my train journeys tasted great, much better than the simple, and after Japanese food, quite pathetic sandwiches that you get here.

I am fascinated by culture of Japan, and of course its society, this in part comes from my own studies in Anthropology and Cultural Studies, but also from a overall fascination with the country that has built up over the last decade. This fascination has only increased since my trip there, and although I fully admit that I have seen more of the good than bad, and that Japan has its own fair share of troubles. Many of them are of course cultural and in a way built into the society, I still feel that I want to return to the country and explore it some more. Overall a fascinating trip, which answered many of my questions about Japan, but brought up many more. I hope to return next year for a longer period of time, to work in, and explore the country further.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

One Response to Some final thoughts on Japan, its culture and society

  1. sanguine says:

    It may sound strange for someone who never went to Japan and doesn’t study about its society, but your thoughts were just like the way I think about the country overall. Everything I know about Japan is from articles like that and what I can compare of where I live with Nippon regarding some things – the politeness, the education, the manners… – when I watch anime. Thus, I can’t say whether it is a “good” or a “bad” place, but this uniqueness – which we can associate with every instance of Japan’s history – is intriguing.

    Of course, there are both controversial and amazing points, though every culture has its values. There are lots of things that mentally restrict the people there for some freedom aspects such as sexuality. Still, the respect is so ingrained in the personal relationships that the most conservative person could easily accept new behaviors – political, sexual, regarding others beliefs -, even if constitutionally there’s no direct protection to some specific group. They seem to tend to strongly preserve their culture without attacking others. Surely it is not a perfect place, and the “bad side” of Japan is something I cannot discuss without a good research, I’m just always impressed with the Japanese way of life, often positively. Just like you, I guess.

    Good work “translating” a part of their culture here.

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