Lessons from Japan

It's hard to believe that I've been gone almost a month and already "completed" one of my countries, but I could not have had a better start than I did in Japan. A country full of history, culture, and tradition, but also with its own spin on modernization, Japan taught me a lot and made me excited to see all that I will learn on this journey. But, before saying goodbye, here are three of my biggest lessons:

Mutual Respect and Trust Go A Long Way

One aspect of Japan that stuck out to me in the language, gestures, culture, and actions of the people was respect. In a conversation with fellow hostel guests (all Westerners like me I should add), it was brought up that even those who clean the subway stations were wearing a dress shirt and tie and would be greeted by subway patrons. I saw this throughout my visit; no matter who it was, where they worked, there was always a level of respect in interactions. And I couldn't help but wish, each time, that something similar existed in the United States.

It may be a naïve assumption, but I feel like this basic sense of respect for others translates to a lot of other great things I saw in Japan: very little pollution or littering, an essentially non-existent crime rate, and no chaos even during the worst of rush hour. Everything seemed almost too perfect.

My amazing hosts for part of Japan! So thankful for their kindness.

My amazing hosts for part of Japan! So thankful for their kindness.

In the U.S., I think we live too much on fear, but that doesn't seem to be the right sentiment because it's clearly not working for us. I know it was so hard for me to leave because I truly felt that I wouldn't see that level of respect, feel that level of hospitality and kindness, or get that sense of undeserved love again. But it's certainly a message I hope to carry with me and continue practicing even when I finish traveling.

The Pros and Cons of Cultural Retention

Although I remarked in earlier posts about how much I loved the retention of Japanese language and culture in certain cities and day-to-day business, downfall was the opposite: the rejection of anyone who isn't fully Japanese. Without going into the details, becoming a Japanese permanent resident or citizen is quite difficult if you are not a Japanese national (meaning not of Japanese descent). This has led to a population that is over 98% Japanese and very little understanding of anything else.

I found it interesting that while I was in Japan, a story about a biracial woman winning Miss Universe Japan was surfacing on the internet. This story seemed to capture everything I was seeing. Although the Japanese have a great pride in their culture, and have been able to retain their language and customs, this has led to rejection of those who do not fit the norm, as Miss Universe Japan discussed in the backlash she faced for being half black.

In talking with some of the Japanese friends I made, particularly the younger ones, I heard a hope for a Japan that can be more open towards other cultures. In fact, I would love to see how Japan can move towards embracing more cultures, because I think it would be a wonderful example for the U.S. Japan could demonstrate that a country can both be proud of its own culture while seeing the beauty in others. I love the small and large ways that Japan has resisted complete Westernization, but I hope that it can also move towards a more diverse Japan, so that more people can enjoy the profits of this great country.

Coffee culture has certainly made its way to Japan, particularly through young Japanese business owners who spent time abroad crafting their skills. Not that I'm complaining...

Coffee culture has certainly made its way to Japan, particularly through young Japanese business owners who spent time abroad crafting their skills. Not that I'm complaining...

Being Alone is Important

Although not necessarily Japan specific, this first month has shown me how, at least throughout the first 22 years of my life, there have been very few moments where I am really, truly alone. Sure, even now, I'm usually surrounded by at least a few other people, or several hundreds when walking down city streets, but this has been different. The language barrier for me in Japan (and now China) have meant that it's rare for me to meet someone that I can connect with on a deep level. Even when meeting folks in hostels, or in a restaurant, the time passes quickly, and we usually have a day or two together at most before our paths split. This leaves little time to get beyond pleasantries and sharing travel stories from the past few days.

Human connection is important, and I've come to cherish my family and friends even more already, but I'm also seeing the immense value in building a relationship with myself. This time will allow me to better understand what values are the ones that stick throughout all environments and cultures and which ones I may need to outgrow. It will allow me shift my beliefs and knowledge beyond what I learned in school and through both an Indian and American upbringing, and create a philosophy that is truly all my own. And then, when I do return home, I will have the knowledge and power that what I want is truly what I want, because I had the time to figure it out for myself.

Unreal sunset as I flew out of Osaka's airport (which, by the way, is an island they constructed to have enough room for an airport). Best way to say bye to Japan!

Unreal sunset as I flew out of Osaka's airport (which, by the way, is an island they constructed to have enough room for an airport). Best way to say bye to Japan!

The Responsibility of War

This, then, is the greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p. 44)

I thought, perhaps, if I gave myself more time, I would have the words to describe my emotions and give some insight on my visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, as the days went on until it became a week and more, I realized that it will never be easy to describe. More importantly, however, is what it means to live through it on a daily basis.

I chose to stay at a small hostel near Miyajima Island, about half an hour outside Hiroshima. (Side note: if any of you ever get a chance to visit, this island is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.) In speaking with several other travelers and friends at the hostel, I heard how moved they had been during their visit, many of them to tears. I became nervous in anticipation of what my own visit would bring.

As I got off the subway stop nearest the memorial, I climbed the stairs, knowing from travel websites that I would have a view of the A-Bomb Dome almost as soon as I got to ground level. I felt my heartbeat steadily rising and a strong sense of anxiety as I got closer and closer to the last stair. Reaching the sunlight and fresh air, I looked to my left and was shocked with the shell of a building, the remains of what was once the pride and joy of a city.

I slowly walked closer to the building, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. For the most part, everyone around the memorial was quiet, either reading the signs, taking photos, or just absorbing it all. The A-Bomb Dome has its significance because just 600 meters above it is where the first atomic bomb exploded, resulting in the strange pattern of demolition. In order to remind both the Japanese people and others of the harms of war, the city of Hiroshima decided to maintain the building as a memorial. Each and every day, the people of this city are reminded of the horror that was once cast upon the generations before them, and even some of them.

Hiroshima Skyline with A-Bomb Dome

Hiroshima Skyline with A-Bomb Dome

I sat for a few hours across the river from the dome, reflecting on what it must be like to see such a vivid reminder of one's history on a daily basis. Hiroshima's skyline was eternally marked by a shadow of their past, and as I continued on with my visit, I saw how much this had changed their mentality of their present and future.

Once I felt ready, I moved to the museum, interested to see how Japan had decided to share and reflect upon such a dark time in its history. When I visited South Africa, I remember being disappointed that many of our visits to historical sites were very clearly catered to us, as Americans, and I hoped this would not prove to be the same. I think, in some sense, I wanted to be challenged to reconsider my American identity, and I was hoping for some of that through this experience.

Overall, the museum was much different from what I expected, although I'm not quite sure what I expected either. It started off explaining the events and timeline that led up to the bomb dropping on Hiroshima, and then a good portion of the museum described the aftermath and harm that the community faced. Featured in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums were artifacts that were found after the bomb dropped: the glasses of a grandfather, a school uniform, the shoes of a wife, and—the one that hit me the hardest—a tin lunch box with an uneaten lunch reduced to ash.

Although these artifacts would be painful to see regardless of their previous owners, what was most upsetting was that many belonged to young children and students, as those had been the primary victims of the bomb. I'm not sure whether I simply never learned this fact or blocked it from my memory, but in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs were dropped very close to the center of the city, which housed dozens of schools. As a result, a good majority of those killed were young children. Even worse, although many died on impact or in the days following, many died years into their childhood as a result of radiation. One such story that I recall from my youth is Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which is featured greatly in the Hiroshima memorials.

Some of the paper cranes Sadako made while she was in the hospital.

Some of the paper cranes Sadako made while she was in the hospital.

After I passed through the artifacts section, there was more information on the physical bomb. A life-size model was created to help visitors understand how small the bomb actually was in relation to the damage it caused, and there was also information on the study of nuclear warfare at the time. Although I was learning quite a bit, I realized that I was incredibly frustrated. Only once had the museum mentioned the U.S., in stating that the bomb was American-made, but otherwise blame had essentially been left out of the picture.

But, there were still a few exhibits left, so I gave the curators the benefit of the doubt. Surely the anger I was expecting would come soon. And, finally, I thought it had. I reached the final exhibit, the take-away of the museum if you will, and was ready to hear about what an atrocious act had been committed by the United States. Perhaps how Japan had moved on but they would never forget this atrocity, but I was stunned yet again.

The final thoughts the museum left us with were that of policy change. The exhibit gave details on how the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in light of the 70th anniversary of the bombs, had been advocating even more for the end of nuclear warheads. They, along with many other political leaders in Japan, had been asking the UN to work with them to eliminate these weapons altogether. Although they had faced much resistance, particularly from big countries like the U.S., they were optimistic.

There were petitions for museum patrons to sign and the letters the mayors had issued to their own communities as a call to action. These political leaders said that they wanted to use their own pain as a way to prevent the suffering of others. They felt that this was their duty and responsibility.

One closing sentiment that stuck with me was, "We want to eliminate the notion that, in order to have world peace, we must have the ability to destroy one another. Peace can exist without the potential for [nuclear] war."

Leaving the museum, I was humbled by the desire for change, but also, I realized, quite angry. After seeing all the pain and suffering of these people—which they are still experiencing today as many survivors continue to live with the after-effects of radiation—I wanted to hear some sort of blame. I wanted the world to hear that this was the United States' fault. I was mostly upset because I knew that each time another country had harmed the U.S. in some way, we had done everything but "let it go." The U.S. is particularly good at finding ways to blame other countries for their wrongdoing and forgetting their own; in their own eyes, playing the hero.

It's somewhat ironic because, just a few days after leaving Nagasaki, I was watching an episode of Mad Men to relax after a long day. In this episode, one of the partners of the firm, Roger Sterling, is strongly against the firm signing a contract with Honda because "they killed my friends." The absurdity of his misplaced anger in that moment—attending meetings with Honda executives and basically spitting in their faces—was too painfully accurate in that moment. I had to stop the episode before I finished.

But, the more I thought about it, I realized nothing good would come of that. The Japanese people would harbor this anger, but would it change the actions of the U.S.? Probably not.

"Kiyo no Arashi" (translates to Storm over Nagasaki) by Noritaka Fukami, a schoolteacher in the city who was exposed to radiation while helping other victims.

"Kiyo no Arashi" (translates to Storm over Nagasaki) by Noritaka Fukami, a schoolteacher in the city who was exposed to radiation while helping other victims.

This experience reminded me of the Freire quote I included at the beginning, in that it will often, if not always, be the minority group that must take on the responsibility of forgiveness. In taking the high road, Japan had not only allowed themselves to move forward after this time of suffering, but also given the United States a second chance in creating a positive relationship with Japan. During my time here, I have felt nothing but immense love from these people. I don't think I deserve it, but it is what has been best for the healing process of the Japanese, and I have benefited as a result.

This is not to say that I think communities of color or countries made primarily of people of color must always take on the burden of forgiveness. Just that it mostly happens that way. However, I hope that in sharing this, my American friends can consider how we all (myself included) allow ourselves to be complicit in the suffering of others, simply because we have the privilege to do so.

As Americans, we have economic and social capital that even the richest people in other countries may never attain. And we must see this as a responsibility, not a ticket out. It is my hope that as I travel more and to other countries, I will continue to feel this responsibility and never forget it. When I look back on these eight months, I want to be continuously reminded that it is my responsibility to stay conscious and aware of what it means to be American. Also, as a member of minority communities, I have been humbly reminded that it is often for our own benefit that we forgive, but not forget. For it is these memories that can drive us forward in seeking empowerment and change.

Cenotaph for the A-Bomb victims.

Cenotaph for the A-Bomb victims.

English, Japanese, and the Choice to Westernize

I keep pinching myself, expecting that I’ll soon wake up from this weird and crazy dream. Ten full days have already passed since I arrived in Japan and it still seems surreal that I’m halfway across the world in a country where I can’t communicate much more beyond hello, goodbye, and thank you.

Tokyo skyline from the Metropolitan Government Building.

Tokyo skyline from the Metropolitan Government Building.

The last week or so has both felt like an eternity and the blink of an eye. Spending my first six days in Tokyo ended up being fascinating because of its strange similarity to Times Square, but also the shock I received when I was not able to have a meaningful conversation with most people around me. Having spent the last few summers living in big U.S. cities, I had no trouble navigating public transit or other aspects of city life, but the issues came in ordering food (considering both the language barrier and all my dietary restrictions) or even trying to make friends in my hostels. I found myself trying to learn about a culture and country with no way to ask questions, or even just listen and learn.

Yet, even without doing much communicating in my first few days, I was able to see and learn a lot. I spent my first day visiting the famous temples and shrines of Nikko, where I saw the historic appreciation for and representation of Buddhism in Japan. The next day, I was thrown into the opposite environment as I visited the crazy streets of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omotesandō. These districts are known to be the go-to shopping neighborhoods in Tokyo, and with the shops come large crowds and Japanese pop culture. As I walked down the streets, it was strange to see stores like Zara and Louis Vuitton—reminiscent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan—but still have the street signs and conversations remind me that I was very much away from home.

The third day, however, finally provided some insight for me into Japanese history and culture. I visited the largest collection of Japanese art at the Tokyo National Museum and, mostly due to descriptions being in English, I was able to understand the progression of Japan from the traditional castles and the Tokugawa shogunate to today's bustling cities and skylines.

Although the museum started off with more traditional Japanese art, the section that caught my attention was from the Meiji period, which was when Japan shifted from its final stages of feudal society into a more Western form. Although many countries went through some sort of industrialization during the late 1800s to early 1900s, it is interesting to see Japan's somewhat active role in this process.

Many descriptions in the museum (pictured below) discussed how the role of art came into play. Emperors and rulers of Japan realized that the traditional Japanese style was not appealing to the West, and so renowned artists were sent to Europe to study and make their art more appealing. Thus, although Japan was one of the few Eastern countries to avoid colonization in a direct manner, they were still impacted by the pressure to Westernize in order to "keep up" with Europe and the United States. The choice to become Western, then, was actually not one, but just another manner in which a non-white country was deemed lesser or not modern because of its decision to maintain its own customs and traditions.

Nevertheless, Japan has kept much of its original culture, whether it is through its shrines, temples, and practice of Buddhism, or through the almost nonexistence of English throughout the country. They are one of the few non-white countries to be seen as "first world," but have still maintained a strong sense of identity. Although I found this fascinating, it has also been incredibly jarring. Many times while walking through the city streets, I would suddenly stumble upon a small shrine surrounded by skyscrapers. Other times, I would leave some of the most historical temples in Tokyo to be greeted by bright, neon lights and food stalls.

This constant dichotomy between Japan versus the West was strangely, but perhaps unsurprisingly, mimicking my own dichotomy between being abroad as a woman of color and American. As I found myself constantly switching environments, I also had to navigate being one of very few non-white tourists, but still being a tourist. I felt burdened by guilt each time yet another local had to switch to English to speak with me or I could not remember the right words in Japanese or could not produce the correct amount of currency.

Each of these moments have been reminders of my American privilege and how they are going to be critical in traveling to these countries. For, each time I fail to fit in, I will be accommodated because I am American. It is also a stark contrast to the experiences my own parents had in immigrating to the U.S., and the experiences that many American immigrants have, in being shamed to learn and adapt as quickly as they can.

These humbling reminders of my privilege have already made me more critical of my own actions, but also increased my desire to better understand my role as a woman of color in the West, a first generation American, and an individual who wants to create better policies for immigrant communities. Although it is easy for me to remove blame because of my target identities, it is as important, if not more so, for me to accept responsibility for the harm that my agent identities can and will do. It is only through this acceptance that I will be able to learn and move forward, becoming a better ally for many communities, as is my goal throughout this trip.

Type of Japanese art that started to form during the Meiji period. Although still having a clear influence from Japanese scenery, the artistic style, brush strokes, and use of shading is more Western.

Type of Japanese art that started to form during the Meiji period. Although still having a clear influence from Japanese scenery, the artistic style, brush strokes, and use of shading is more Western.

These next few days, as I visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their respective memorials and museums, will allow me to continue to reflect on my identity as an American in Japan. Although the process has certainly been difficult so far, I'm looking forward to better understanding my social identities within different contexts, and learning more about Japanese history from the country's own perspective.