Wednesday, May 13, 2009

changing impressions

Bright lights. Crowded subways. Respect and honor. Gadgets. Hardworkers. Fish. Hello Kitty. Mountains. And though I did see all of those things, those are merely representations of what Japanese culture is really all about. I didn't have many specific judgments about what Japan would be like before I came. I just knew it would be different. More than my impressions of Japan changing, I would like to think that they are no longer impressions but understanding. Through my four months in Japan I have developed an understanding of what goes on beneath the superficial stereotypes of Japanese society. I understand that filling the tall buildings such as those in the first photo of the Tokyo skyline, are people with a hardworking spirit that has run through them since the time of the samurai. I understand the whole-heartedness with which they approach every aspect of their lives which is present in everything from the quality of their electronics to the beauty of the tea ceremony. I understand the timelessness of their culture present in so many tradesmen such as the fisherman in Shirahama pictured in the second photo. I see the serenity and connection to nature in their shrines and temples found in Kyoto and throughout the country which keeps the thread of their history alive today in a world of changing technology. I see the respect the Japanese people have cultivated since the beginnings of its society and the clean, safe, beautiful country that comes out of that. From a Western perspective, Japan can seem mysterious, almost intimidating, but being here has shown me that though many of the different stereotypes are true, they all come from somewhere and all hold their own beauty. Japanese people live in the paradox of traditional collective cooperation and the cutting edge of the modern world. You can see it in the eyes of the man in the third photo sitting on the subway: the uncertanty with which we all face the world mixed with the eagerness to grow. It is the desire to see past our impressions and into knowledge, and being in Japan has taken me one step closer to this understanding.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

politics in japan

My knowledge of Japanese politics doesn't extend very far beyond the line of emperors and capital relocation in Japan's 17th century history. I've spent almost three months in Japan and I still cannot name any members of the Japanese parliament or even what political parties exist in Japan. But I don't seem to be as far behind in my governmental knowledge as I thought. Besides the inconspicuous political posters scattered on light poles and shop windows and the vans blaring political propaganda like the one in the video below, the presence of political discussion or interest is slim to none. When I asked my friend Yuki, a second year student at Kansai Gaidai about this, she said that Japanese students' interests in politics "languish" behind those of international students. The political figures in Japan don't hold the same international status as leaders such as the Prime Minister of Great Britain or President Obama. In fact, one of the only words I understood in my conversation with the lady I bumped into, pictured in the photo, was "Obama-san." In stark contrast to my home university which has organizations and demontrations sharing their political opinions often, here at Kansai Gaidai, I haven't seen or heard anything of the sort. While in Tokyo, I did witness a few political demonstrations on busy street corners, but they mainly consisted of a handful of people handing out kleenex with a notecard of information in which no one seemed very interested. Perhaps it is the Japanese aversion to making waves in society, or indifference, or contentment with their life, that the Japanese don't take impacting roles in their own politics. Coming from a place where politics is ingrained from first mention of George Washington, and with every TV commercial about Obama, the silence of Japanese political issues has come to be a sort of relief. But it would be interesting to see what kind of political issues may be ignored or covered up as a result of this indifference. For now I will do my best to answer the questions about "Obama-san", and leave it at that.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

sports in japan

Everyone even remotely close to the Osaka area is a Hanshin Tigers fan. Founded in 1935, the Hanshin Tigers are the second oldest baseball club in Japan. Loyal fans flock to Koshien Stadium, pictured in the first photo, no matter the night of the week dressed head to toe in gold and black, ready to the famous eat curry rice, and of course cheer their beloved Tigers to victory. Every cheer is in perfect unison and the special clappers keep the stadium roaring. The Japnese people have a reputation for being reserved with their emotions and not causing a scene, but as I saw when I attended the Hanshin Tigers game on Wednesday night, within the Koshien stadium gates, anything goes. The fans provided more entertainment than the actual game. More than realizing anything particularly unique about Japanese sports, I realized how universal sporting events are. Since the beginning of time people have gathered to see competition of all kinds and the appeal never dies. The first picture of Koshien stadium could be a stadium anywhere and the excitement and devotion of the crowd had the feeling of going to a college football game or MLB game in the States. The second photo shows an American explaining to an baseball newcomer from Australia, the rules of the game. By then end of it, she was just as enthusiastic as the decked out Japanese couple behind us. There is something about the atmosphere of healthy competition that reaches all countries and people. Here is a video of one of the many synchronized Hanshin cheers. For more information on the Tigers, click here

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

gender in japan

Coming from the United States, my images of male and female ideals don't extend far beyond the twiggy, full-chested, bouncing blond curls of Barbie and her muscly, strapping, strong-jawed counterpart Ken, but here in Japan these ideals are quite different, especially for men. While the average American man goes to great lengths in the gym to craft the body of a professional athlete, the average Japanese man seems content in his small frame. Even the trendiest American men don't venture far beyond the graphic tee and a little gel for a doctored messy hair do, but Japanese men will sport everything from leopard print jackets like the one in the first photo, to fur hats like that in the second photo, and anything else that might make a splash. Both of these photos were taken in Namba, a popular spot for fashionable night-goers in Osaka, and to be honest, it took some scrutinizing to make sure that the individual in the first photo was actually a man. With the exception of the Kansai Gaidai baseball team that I see everyday on my way to class, most Japanese men look closer to the men photoed than the burlier, more built males found in gyms and office buildings across America. The way men act can also be contrasted. "Men don't cry," is pushed into little boys heads from their first skinned knee in the States. Showing your emotions is a sure way to be labelled a "sissyboy" or even a "little girl," but in a recent film I watched about Japanese baseball, players and coaches alike were often in tears. Whether moved by a moment of great honor such as being labelled captain, or mourning the loss of an important game, Japanese men and boys did not hesitate to cry, hug, and share emotional moments with and in front of their peers. Seeing the tendencies of the Japanese culture has surely widened the spectrum of masculinity for me to include much more than macho Ken's bulging biceps, flat front khakis, and never-changing emotions held in a plastic grin.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

religion in japan

Religious life in Japan is very diverse spanning many different traditions. With its beginnings rooted in Shinto mythology, Japan acquired the traditions of various Buddhist sects throughout its long history. Many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples representing all time periods can be found scattered in cities and countrysides across the country. Although many religious traditions are still practiced as they have been for centuries, I have found that most of the activity occurring in these temples and shrines are people just like me going to enjoy their community and beauty. The first picture shows a market put on at the Senoji Temple in Asakusa in Tokyo. Market vendors were set up on the grounds of the temple selling food and souvenirs side by side underneath paper cherry blossoms foreshadowing the spring. In the second photo, taken at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto shows a man taking his own photo of the scenery. Like these two photos, you often see Japanese people partaking in activities such as drinking beer or taking pictures in settings that may be seen as defiling in other religions. With the exception of the inner buildings of these shrines and temples, people are free to explore the area, let their kids run freely and laugh, take photos with their friends in front of the gates, or enjoy an afternoon yakisoba and beer. When I have gone to visit such sites, I have often seen after sending their short prayers to the gods, many Japanese people engaging in the same "touristy" activities that I am. From this I get the impression that the Japanese religious experience is more about paying respect and appreciation for the traditions and history than a strict reverence and faith. I think this adds to the religious identity of Japan and ultimately keeps its tradtions alive and continually cherished as time goes on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

globalization and japan

Globalization is present in Japan in everything from fashion to fast food. Having one of the world's strongest economies, Japan sends its influence everywhere and also brings in many new trends and cultural elements. Restaurants from India, Mexico and everywhere in between are frequented by Japanese people sporting everything from bohemian to American "Grease" style outfits. The global influence on Japanese popular culture is evident everywhere you look, but it is not only the newest trends that are reaching and leaving Japan's borders. Religion in Japan is the result of globalization that occurred as early as 5th century BC when Buddhism came to Japan from China and Korea. The Japanese people currently acknowledge three major religions in their culture: Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity. Japan's origin and political lineage were set up by ancient Shinto traditions. This history is still evident today in many shrines scattered throughout its cities and landscapes, but now one can find many Buddhist pagodas such as those pictured and buddha statues alongside these shrines. These two religions exist side by side in Japanese culture and do not conflict in the eyes of most Japanese. Another religious global influence has been the spread of Christianity which arrived with missionary Francis Xavier in the 16th century. Though it is less prevalent than the other two traditions, Christianity influences traditional and popular elements of Japanese culture. Weddings are often conducted with a Christian priest and vows and jewelry often highlight virgin Marys and crosses. The foreign influence in Japanese popular culture has boomed, but with every visit to a shrine or friends' wedding, we are reminded of the culture than reached these shores without the help of internet sites and TV shows. For more information on the mixed religion of Japan, click here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

photographing japan

children going to new year's event, Nigata, 1956
women harvesting rice, Yamagata 1955

Hiroshi Hamaya, a Tokyo native born in 1915, started photographing people at the age of 15. He went on to be a self-taught freelance photographer from the age of 21 and in 1960, became Magnum's first Asian photographer. His early work focused on the relationship between humans and nature. One of his first collections documented a snow village in Japan in 1946 and from there on he travelled around the world continuing his focus on people and their relationship to their surroundings. He covered the demonstration against the US and Japan Security Treaty but then returned to his original focus and began work on an aerial photo series. He died in 1999 but not without making a huge impact on photography in Japan and worldwide. His black and white striking landscapes and emotion-filled portraits earned him the Hasselblad Award in 1987. Hiroshi captured Japanese and other cultures at their roots, showing the labor and environment out of which our current societies grew. He stated that he has learned a lot about Japanese people by observing nature, and he has surely opened up this connection through his photos. In a world of brightly colored purikura, animae, and bustling streets of a nocturnal Tokyo, Hiroshi Hamaya's photos speak to me and my passion for the natural world and the human connection with it: a connection that technology and artificiality separates more and more each day. Click on the links for an interview with Hiroshi Hamaya and examples of his nature photography.

"I like the idea that my work isn't intended only for the Earth, but for the entire Universe!"