For many years, Baylor University has operated an exchange program with Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan, allowing Baylor students to spend time studying and living in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The program is directed on the Waco end by Yuko Prefume, a lecturer in Japanese in Baylor’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures in the College of Arts & Sciences.
In the second of two blog posts, Baylor exchange student Sean Nixon reports further on his time spent at Hosei this academic year. Sean is a senior Baylor Business Fellows and finance major from Eagle, Idaho.
It is amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the monotony of daily life and forget to enjoy things. Even here in Japan, a place I had long dreamed of coming to, it has been easy to forget that as I get busy with classwork and studying Japanese. With the Japanese Language Proficiency Test upcoming, studying Japanese has become particularly time consuming. As a result, I have not been experiencing the country and people of Japan as much as I would wish.
Even so, I have had the chance to talk with many different people here — people from around the world, across four continents. Putting down on paper all that experience has taught me is difficult, if not impossible.
But just as an example, the other day I was talking with two friends, one Japanese and one Italian. The three of us talked about various things, but then my Japanese friend asked us what we disliked about Japanese people. That sparked a very interesting discussion.
We talked about the Japanese tendency to avoid foreigners because they assume foreigners cannot speak Japanese, and the Japanese are not confident in their own English abilities. Somehow, the conversation then led to store employees and the differences between America, Italy and Japan.
For instance, Japanese store clerks are almost always extremely polite and kind, if a bit distant. While I like that, my Italian friend disagreed and preferred those from America, because they can be very warm and friendly. In some way I saw what she was saying, but I also was surprised she had such a positive image of American employees, because my overall opinion is fairly negative. In addition, she said that those in Italy are the rudest, which I found very interesting.
In this way, I have been able to hear the opinions and thoughts of people from around the world. I have talked about a range of topics from love to politics with someone from Switzerland, have heard from someone from Russia who favors Putin and thinks democracy is not a good idea for Russia, and have discussed friendship with someone from Brazil.
Throughout this, I am being exposed to so many difference cultures and ways of thinking that differ from my own. Consequently, even if I did not learn Japanese or travel Japan at all, I think this period studying abroad is turning into a truly once in a lifetime, if not life-changing experience. As a bonus, I am making friendships with people around the world which I think is a spectacular thing.
Recently I was able to visit a friend’s house with several other people for dinner. This visit left an impression on me about gifts and Japanese culture. It was the first time I had visited a Japanese home since my brief home stay when I first arrived. Altogether we had eight people, five of whom were Japanese. What I was most surprised at was that three of the four Japanese people who were visiting brought along food as a gift. Meanwhile, all three of the non-Japanese, including me, showed up empty-handed.
At that moment, I clearly realized a difference in culture that I had heard of but mostly forgotten about at the time. When you visit someone’s house, it is good manners to bring a small gift with you. It was just an informal get-together and we were planning on going shopping together beforehand, so it did not even occur to me to bring along anything. Nonetheless, nearly all of my Japanese friends felt the necessity to bring a gift anyway.
I was also intrigued by how the Japanese played down their gifts in creative ways. For example, one said that his mother forced him to take it. Another said she brought it because she herself wanted to eat it.
There may have been some truth to these statements, but it was fascinating to see in real life how quick Japanese people are to put down what they are offering. It felt a little strange to me, even though it was an aspect of Japanese culture that I had learned about before. The rest of the night passed without much surprise, but overall I feel like I came away with a better understanding of Japanese culture.
This month, I was able to experience the Japanese New Year — oshougatsu. I stayed in a Japanese house for the first three days of January, which was quite interesting. It was in an outer suburb of Tokyo where there were few large franchises, so nearly everything was closed and hardly anyone was walking the streets, a rare sight in Tokyo. I did not realize that the first three days of January are a holiday for all Japanese government offices and most small businesses as well. It was a relaxed feeling that I found very enjoyable and am glad to have experienced it.
I even was able to eat the selection of traditional Japanese New Year dishes known as osechi, which had a myriad of foods whose identities I and sometimes even the Japanese family members were unsure of. It was delicious, in particular the chestnuts, which I had never eaten before.
Also during New Year, I went to a shrine for hatsumoude — the traditional Japanese custom of visiting a temple or shrine for the first time of the year. In contrast to the laid-back atmosphere of the suburbs, at the shrine there were throngs of people.
In the end, we had to wait nearly an hour and a half to reach the front of the line. Ordinarily, I would see no reason to do this, but I found it a fascinating insight into an aspect of the Japanese people and their religious beliefs.
While most Japanese people say they are not religious, a vast amount of people come and wait over an hour in the cold in order to throw some coins in a box and say a short prayer. It personally baffles me, but it was still interesting to go through roughly the same experience for reference.
Photo captions (from top down):
* “Me trying my hand at wood carving during my trip to Nikkō, Japan. If I remember right, there was something special about the tool that we used that was somehow unique to Nikko, but I had difficulty understanding that part.”
* “Halfway through my attempt to carve out the design of a dragon on a plate. The white parts are paint and the other parts are where I have already carved.”
* “Me and my work group throwing up snow during a school sponsored trip to Nikkō, Japan. We are in the grounds of the Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.”
* “A tower in the Nikkō Tōshō-gū.”
* “Entrance to a Shinto shrine. It was around January 3 or so, so every one is lining up to make their first visit of the year. As for the name, my friend brought me so I am not sure if I am remembering entirely correctly, but I am fairly sure it was the Yushima Tenman-gu Shrine.”
That is a great conversation! It’s true that the Japanese are hesitant in speaking with foreigners as they don’t really get to speak a lot of English in their school. It’s good that you were able to meet different people of different cultures. You get to see what they are like in a working environment, and also see their work ethics first hand. Great pictures, and thanks for sharing your story!