My Japanese Experience (MIRAI program 14-22 December 2015)

     

    1 year has passed since my trip to Japan. A lot has happened since and I still keep its memory in my mind and soul. The time we spent there due to the MIRAI project was short and packed with numerous interesting activities. Even today, I believe we still have a lot to process.

    I remember now that when I asked someone to look at my application for the program, he said that it was somewhat too personal. Indeed, Japan is a personal subject for what concerns me. Previously to the trip, I have wished for a very long time to see, try, taste, touch, and experiment the things that I have only seen and read about in articles, YouTube videos, travel blogs, in manga and anime, as same as on NHK International.

    My curiosity about Japan is not only from an academic point of view, but also refers to cultural aspects, to its specific lifestyle, to the way of thinking of its people, the attitude towards life, nature and the world. At that time, I didn’t know about the MIRAI program (“mirai” means future in Japanese). And when I found out about it, I thought that somehow someone has answered my prayers.

    When it comes to the academic part, I should first mention that I have just finished my PhD in political science, and more specifically in evaluation of public programs and policies, at the National University for Political Studies and Public Administration from Bucharest, Romania (SNSPA). Therefore, Japan’s institutional system and policies are part of my interests. I wanted to know how Japan functions. In the news, we do not hear much about Asia. And the subject is not very much covered in the international relations literature from this part of the world either. Therefore, in this regard I did not have much information previous to the trip. I wanted to learn more about the organizational culture, both in public and private sectors.

    International Relations workshop at MOFA – Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

    Further, I have organized my observations around a few aspects:

    Japan as a mechanism, as a whole being
    During my entire stay, I had the feeling that all Japan functioned like a clock, like a whole entity. First, I was impressed by how clean the public space was. Even though Tokyo is a capital and one of the biggest cities in the world, there wasn’t anything out of place.

    A room with a view: Tokyo SkyTree
    Street view near Tokyo Tower
    Roppongi Hills

    I admired the way in which all Japanese people, regardless of profession, always strive to do their best in everything they do. Their patience and search for perfection can be seen in their attention to detail and exquisite crafts.

    The attention to details, the respect for nature and for other people, as same as the perseverance invested in all activities can also be observed in the Japanese educational system. During the homestay in Saga, we managed to get only a glimpse of the club activities specific to the regional schools and universities: designing and painting of ceramics, playing at Koto, playing at Japanese taiko drums, calligraphy and other.

    Kindergarten classroom in Saga prefecture

    I believe that, by encouraging students to attend club activities and by providing them with the necessary support for undergoing such activities, they cultivate values such as teamwork, friendship, perseverance, patience, respect for work, discipline, respect for tradition and nature. I am glad that, recently, different Romanian TV stations have chosen to broadcast TV shows about the Japanese educational system and the sense of responsibility and respect for others it instils in its students by putting them in charge with cleaning their own classrooms.

    Japanese values and principles
    A few months after the trip, I learned about the concept of Satoyama, while listening to NHK International. The type of landscape to which “satoyama” or “nature with humans” refers is described in “Furusato” (meaning “My Country Home”), which is a popular song in Japan. The term illustrates the places where people live in harmony with nature, and best describes Japanese villages. One example that I would like to mention here refers to the Fuji kindergarten that was built around a 50-year-old Zelkova tree. The tree at case was nearly uprooted during a typhoon but somehow it managed to survive and become green again. And in 2007, the architecture firm in charge with building the kindergarten decided to incorporate the Zelkova tree together with other neighbouring trees in the building. The result was a circle kindergarten without boundaries between classrooms or between inside and outside, and in which children can climb trees during classes. TED has called the Fuji kindergarten the world’s best kindergarten (http://ideas.ted.com/inside-the-worlds-best-kindergarten/).

    Meiji Jingu Shrine

    However, I think that the best example of Japanese people living in harmony with nature is represented by the Meiji Jingu Shrine and the principles and values specific to Shintoism. From certain points of view, the shrine and the forest surrounding it managed to impress me the most. Meiji Jingu is like a heart of green and tranquillity in the centre of Tokyo. There, we had the unique opportunity to assist to a presentation about Shintoism, to watch certain Japanese traditional wedding practices being performed and to attend a Shinto ceremony, which involved Miko (Shrine Maidens) dancing.

    Traditional Japanese wedding ceremony
    Wooden Prayer Requests at Meiji Jingu Shrine

    On the other hand, in Shintoism we can also find other principles and values, like respect for family, and especially for elders, living in harmony with others and having respect for them. And even though only few Japanese consider themselves as being part of Shintoism, most of them seem to follow the ethical principles of the religion. And this can be observed also in their administrative affairs, such as the way in which they manage their cities and communities in general, and in their educational system.

    Japan’s hospitality
    The place where I felt the most welcome was in Saga, during the home stay experience. I was amazed how we could all get along without knowing much Japanese (from my part) or English (from their part). We managed in part through sign language, and with the help of Google translate and of a dictionary. When there is willingness to get along from both parts, it all works out in the end.

    Best rice and tempura shrimps at a local restaurant in Saga – with the host family (the rice was locally produced)

    We ate together and even spent time together in the evening as a family. The host mother showed me how to make tsuru origami and the daughter sang at the piano. All of them were warm and loving. We went together to a sake factory, made cookies, ate tempura. And the surprise of the home stay was when the grandmother offered to dress me in her family’s kimono.

    Elements of cultural shock
    At parting, I hugged the members of the host family. At first, they were a little bit surprised, but after sensing that they had no “escape”, they accepted my way of showing appreciation and fondness. Their affection was present in the kind way the grandmother offered to dress me in her family’s kimono, the framed picture of sakura taken by the father that I received as gift (I still keep it on my nightstand), the way we sat around the table in the evening, sharing tangerines and folding origami, the way we made onigiri and prepared dinner together, and last, but not least, their warm smiles.

    On this occasion, I wish to thank Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the AFS team of volunteers, to EFIL and to all those that made the MIRAI program possible. We all had a once in a lifetime and extremely enriching experience. Moreover, I wish to thank my university, SNSPA, and to Professor Iordan Bărbulescu, PhD, through which I got introduced to Japanese culture.

    I still think frequently about my experience in Japan and about the best practices that can be applied in Romania and Europe, in general. My dreams about it involve learning Japanese in the near future. Until now I didn’t have the chance, as I had to work on finishing my studies, but further I want to seriously reflect on ways in which I could bring best policy and organisational practices from Japan to Romania.

    I recommend everyone to visit Japan at least once in their lifetime and have a taste of its unique culture. It doesn’t matter if you are more of a fan of large cities and technological development or of quiet, close to nature experiences. Japan has it all. And, as a bonus, in 2020, Tokyo will be hosting the Summer Olympics, for which the Japanese people are preparing every day, as same as for welcoming their guest as best as possible.

    Ioana Borcan
    December 2016

    Other images

    Street View in Tokyo
    Christmas lights around Shibuya
    Barrels with sake at Meiji Jingu Shrine
    Quiet place at Meiji Jingu Shrine
    Small statues at Meiji Jingu Shrine
    Eating Chanko Nabe – the food of sumo wrestlers
    Roppongi Hills Mori Tower – a 54-story mixed-use skyscraper
    Airplane food
    Drums demonstration in Saga
    Having fun at a Sake brewery from Saga (we weren’t making faces because of the sake tasting)
    MIRAI group photo