Monday, November 25, 2013

Cultural Perspective

One of the things I think many people often ponder about is the subjectivity of time. For example, it's been almost 4 months since I've been here and yet there are both times when it feels like 1 day and others when it feels like a whole year. This creates a paradox when I reflect on my future because even though it may feel like I have all the time in the world, I know that it will all rush by in the span of a day if I let it.

This is amazing to me when I consider where I'm living which is, let's face it, the middle of nowhere. With so little to do in this small town, I wonder what on earth I've been doing to pass the time so quickly. I realize the answer is simple yet complex- living well. In a secluded, small town in the middle of a vast country and even prefecture, things are boiled down to the necessities of life where one can settle into a repetative yet comfortable routine. One of the great improvments to my life is that I have a stable job that starts and ends at the same time every day and fits the expected societal work-week (usually...).

This was me the week of our school culture festival

It's well-known that Japanese people work long hours (one of the great challenges to the rising number of dual-working parent households which I've written a whole research paper about). In fact, people dying from overwork is such a problem that it has it's own word in Japanese, 過労死 (karoushi). However, here lies an example of how fixed worldviews can cause cultural misunderstanding and it's something every person on earth is guilty of at some point even if they don't realize it.

And then there are the ones that do...

In this particular instance, it's the subconcious thought that all of Japan is Tokyo (on the flip-side, most Japanese think all of America is New York and LA). When most non-Japanese think of Japan they conjure up images of bright lights, awesome trains, and buildings that reach the sky. In the same way, people that are conscious of Japanese work ethic think of trains stuffed to the gills with tired, black-suited men on their way to some office job hours away. And this image can be accurate when you're talking about Tokyo. Going from the city to the countryside, I was surprised once again at how the same culture can be so different within the same country. No, the train won't get me to work, but it's less than 5 minutes by car and I have the freedom to drive anywhere I want. Yes, we wear suits at school, but only in the winter when it's not boiling hot. Yes, they work ridiculously long hours, but the office environment is so relaxed and relationships so friendly yet professional that I myself don't mind staying a an extra hour or two even though it's not required of me (my contract stipulates an 8:30-4:15 work day with a 45 minute lunch break. Hah! My classes start at 8:35 and I eat with my students at lunch). You're treated as a person with things to contribute instead of a number in a machine.

Being that this is my first experience in the Japanese countryside, I was surprised by my own cultural ignorance when I started talking to my predecessor about what to expect. "What do you mean the train only runs once an hour!" (I laughed just the other day when I had to stop at a railroad crossing and saw that the train was only a measely two cars long...). "I'm going to need a car???!" "You use a kerosene-powered heater???"

"What do you mean there're no ninja trains?!!!"

Unfortunately, my expectations were also jaded by what I was told by Japanese people in Tokyo. It's amazing how many countries discriminate against their own people. Every Japanese person I talked to in Tokyo had a very negative view of the countryside. I even knew a teacher at Seijo University from Akita who spoke against her own prefecture vehemently. She spoke of a secluded place full of "hikikomori" (recluses and shut-ins afraid of society). When I heard that I had been placed in Akita for the JET program I panicked a little inside thanks to these prejudices.

After doing some research and talking to other ALTs in Akita, I began to wonder what she was talking about. The ALTs I talked to seemed very happy with where they were and I was surprised to find some newbies had actually requested it. After arriving I was stunned and I'm quite convinced that this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen in my entire life. I learned a valuable lesson in that sometimes you have to take what people say about their own country or culture with a grain of salt and I suspect that's true about any country.

Even if Japan has it's share of inter-cultural prejudices, I can definitely say that they do not take their country for granted. My Tokyo friends will even admit that even if they don't want to live in the countryside, they hold a very high opinion of it's natural beauty. The people that do live here in Akita place great value and pride on their prefecture for it's scenery and traditional culture (a lot of which those in the urban cities have to go quite a ways to see). They enthusiastically will point you in the right direction to famous places and events. As I mentioned before in a recent post, you can see Mount Choukai from our office window and whenever it's visible (a rare instance in the winter time), people actually stop and take the time to take in it's majesty while it's there.

Almost like a gigantic strip-tease...

That isn't to say that I don't miss the big city. I'm enjoying my time here, but all the while I'll be resisting the strong urge to run to Tokyo or Milwaukee where life seems to be happening without me while I sit here in the temporal bubble that is Akita. I miss my friends and being able to see them almost any time I want. I miss burritos and real pizza. I miss not having to own a car. By the time I finish my term here, I'll be so ready to jump back on that train of life.

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