Final Post =)

I remember being dumbfounded when a friend from Ritsumeikan commented during his time at Rutgers that “It’s hard to be an Asian in America.” Having been given no explanation at the time, I only found out later that he had been referring to the number of extracurriculars that American students must be involved in, in both high school and college.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two systems in this way: US schools stress well-rounded students while the college acceptance system in Japan is based almost entirely on raw test scores. It seemed fitting that, on paper, many of our friends at Rits were not involved in many clubs or sports and were uninterested in various social issues according to our survey. Yet, actually being on campus, talking to our friends, and especially visiting various civil society organizations painted a very different picture for us. One student was consistently late for our Rutgers-Rits get-togethers because of his heavy involvement with the Korean Students Club (rough translation) at Ritsumeikan. We didn’t get to see another friend until the farewell dinner because she was enrolled in a special inter-university program that required her to travel through schools presenting her research on a contested area of modern  ‘civil society,’ the world wide web. More than half of the students we met on this program were student leaders for the IR program at Rits, connecting students across grades and heading numerous retreats on and off campus. At the Aozora Foundation and during the classes we had together at Rutgers, the students displayed a high level of interest and knowledge about both social and political issues, questioning authorities and putting forth community-based ideas for social development.

Yet, the interesting revelation was that many of the Rits students left class grasping for a concrete definition of ‘civil society.’ They didn’t believe that they were heavily involved in it, and didn’t think that they had anything other than academics to fill their resumes. I think that the main difference between American and Japanese civil society, at least at this age, is the fact that America has a name and a clear picture of what the term entails in our specific communities. We view civil society as a means to express our opinions and have some impact in the immediate or long-run society in which we live, viewing formal and informal organizations as a larger tool for our own goals.

Someone also suggested during our last lecture that the Japanese students were only involved in aspects of civil society that impacted them directly, or heavily interested them. In retrospect, this isn’t particularly different from the US. By our Western point of view, perhaps the Japanese students were not as heavily involved in organizations as we seem to be, or were downright apathetic on paper. However, the fact that our society emphasizes involvement encourages students at Rutgers to join various clubs in name only, signing into a dozen club meetings while only being involved in a handful. At our last meeting with Kelly, I listed a few clubs that I was heavily involved in, but knew then that I had only touched the tip of my paper resume. It was only when I saw the extent of the Rits students’ involvement in their communities and school that I realized our civil societies aren’t as different, or as clear cut as classes can make them out to be – it was simply that our civil society involvement leaves, and is intended to leave, a clearer paper trail.

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Being an unempathetic baka-gaijin =(

Being a Japanese-Amurrican in Japan has its perks: I can usually complain to anyone who tries to give me bad service because they think I’m a baka-gaijin. However, it took a trip to three of Kyoto’s most famous museums before I realized the extent to which I identify as American, over Japanese.

The Ritsumeikan Peace Museum very candidly shows the atrocities that Japan committed during WWII; for international visitors, who are already likely aware of the victors’ stories, this helps to explain Japan’s actions without going so far as to excuse them. What’s significant is that a good number of the museum’s various artifacts and documents focuses on the civilian experience during Japanese warfare, which ties in nicely to its overarching emphasis on grassroots movements and political awareness at the individual level.

The Yasukuni Shrine and Yushukan Museum were clearly meant to spread a revisionist history to an international audience, as well as nationalistic Japanese. Hundreds of portraits of fallen soldiers lined the walls, giving a face to the Japanese side of wars. The perfect English translations and strategically chosen documents – depicting nationalistic pride and willingness of the soldiers to fight, not flee – caught my eye after weeks of seeing almost comical Engrish and bad grammar (does anyone else remember the signs on the ferry we took to Miyajima?).

The Atomic Bomb Museum went for graphic detail and shock value, with an overarching message to younger generations to avoid human-made destruction and future conflict. Not shying away from the most grotesque of exhibits, this was not exactly the most kid-friendly museum – yet, most of our Rits. friends had visited it as children (and likely had run away screaming). The museum itself used various viewpoints – the Japanese and Allied governments’ to explain what let up to the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man, but also a highly visual setup to emphasize the experiences of victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

More than anything, I was interested in the people that the museums attracted. Smaranda and I met an old man at the Yushukan Museum who referred to the second floor as ‘Japan’s true history’ and overheard an older woman telling her grandchild how proud a mother must have been that her son had died so honorably, serving his country on the battlefield. A younger man brought his son to the Atomic Bomb Museum – when the son shrank away from the gory exhibits, he held him back, saying that this was something that had to be seen. The Ritsumeikan Museum’s controversial acceptance of Japan’s historical war crimes may be a factor in its deserted halls at the time that we visited, though even its location was rather disheartening: it’s a university-affiliated exhibit, yet it is hidden away in the basement floor of the museum. From my Americanized point of view, I can’t tell how the Japanese view the museums themselves: do they understand the historical significance of the museums in the same way that we do, or do they simply choose different sides to believe (rather like how many Southern states in the US still call the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression…)? Seeing how little I understand Japanese politics and society, and how little explanation American monuments give about our place in international conflicts, reminds me that we as individuals need to be aware of the history behind any exhibition someone pushes into our faces – whether it’s a peace-seeking organization, a school or a nationalistic government.

Independence through Community

Three small children walked on the streets ahead of us, heading to school, waiting for the public buses and subways. Clad in distinctive yellow caps and colorful backpacks, still swaying slightly on undeveloped legs as they walked, they were carefree and unsuspecting…highly prone to tragic accidents, and the perfect targets for child abductors. Had any parents in my hometown given their child this level of independence, child services would have been knocking at their door in a second. My biggest surprise in Kyoto was really my own realization at my level of distrust of strangers and neighbors. In the US, it seemed natural to walk my sisters to and from school each day, to buy their tickets at the train station or bus stop if I needed to. They still don’t know how to use public transportation, and neither of my parents have ever trusted them to ride a train alone.

Yet in Japan, these schoolchildren are not as vulnerable as they appear at first sight. Nearly every school requires that their students wear uniforms, distinguishing them from other schools in the area. From elementary to high school, any student caught out of school or committing some small crime can be identified and referred to school officials even before their parents are notified. It is also understood that, should anyone – civilian or public official – see a child out of place, they would see to it that they are taken to safety.

I guess it isn’t particularly strange to see children with greater independence in a country with a strong communal culture. The children in yellow hats and tiny uniforms are not only their parents’ responsibility, but that of the community as a whole, affording them a greater level of security as they make their way through city streets and subways to school; given such a safe social environment, children are free to learn to navigate their world at a younger age.

 

Buddhist Temples, a Shinto Shrine and really cute deer…

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Nara Park has too much to cover in one post!!! Located in Nara, Japan, the park holds three major religious structures – the Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji Buddhist temples, and the Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine – all of which are UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites. As an added bonus, visitors to the park can approach and feed the [adorable] ‘sacred deer’ – more on that later.

Todai ji, founded in 728 and completed in 749, is a complex of various structures. Among them is the Great South Gate, which houses the Nio (Kongo Rikishi) or Guardians of the Buddha, two huge wooden statues representing ‘birth’ or ‘the beginning’ and ‘death’ or ‘the end.’ However, Todai-ji is best known for the Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden, in which the Nara Daibutsu (Big Buddha of Nara) statue sits. Major events held in Todai-ji include Omizu tori, literally ‘Water-Drawing’ but also known as the Fire Festival, and O minugui, which is the spring cleaning of the Buddha.

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Kofuku ji was established in Kyoto in 669 by Kagami no Okimi, for her husband Fujiwara no Katamari, but was dismantled twice before finally being moved to its present location in Nara. Of the original complex of about 175 structures, only 7 major buildings remain, including the Eastern and Central Golden Halls, the Northern and Southern Octagonal Halls, and the ‘Three-Story’ and ‘Five-Story’ Pagodas. The first four house various Buddhist statues such as the Healing Buddha, the Buddha of the Future, the Bosatsu of the Unfailing Fishing Line, and the 12 Heavenly Generals, while the latter two hold several historically significant images of the Buddha. Kofuku ji also features a children’s sanctuary of small headstones, where red bibs are placed in order to hasten the children’s liberation to Nirvana.

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Kasuga Taisha is among the most important Shinto structures in Japan, dedicated to the prayer and worship of Kami, or natural deities and ancestral spirits. Established in 768 but dating back to 710 as a significant area of Shinto worship, the shrine is located between two mountains (Kasuga and Wakakusa) on the eastern side of Nara Park, which are considered the place from which the Kami first descended. The long path to the shrine is lined with countless stone and bronze lanterns, as well as the Temizuya, a water fountain where worshippers wash their hands before entering the shrine through the Minamimon, or South Gate. Near the entrance, people also like to buy Onikugi, small slips of paper containing their fortunes, to tie to branches of trees – both to promote good fortunes and negate inauspicious ones. During the Man toro festivals in February and August, the 3000 lanterns in and around the shrine are all lit to console the ancestors’ souls, while performances of Gagaku, a court dance, and Kagura, Shinto music, entertain the visitors.

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Finally, the deer – which are fairly tame and allowed to roam freely in the park, were once thought to be sacred relatives of the white deer that carried a Shinto deity from Wakakusa Mountain in 768. Although they are no longer considered divine animals, the deer are now national treasures, still protected by authorities and revered by many.

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