My sister has been teaching English in
Japan for the past nine months. When I recently went to visit her
there, I had no idea what to expect. For me, Japan has always been
foreign and far away by definition, a place I never dreamed I would
actually see. My only preconceptions came from random passages of
Lonely Planet and scenes from “Lost in
Translation.”

Bonnie Kellman

When I first arrived, I was surprised to discover that many
Japanese stereotypes are actually true. For example, schoolgirls
really do wear those short plaid skirts you see in Anime. The
schoolboys wear suits to match. (After school, they untuck their
shirts, loosen their ties and strut through the city like little
punk businessmen.) And everything is one size smaller than its
counterpart in the United States. I swear that seats and couches
are half the height. I banged my head on the top of multiple
doorframes. Even at Starbucks, there’s a “short”
size, which is smaller than a “tall.”

As I stayed longer, I was struck by how Westernized Japan is.
Although I knew that Japan has been heavily influenced by the
United States since World War II, I was not prepared for the
reality of it. Simultaneous progress and preservation of culture
has created a strange mix of ancient and modern. In Tokyo, temples
serenely sit next to skyscrapers. Women in kimonos chat on cell
phones. At the Meiji-jingu Shrine, I saw two Buddhist monks direct
a BMW into a garage.

Western influence extends even further than this. The West is
not simply a presence, but a fashion statement. Random English
words spring up in advertisements. Many people dye their hair
shades of brown and blond. In kimono stores, almost all the plastic
models are white. At a crepe stand in Toyama, the cashier wore a
nickel around her neck as an exotic touch to her outfit. In Japan,
the West is cool and trendy, my sister explained.

Despite all this, it is definitely not cool and trendy to
actually be white. As caucasians, my sister and I stood out like
white elephants in their homogeneous population. It started as soon
as my sister met me in Tokyo’s Narita airport. As we walked
through the terminal, a group of Japanese schoolgirls began to
giggle hysterically. “Hello! Hello!” one of them
called. “What’s the joke?” I asked my sister as
we rushed past. “We are,” she said.

And that was only the beginning. On the subway in Sapporo, a
girl by the door stared at us wide-eyed and open-mouthed. We looked
at her. She stared. We looked away. She moved to the seat across
from us and stared some more. I was unsure if she was even
blinking. Most probably, we were the first white people she had
ever seen.

Of course, not all Japanese people are like this. Although we
did receive countless sidelong glances, for the most part, they
were extremely friendly. The Japanese have turned common courtesy
into an art form. Even in the midst of our American ignorance, they
bowed and smiled persistently. Shopkeepers welcome everyone who
passes by. As my sister and I left one restaurant, the entire
kitchen crew stopped to thank us. I had never felt so popular. It
was nice, even if its artificiality became stifling after about a
week.

When you think about it, their attitude makes sense; with so
many people packed onto four small islands, they have to be
thoughtful and considerate to survive. They have to smooth over
conflicts because they can’t run away in their SUVs like
Americans can. At the same time, though, their courtesy seems to be
based on something deeper than calculated flattery. Security is
lax. On the overnight trains, there are no doors to the sleeping
compartments. In other words, they have faith in humanity. It is
unclear if this is the cause or result of their surprisingly low
crime rate.

By the end of the trip, I had seen another side of the world. I
had tasted what it’s like to be a minority, an outsider,
someone living in a country that’s being culturally and
economically taken over by another. There are a million different
perspectives in this world. The sad part is, we’ll never even
be aware of a fraction of them because we’re all so blinded
by our own small lives. It’s humbling, really. That’s
exactly the point of traveling.

Kellman can be reached at
“mailto:bonkell@umich.edu”>bonkell@umich.edu.

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