Journal One: Frustrations with Japan

Coming from the perspective of someone who has taken Japanese for two years prior to the program, I was more than eager to come to Japan and view the country I’ve been studying for so long. I also viewed this program additionally as an opportunity to practice the language through my day-to-day interactions. However, I noticed that it is not so much the case—it’s rather the encounters I have are either people assuming I know no Japanese at all or speak with such fluency that it makes it difficult if not impossible for me to understand. Mostly the former, I guess it could be said that I am semi-frustrated with the progression (or lack thereof) of my language progress here, despite it only being about a week and a half. Thinking about it, it has mainly come from me being viewed in Japan automatically as a foreigner.

I should know better than to have perfect expectations, but these experiences often remind me of how I don’t fit into the stereotypical ideal of what it means to be Japanese. Even with Japan’s population being heterogenous in appearance, what is still present is somewhat of an image of what a Japanese person “looks” like. Because of this, I feel that I stand out in almost all situations in Japan because of my skin color and hair texture, even more than a lot of my peers. No one has said or done anything derogatory, but occasionally with stares and glances make me feel that I am outside of the norm, not just as a foreigner, but as a Black one.

I had a feeling that I would notice this before, so I am already learning to adapt to other people’s expectations of me. As well, hearing of other people of my background living and working here makes me more optimistic for the future. I feel that with me being here and seeing others of my background here can challenge and change the idea of what it means to be a part of Japan, specifically a heterogeneous Japan.

Journal Two: Midway Point (but not really)

So at this point I’m more than halfway through my study abroad program, and by this time next week I’ll be back in Detroit. I thought since I was scheduled to go to Kyoto I’d discuss differences between Tokyo and Kyoto. The main reason why is because of the assumptions that I heard, that Kyoto was less busy, less hectic, less of a metropolis and more of a small town-ish feel. Coming back via Shinkansen, I wouldn’t disagree with any of those notions, and despite only being there for a weekend, I have a unique love for Kyoto, its charms, and how it made me feel.

For starters, Kyoto amazed me with its beauty and its natural surroundings. It seemed almost cozy being outlined by beautiful mountain ranges and coated with local shops selling souvenirs and (often matcha-flavored) dessert stores. The meshing of multiple temples, geishas, ryokan inns, and shitamachi-like streets fit with the aesthetic of Kyoto as “historical and “rural”. However, what also struck a chord with me was when we first arrived at Kyoto Station, and seeing the largeness of it. The station was vast, I think larger and more elaborate-looking than any other station I’ve seen in Tokyo. Along with dozens of shops, a hotel and beautiful architecture definitely made it stand out from what I’ve seen for the past view days. I almost viewed it as an extension of Tokyo, connecting me both figuratively and literally to the fast-paced Japan.

Seeing myself in Kyoto versus seeing myself in Tokyo, I didn’t notice much of a change in how I was perceived or how I thought I was perceived by those around me. I could possibly attribute it to Kyoto also being a popular tourist-y city in Japan, but being there did not make me feel any more out-of-place as a foreigner. In fact, I found myself to be more surrounded by tourists since the population was smaller and we were visiting popular attractions such as the Bamboo Forest and Arashiyama.

Overall, I’d strangely say that Kyoto was more relaxed than Tokyo was. Despite it being a fast-paced weekend, everything from the trains to the other surrounding people were less condensed and less in a rush. It gave me few opportunities to slow down and (literally) smell the flowers, and appreciate a different part of Japan. 

Final Journal Reflection: 5/23

As I write this, it will soon be the official “end” of my study abroad experience, and my first time travelling abroad.  I will soon return to my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, where once again my race is considered the majority despite being a minority.  I have taken some time to reflect on my first time being in a different country, and I will continue to reflect more on my time as the days and weeks go by.  However, thinking now, this would have to be my main observation:

I set my expectations too high.

When I refer to expectations, I am not referring my expectations of Japan, but rather the expectations of me being in Japan.  I had a lot of conflicting thoughts of me existing in the country, that I would stand out due to my Black features (i.e. my hair and skin tone) and feel isolated in a sense from other “tourists”.  Yet, at the same time I felt that I would also set myself apart through my language skills and set myself up with the expectation that I could keep up with the citizens around me.  I talked about this in another journal where I felt frustrated as I was automatically viewed as not knowing any Japanese despite studying the language for two years, but what I didn’t touch on, and what I realize now, was that I tried to overcompensate because of what others assumed and what I thought they would assume. Any time I could use Japanese, I would in an attempt to “prove myself” to others and would even get to the point of bashing myself I made any mistakes.

When doing my final project for class, we were supposed to make a “visual metaphor” to describe either Japan or ourselves and our experiences in Japan.  I had chosen to write about my experiences above, about how I set high expectations of myself in applying the language I spent so much time studying, to the point I would berate myself more.  In my metaphor I prove how my efforts are “futile” because 1. Many modern Japanese establishments will try to include English for foreign travelers, and 2. Because I’m being hard on myself for no reason.  Like any other person who’s learning a second language, it will take time, effort, and probably more than one trip to the country where that language is spoken to fully understand it. 
Knowing this, I am further grounded in what I do and don’t know, and I know to find acceptance in that.