The Making of a Culture

First, let me say it has taken me far too long to get back to bloggin (almost a year to be exact). Mostly it’s that Japan doesn’t feel like a foreign country to me, so it’s difficult to find topics to write about that I find challenging. But I will do my best to find more, I promise.

The other day I went to a placed called Gotemba right at the base of Mt. Fuji to get certified in Wilderness First Aid. As I’ve mentioned on Facebook, I’m slowly collecting certifications and licenses so that I am more qualified as a travel professional. This month, it’s the highest level of the Japanese Language Placement Test and next month, it’s my mid-size bus license.

Anyway, the facility where the WAFA (Wilderness First Aid) course took place looked like a cross between a summer camp and Juvie. Named the National Youth Exchange House (my translation), it featured ugly barrack-style dormitories, a huge cafeteria with the worst food I’ve had in a long time, and an open area with two flag poles: the Japanese flag and flag of the National Youth Exchange House. Right next to both Camp Fuji (American Combined Arms Training Center) and Takigahara (Japanese Self Defense Force Base), you could hear mortar rounds being fired for practice all day and the daily wake up/lights out trumpets. Various groups of junior high and high school students came though during our stay for a night or two each, and did activities during the day like hiking, orienteering and campfires. I actually think this aspect of the facility was great: Japanese kids who live in cities are so focused on upcoming exams that they rarely get to go out and be kids.

The title of this blog post, however, came about mainly because of the twice daily flag raising and lowering ceremonies. First, let me say that while patriotism in America is prominent and loud (ie the national anthem before every game), in Japan it exists but it’s subtle. Post WWII, the Japanese flag became a symbol of right-wing extremism rather than national pride, and it is only now returning back to the streets as people start to believe that they have a right to be proud of their country too. Nowadays, national pride in Japan looks more like the belief in Japanese exceptionalism or that the way things are done in Japan are best.

Anyway, during the ceremonies each day four students would assist with the flag raising and flag lowering. Afterwards, they were expected to make a short speech, and inevitably, they would make pre-recorded statements about doing their best at camping or working together as a team or what they should have done better that day. Afterwards, the head of the facility would speak, usually discussing the importance of loud greetings and bows, or the requirement of folding your futon mattress up exactly as the picture shows so that you consider the feelings of the person who will stay next. Then everyone lined up exactly how they were supposed to in perfectly straight lines, bow, and the ceremony came to a formal close.

My continuous reaction to this facility was how Japanese it was. It felt like Japanese school all over again, but more harsh. It also felt like North Korean propaganda, but more nice. I really think the Japanese government got together, thought about how to instill Japanese values like group think, collectivism, and social responsibility, and tailor-made this facility just for that. It really hit home when I was reading a book by Bruce Feiler called Learning to Bow. He says “American schools exist to teach kids how to think, while Japanese schools exists to teach kids how to become good citizens”.

I think each systems’ strengths are reflected in their performances. Japanese schools do great in rote memory performance like math and science because school is not about asking questions but about writing down what the teacher says and memorizing it. It’s about following instructions, much like Japanese companies. “If your boss says a crow is white, a crow is white” goes a famous Japanese saying. American schools perform terribly in the lower levels, but no Japanese universities can compete with any Ivy League school. You cannot do innovative research or write interesting theses when you have never asked the question why.

I hope this doesn’t come off as strictly a criticism of the Japanese system. In many ways, there are really great things about it. Because of its collectivist nature, Japan doesn’t have crime to speak of (only white collar), the trains run on time, and it’s a challenge to find trash on the street. However, the culture of just following the leader and not asking questions has had huge consequences (in my opinion) on the economy. Entrepreneurship is just not that big of a thing. Job security is valued over upward mobility, and if you have a job that pays enough, even if you hate it, why quit? Last week I got a glimpse into where that mentality begins from: the school system. If Japan is to continue to compete internationally, I think it has to keep the best aspects while reforming some of the worst.

Untimely Samaritinism

My experience today shows me that perhaps I have retained a few too many of my Kenyan driving habits. Also, interesting things tend to happen around Elbert, like my Japanese hiking trip 2 years ago if you want to read about it.

So I’m in Leadville, Colorado, hiking Mt. Elbert in preparation for my annual Colorado Japanese hiking trip. On the way at around 6:30 in the morning, I see what looks to be a homeless guy hitchhiking. I usually regret not stopping so I decide “what the heck, I’ll pick him up”. I pull over onto the narrow shoulder, look behind to make sure no one is approaching, and wave for him to jump in. He looks grateful, but after attempting the door handle realizes that it’s locked. I fumble around, looking for the unlock button on my parents’ car, before giving up and reaching over to open the handle from the inside. He jumps in and in that tiny 20 second window when no one would have known, I see a policeman’s lights blaring in my rear view mirror. I think “crap, I’ve either been speeding, or I’ve picked up a convicted meth-head criminal who is going to pull a knife on me”, neither option of which sounds particularly appealing.

So I pull over, and the cop suspiciously asks me a bunch of questions about why I picked up a homeless guy. Apparently the cop saw a dead animal down the road, and one of my car’s back lights was busted from someone rear-ending my brother, all of which added to his suspicion. I know he was suspicious because he told me my story didn’t add up… so I told him the same simple story again. I think he was calculating the possibility of some sort of Fargo-esque scenario. I can’t imagine cops in Leadville have an excessive amount to do. He gave us both a lecture about how dangerous – and illegal – it is to stop in the middle of the highway and that it is illegal to hitchhike outside of designated areas (I actually thought it was illegal everywhere) and sent us on our way. I dropped off the thankful homeless man outside of town and continued onto a grueling but beautiful hike up Elbert.


Come to think of it, I might have picked up the highway-stopping habit up in Japan too. For some reason, they think that as long as your hazard lights are on, anywhere is fair game to completely block traffic. But legality aside, I do think this was a case of doing the moral, yet illegal thing. There were no places to stop along the highway, and this guy would have had to walk at least 10 miles into town. Sorry cop, I know you yelled at me but given the choice, I would probably do the same thing again.



The Most Interesting Man on the Nakasendo

Over the last year and a half working for Walk Japan, mostly waking an ancient trade and pilgrimage road called the Nakasendo, I have met some fascinating people. They break the stereotypes of what Japanese people are like – working long hours, group-oriented, quiet, respectful etc. I like people who break stereotypes though. They are the ones who don’t need or want to be molded by societal pressures. Life is too short. Quite frankly they are just more interesting. I am meeting more of them in Japan, and being someone who can never quite fit in myself, I like it. I think it’s good for the country. And for whatever reason, compared to the cities I see so many more cool people like them in the countryside, which is partly why I like living in Nagano. Here are a few of their stories.

There are several people on the Nakasendo that consistently find their way into the most memorable of the trip. First, there is the boar-hunting inn keeper Hara San, who grows his own rice and with his wife greets you with a smile and waves until you’ve walked out of sight around the last bend in the road. Their genuine thankfulness for you staying with them is something Western countries could learn from. When we are staying there, after I get everyone settled into their rooms he always gets a glimmer in his eye, asks if it was a long day and offers me some “wheat tea”, his euphemism for a cold Asahi. At dinner, without fail I am offered a glass of “water” (sake).

Then of course, there are the cooks/musicians/conductors extraordinaire – Mr. and Mrs. Ando. After arriving at their log cabin/restaurant, you sit down to a full view of Mt. Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan after Mt. Fuji. They bring out miso pizza, margarita pizza and fresh-baked bread (this is the 8th day of the trip and almost everyone is happy to get away from rice). But lunch is just getting started. Mr. Ando plays – to the best of his ability – the Tsugaru Shamisen, a traditional 3-stringed instrument that is actually really cool when done correctly (check out this video). Then Mrs. Ando, who plays the harmonica beautifully, plays an old Japanese lullaby that often brings people to tears. At that point, it’s time for the unforgettable Kiso Valley folk song (see video) before the grand finale of it all, a demonstration of the model train set that Mr. Ando has built around the entire house. This couple breaks all the stereotypes and it’s awesome.


Mr. Ando on the far right

But my favorite person of all has to be Mr. Suzuki. He is a 75-year-old retiree who runs an ancient tea house along the Nakasendo. He volunteers to run the place, dressing in traditional garb and singing his own version of the Kiso folk song for our entertainment. He’s also recently added a wedding song to his repertoire. He serves the group tea afterwards, communicating amazingly well for someone who speaks about 20 words of English (I help him out by translating too). His two favorite topics of discussion that almost always seem to come up are 1) you will live long by drinking more sake and 2) Japanese men are too “vegetarian” these days (they don’t get married and make enough kids). Needless to say, he is a fascinating old guy with stories and legends to tell about the valley that he has called home his entire life. I aspire to having that kind of dedication to a place and vitality when I am that age.


Mr. Suzuki. Photo credit to Fernando Gros

People often wonder why I would want to live in Japan. Admittedly, it’s not as comfortable, communication is a little more difficult and it’s a long way from family. But it’s about the people. I am fascinated by their diversity and the rich culture/history that I get to live in. I feel like I learn something new every day. I never appreciated that as a kid. And on the surface, it might be harder to “get in” with people, especially ones who are in the rat race in the big cities. But there is a subculture of Japanese who are moving back for a better life and once you are in, you are in. Their loyalty and dedication to what they do is overwhelming. In the end, I think comfort is overrated anyway. At least in this point in my life, I prefer adventure.