After returning to the States, I’ve been reflecting on my trip and what it has meant to me. I had such an incredible time that part of me didn’t want to get on that airplane. I met new people and reconnected with old friends. I was in stunning nature and snowboarded over 30 days. I ate delicious food. Something about Japan is still home for me.
I’ve been trying to think of a word that accurately describes and sums up my experience in Japan. In writing this blog, whether in Africa or Japan, I always attempt to communicate the ethos of a place, the fundamental feel that makes it what it is.
That’s why growing up, I hated simplistic questions like “tell me more about Japan, which place do you like better, or what are the differences between Japan and America?” I hated them because if they really wanted to know I would tell them everything (no matter how long it took). But if they just saw me as an exotic novelty, a white kid who spoke flawless Japanese, I had better things to do. I always had an elevator answer prepared, something to the tune of “I like Japan because people are loyal” or “I like America because my family is there” just to give them a satisfactory answer. While those things were true, they didn’t even come close to being complete. There are so many subtleties and nuances to any place: describing it completely takes seeing it in person. On top of that, there are so many subtleties and nuances to being human: finding out who a person is takes more than learning that they grew up in Japan for 16 years.
So the word I would choose to describe Japan’s ethos is あっさり (Assari). Although it doesn’t have an English equivalent, the word generally means subtle or nuanced, beneath-the-surface, not too strong, not overly flavorful. As my definition suggests, the word is often used to describe food. Cake in Japan is not sickly sweet with extra frosting on top, it’s sweet enough so that you taste other flavors besides just sweet, it’s あっさり。Fuji Apples, the food I was most excited about eating, were crossbred by Japanese researchers in the 1930s to create the perfect apple; I believe they succeeded. Japanese food culture is about variety and not letting any single flavor overpower the others.
While the word is generally used to describe food, language cannot be separated from culture and the words we choose to describe food might just describe our personalities as well. Much of Japanese culture is what goes on beneath the surface. Not being too straightforward or impolite, not being demanding. What’s left unsaid might be as important as what’s actually stated. “Reading the air” is an important skill in order to adjust yourself to the mood of the room.
Like any culture, there are positive and negative aspects. Loyalty also means it takes longer to build trust. Talking to strangers in Japan is weird whereas in America I don’t think twice about it. Hospitality and generosity are strong values but opening up about personal matters doesn’t come as easily.
My experiences in Japan have taught me the importance of seeing people as the complicated, nuanced beings that they are. There is always so much that goes on beneath the surface, wherever you are. Caring about people means really listening and wanting to hear their story, no matter how long it takes.