Author Archives: Kotsuzui

About Kotsuzui

Computer Science and Engineering Major at the University of California

日本つづく・・・Japan, To Be Continued…

Though Japan and The United States are equally first world countries, they diverge continually in respect to modern conveniences, and even more so when it comes to cultural norms and everyday modes of operation. As I have been back in California for 2 months now, I have had many opportunities to answer the now infamous question, “How was Japan?” I’ve given many different replies, mostly indicating that the trip was good/fun, but that the language barrier was quite difficult, only going into detail with closer friends and family. In reality, I loved Japan—I’m going back in 2 months—but for reasons most wouldn’t guess, reasons specific to the things that I enjoy. I didn’t see much of the tourist venues while in Japan, and therefore didn’t see many foreigners at all; I was able to live subtly (hopefully) as one of the crowd. I tried to see as much of the “real” Japan as was possible. Though I miss many of the conveniences that I came to love, (that I listed in previous posts), there has not been much in the way of reverse culture shock since returning to America. Reverting to American customs and complete English has been relatively smooth, though I sometimes move to the left on walkways by accident. I often tell stories about the peculiarities of Japan, the underground and second story restaurants, the phenomenal department and electronics stores, the transportation systems… They’re things that I miss, but things that I can of course live without.

Since being back, the thing I noticed mostly since being back has been the sheer amount of space that is wasted in California, and perhaps America as a whole. Though we have space, and therefore an allowance for spreading out, it’s continually amazing how much Japan has been able to cram in to the island land that the country occupies.

I miss vending machines and bookstores being everywhere. Being able to find my favorite pens at any bunboguya I happened to pass by. Their indian food. Perhaps, because of my short stay, I wasn’t immersed until the point of complete habit. I have taken up life in California just as I left it, glad to have my car again, able to drive anywhere, even though everything seems so far apart now. Going back to Japan in March should return me to the habits I garnered while living there—My initial trip to Japan taught me how to adapt, how to travel on my own during periods of high stress, how to cross the country on my own. How to be an adult. Today (the 20th of January), I turn 20, and I feel like an adult only because of the travels and complete self-reliance that I have had a chance to experience thanks to study abroad. Hopefully, this next trip will be more comfortable, and I will have the courage to practice and study more Japanese. Ganbarimasu. I’ll do my best.

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Practical Waste Management

Upon visiting Japan for the first time, one might notice something peculiar about the streets, might notice the absence of something that it usually so commonplace in other countries, but that one wouldn’t notice the absence of until necessary—in Japan, there are no public trashcans. Save for the occasional plastic bottle receptacle next to vending machines, the streets of Tokyo are completely trashcan-less. There are a number of theories on this, but the most widely accepted seems to be the acquired, newly cultural view that people should throw their garbage away in their own homes. Despite this being true, the streets of Japan are almost unnaturally clean and trash free. This tendency, I think, may be in part due to Japan’s dedication to recycling, a tendency that appears in many places.

In Japan, there are many sorting systems in place in order to facilitate proper recycling. Many fast food restaurants and food courts that I’ve been to around Japan have special sorting systems for depositing trash. Any liquids or ice left over is poured into a special metal funnel inset into the trash receptacle, which filters into a special liquid container. All plastics, straws, lids, stirs, etc. are placed in one side of the trash can, while food and other combustible trash is placed in another. I was impressed upon first noticing this system—it’s such a simple and effective measure for the sake of aiding the process of recycling, especially on an island that certainly has no extra room for landfills. If used in other countries, such an implementation would allow for much easier, practical sorting. It’s a wonder I have seen it nowhere else. My dormitory also has a system like the one at McDonalds, though it is much more complex. On each floor of the building, there are six different receptacles in which to organize trash. There are bins for combustibles, incombustibles, cans & glass bottles, pet (plastic) bottles, plastics, and recyclable paper. There is also a separate container for pet bottle caps, as a student organization on campus collects these for charity. It would seem, rather than allowing citizens to amass their garbage in public trashcans as in the U.S., forcing citizens to throw their garbage away at home heightens accountability, and forces the Japanese to be responsible about their trash.

In terms of energy, Japan has been forced to preserve since the Tohoku Earthquake in March of this year. Because of damage, there has been less in the way of electricity production lately. Therefore, Japan is currently undergoing a period of energy preservation called Setsuden. Many business and government-run buildings are making attempts to cut down on power, often posting signs to deter use of elevators, lighting when not needed, and going so far as to cut all lighting during certain hours. Street lighting in the popular neon sign-lit streets of Tokyo has also been dimmed to an extent. Setsuden is a necessary program that seems to be taken seriously by all Japanese, and has thus far prevented black outs in the much more serious post-March 11th Japan. Japan’s sense of energy conservation is something that I will definitely take away from my stay here. I’ve noticed the change in my habits due to my increasing annoyance with my roommate, who insists on having all lights and air conditioning units on at all times.

Overall, Japan seems to be an extremely conservation-conscious country, a tendency that is facilitated, I believe, by the size and high population of the country. However, Japan sets a good example for practical waste management, no matter how large or small the country.

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日本語で未来へ見る Looking into the Future with the Japanese Language

Ever since stepping into my very first class of my very first day in High School I have had a sincere, dedicated interest in learning the Japanese language. I initially pursued learning Japanese with no intention other than to become bilingual (I saw it as a challenge compared to the Spanish, French, and German language classes available); I have always believed that it is a mark of the well-educated to be bi- or multilingual, even though now, after living in Japan, I recognize that it is often also determined by mere circumstance or chance (growing up in a bilingual household, living in different countries, etc.). Ever since my freshman year of high school, even though the classes I was able to take did not offer much in the way of progress, I have made it a major goal to pursue the language to the fullest extent of my abilities. Making progress in the language in Japan has reminded me of how difficult this task is, why learning the language would be valuable to me, as well as how satisfying it would/will be to finally become fluent. All it takes is a stroll through a bookstore in Japan to remind me of what I would gain by learning the language, even when I have so far to go. In all honesty, being completely immersed in a non-English-speaking nation has gotten me a bit weary of studying for the moment, but I plan to relaunch my efforts as soon as possible, in time for my next semester abroad in Japan. I believe that my personal drive and love for learning will take me there some time soon.

In the future, I might like to employ my knowledge of the Japanese language in a creative or professional sense. Though I would not make it a career, interpreting and translation is something that I take much joy in. I’ve always thought the nuance and variability of language to be infinitely interesting, and I would love to explore this through translation. If I am able to find any way to incorporate Japanese in to a Computer Science career, I would surely like to do that as well.  Seeing the modern innovation and conveniences that Japan has to offer has inspired in me a want to introduce these kinds of conveniences to the U.S. The simple introduction of convenience store culture as it is in Japan would help many people—especially us University students! Even though the United States might not have cause for some aspects and adaptations of contemporary Japanese culture, there are a great deal of institutions that the U.S. could look to Japan to improve upon: Environmental awareness, cheap public transit, recycling, conservation, etc. Japan has a lot to offer the world, and my study abroad travels to Japan have awoken me to these many differences and similarities: aspects of life that should be shared.

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From the Bottom to the Top… and Back?

For me, living in Japan has been a mix of continual ups and downs. The highs are often contingent on successes, fun with friends, and being able to experience the things I’ve wanted to do even before coming to Japan. The lows often consist of times of frustration due to the language barrier, when I’ve been unable to do what I want or need to do. Because these ups and downs are often linked to certain circumstances, they come and go sporadically, and are not as predictable as one might think.

The “Everything is new, interesting, and exciting” stage occurs every so often when I find something in Japan that would be unavailable in America. The first instance of this might have been my discovery of the Yodobashi camera stores. They’re one of, if not the biggest chain of department stores in Japan, and they trump every electronics store in America without a sweat. The tech and electronics geek that I am, I’ve spent a great deal of time in these stores. They contain everything from print stations, cell phones, phone accessories, mobile wifi, conputers, drawing tablets, and computers on the first floor to a Tower Records, stationery store, book store, and clothing store on the 6th. In between, they have entire floors devoted to cameras, games, toys and models, home electronics, TVs and entertainment systems, build it yourself computer part, printers, electronic dictionaries, etc. I have never experiences a store like this in the U.S., so I was duly excited. Another instance of this would be a visit to the Studio Ghibli Museum that my friends and I made. It was an exciting experience. Beforehand, me and a friend had some time, so we ate a snack at a cafe near the museum, where the kind owners and workers spoke to us, and we helped a visitor from Hong Kong that couldn’t speak Japanese. Moments like these are pivotal, in my case, for a feeling of acceptance and happiness while abroad.

The “Homesick, depressed, and helpless” stage has occurred more than I would like to admit. This was mostly due to the language barrier, as well as my unfamiliarity with some Japanese practices (like where you need to go to pick up items you might have left on the bus). Just yesterday I had a particularly hard time in one of Tokyo’s biggest cities, Shinjuku, where I got lost trying to find a building I’d been to before, as well as another department store. I tried a different, closer exit from the Shinjuku station, and due to the oddity of Japanese maps (which don’t seem to follow any sort of guide, as the maps don’t follow the top = North or even the top = direction you’re facing standard) and I failed miserably. I lost about a half an hour lost among skyscrapers. Luckily, the second time I was lost, a Japanese 20-something asked if he could help me find the Kinokuniya (which I would never have found on my own) and I eventually made it. These types of events often foster a frustrated and helpless feeling that is hard to dispell, especially when you’re surrounded by a foreign language all day long. I love learning languages, and I have been rather ambitious when trying to learn Japanese, but one can only do so much in a given time. Living in Japan is like living surrounded by the same puzzle that you’re attempting to sort, and you can never escape it. My lack of knowledge is completely my doing, however, so it often causes me to feel rather pathetic.

I wish I could say that I have developed ways in order to cope with all of the difficulties I have personally faced, but for me, traveling and discovering new things with friends is just about the only way to make the experience better. If I’d had a friend with me in Shinjuku, I doubt that we would have gotten lost—or, in the least, not for as long. Two heads are better than one, especially under stressful circumstances. Though friends cannot help you in all situations, this is the best way that I’ve found to cope with misfortunes and cultural oddities.


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Living Abroad

Traveling in Japan, especially in the first week I was here, I was quickly able to appreciate and experience the reality of being completely and utterly alone. I was a stranger in a country that knew nothing of me, without a cell phone, Internet access, and with only a shallow understanding of the language, transportation system, and everyday unreported customs. The unique feeling of being in minority wasn’t an issue for me, nor were the looks—or, not looks, perhaps, but slightly long glances. Even in the first early hours that I was here, it didn’t take much crowd watching to learn some of the apparent, common habits and customs among the Japanese. I soon realized, however, how much of Japan is unseen and, as stated before, unreported. After learning and becoming able to act on these customs, I am able to act more like a part of the commuter-culture crowd, and not a helpless foreigner like some act and feel.

The solitary feeling—of knowing no one in an entire country—is a sobering and somewhat enlightening one. I now believe that only when one is completely separated from everything that they know and depend on will one discover just how resourceful they are. Relying on oneself completely is not an occurrence that all people encounter, even in college, so this trip has been illuminating in that respect. However, traveling is not for those who have a tendency to rely on others for support, mentally or otherwise. Living and studying abroad requires a certain flexibility and willingness to adapt and come to terms with the drawbacks of all known things—restaurants, shops, friends and family—being some thousands of unbridgeable miles away. Although this may sound pessimistic and grim, it really is and has been an illuminating experience. It has the tendency to show you just how adult you thought you were. I believe that these are the types of experiences that bring us into adulthood, really.

Even now, the despair of living in a foreign country creeps up in stressful situations. With only acquaintances that are fluent in Japanese, there are not many that I can turn to in need when there is a problem that I am unable to solve by my primarily English-speaking lonesome. The first week of term, we were brought to the municipal office in our city in order to apply for the required foreigner registration card and national health insurance. The forms had been collected by and filled out for the most part by our university’s student affairs office. If I had come to live in Japan on my own and had to apply, I would have been completely and utterly lost. Thrown into a new university, country, and city with different customs and modes of operation is overwhelming, mostly compounded by the language barrier (even though, by now, it has become a bit smaller). However, it does offer the ability to try new things, meet new, different kinds of people, encounter new things, and perhaps learn a few things about yourself in the process.

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Hello, Tokyo

When I’d first arrived in Japan and my internal clock was still a bit skewed, I awoke in Ikebukuro at 5:00 a.m. one morning and decided to go out to get breakfast. It was my first meal in Japan, something that I’d avoided (to my stomach’s dissatisfaction) due to the simple fact that I had no clue where to eat. After a bit of wandering, I somehow ended up at a hit and run breakfast place. It was designed specifically for the on-the-go business type who wants to skip a “To go” meal at his/her local McDonalds and opt for something a bit more healthy. At this type of restaurant, one selects and pays for their meal at a vending machine in the front of the shop, sits down at a table with their receipt ticket, and is served a homemade meal. I’d never heard of this style restaurant in my endless attempt to prepare myself before crossing the Pacific. Little did I know, but this experience would repeat itself many times over as I became acquainted with a country no amount of research had been able to prepare me for.

Unfortunately, but maybe fortunately, the hardest thing I’ve encountered living in a new country is quite simple not knowing what anything or where anything is. Specifically, what places sell what, where I can find that, etc. The intangible database of acquired phone book knowledge one accumulates throughout their entire life is utterly useless in a foreign country. While I had an idea of this before coming, I shrugged it off as something that would work itself out. But, beginning my extended stay in Japan, I realized just how much I relied on the existence of various corporations for everyday living.

Even before my first early morning breakfast, I was faced with a bit of a problem. My DSLR malfunctioned at the airport, and I was completely wrecked. Even with the directions I eventually scored form the internet, it took a week and three trips to Shinjuku to finally find the Canon repair center situated in the lower-level first floor of an intimidating office building. Not knowing where to go or who/how to ask is the most difficult thing I’ve encountered here. Especially if one is virtually illiterate due to a language change, getting around and getting things done can be a bit daunting.

If I’ve learned anything thus far, living in foreign countries takes a willingness to discover and, simply enough, try new things. The big difficulties are, ironically, the small things, the everyday things, the things that no one cares to document for your nervous internet-combing needs. Though there are many maps of it, there’s no guide on how to use the subway, no one to tell you about Suica or Passmo cards, that Seiyu is Japan’s Walmart, that you can’t stand on the right side of escalators, or that there are two lines for every train door, one that stands to the left of the doors when they open, the other to the right.

No matter how many opinions on the country and its citizens I found, there was simply nothing that prepared me for actually living in Japan. Rather than sucking in the opinions and judgements of Japanese people and culture from other foreigners or long-stayers, my advice to anyone looking to or in preparation for staying in Japan would be to simply work on your Japanese. Speaking the native language is the only tool that can possibly help you navigate the hectic metropolis that is Tokyo, and is… really the only way, when combined with an adventurous initiative, to survive in Japan.

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