My (Reconsidered) Interview with Japanese Schoolchildren

(Emily wrote this!)

This morning, Ethan, Kit, and I ducked into Tokyo’s Traditional Crafts Museum, a small cultural center located in the neighborhood of Asakusa. Only two rooms, this museum offers a quick overview of all kinds of Japanese traditional art forms, from woodworking to doll-making to metallurgy. While admiring a rocking horse necklace, I was approached by a young Japanese student, who I’m guessing was in middle school (based on his uniform and height).

“Will you please give interview?”

I acquiesced, and answered his questions best I could – with my almost nonexistent Japanese and his careful beginner’s English, we had a bit of stumbling. But he and his friends (about six of whom gathered around once he had bravely selected an interviewee) were very sweet and kind, and I’m pretty sure I helped them complete a school assignment.

Still, I’ve been thinking about his questions, many of which had already been asked of me by other Japanese people I’ve met this week. Though very basic, they bring to mind a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve had since arriving in the country.

So, here are his questions, my answers, and my reconsidered answers.

“Where are you from?”

What I said: “California” (this generated some excitement among the group)

What I think now: I’ve been saying “California” mostly in answering this question, partially to avoid saying “America” and having to deal with the ensuing political questions, and partially because it’s true. I was born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, and spent my college and recent post-college years in Berkeley – I feel more “Californian” than “American.” It’s interesting to me that California is almost universally known, because I certainly couldn’t name the 47 prefectures in Japan. But that speaks more to Hollywood’s and San Francisco’s global reputation than anything else.

“What do you like about Japan?”

What I said: “Everyone is so nice here.”

What I think now: Everyone really is nice and polite and helpful. From train station agents to restaurant staff to casual acquaintances, Japanese people are the most hospitable citizens I’ve come across. Perhaps it’s overly simplified, but it’s been true so far. Other things I like about Japan include:

  • The fashion! Women here dress impeccably (men too, but primarily in similar suits), and their hair and makeup are pretty much flawless. Current trends include culottes, flowy tops, stripes (EVERYWHERE STRIPES), neutral shades, and midi skirts – the last of which I’ve now purchased for myself. When in Tokyo…
  • A sense of safety. Into the evenings, the feeling of security exists, even when navigating side streets and unfamiliar areas. Maybe it’s the gentle police presence, or the various guards and attendants around, or the well-lit roads, or the infrastructure (see below), but I’ve felt very safe in a completely new place.
  • The infrastructure. Kind of an odd thing to comment on, but Tokyo has the cleanest and most comfortable public bathrooms I’ve ever seen. There seems to be a commitment to maintaining and improving all city functions, from clear signage to manicured public parks to a lack of litter anywhere.

“What do you not like about Japan?”

What I said: “Uhhh… I can’t think of anything.” (Hopefully this won’t impact his grade)

What I think now: I can think of things I miss that aren’t allowed here, like Diet Coke (my kingdom for a 12-pack) and certain “medications” (#yeswecannabis). But a few things do bother me – the extreme commitment to work over health (12 hour days are normal), the bombardment of advertising everywhere I look (but that might just be a Tokyo thing), and the (seeming) lack of animal rights laws – there are FAR too many owl/parrot/cat cafes in damp basements. Being that I don’t have all of the information about these phenomena, I’m hesitant to make further judgments. But as Ethan, Kit and I discussed later, every culture has its trade-offs, and it’s got me thinking about what I’m willing to give up in my world in order to get something else.

“What surprised you about Japan?”

What I said: “That vending machines are everywhere!”

What I think now: They really are!!! Anytime you feel thirsty, a cheap beverage is usually within sight. I don’t know who restocks these machines, but they are EVERYWHERE. The only issue is that my lack of familiarity with Japanese brands has me staring at the machines for longer than socially acceptable. Other things that surprise me include:

  • Hard liquor is available at every convenience store. Why alcohol is so easily accessible in Japan while marijuana is verboten is beyond me. I bet a few of these salarymen could use some more relaxation in their life (and fewer hangovers).
  • The cleanliness of the public bathrooms. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but they’re seriously cleaner than any apartment I’ve ever inhabited.
  • Despite the fact that this is a huge city with 13 million people, we’ve only encountered graffiti in Tokyo twice.
  • Shrines and temples are everywhere, both Buddhist and Shinto. They’re also well-kept, with beautiful structures and cemeteries and fountains.

“What have you bought in Japan?”

What I said: “Material…?” (I couldn’t think of the word, which is furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloth)

What I think now: I bought beautiful furoshiki (and a guide to wrapping styles) for myself, and a few gifts for others – chopsticks, postcards, and such. I also bought a midi skirt to try and imitate the lovely styles I see around me. But what I’ve mostly spent my money on is transit fare and food – SO. MUCH. FOOD. My favorite meal to date was lunch today, cold soba noodles with dipping sauce. Dinner wasn’t bad either, Kit and I found a Thai place with excellent pad se ew. Can you tell why I’m spending so much money on food?!

It was admittedly a very short interview, but it’s given me a frame of reference to start working out my feelings about this adventure. So, in conclusion, thank you, Japanese schoolboy, for asking me questions that require me to seek answers.

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