Thursday, May 19, 2011

Livehouses in Japan!

My interest in modern Japanese music

あぴ (Api (♀) ), vocalist and bassist of the band
1000say, at a small livehouse in Amerika-mura,
Osaka, playing this song I believe :D
I have to admit that music was one of my biggest factors in deciding to learn Japanese. I think my fascination started after hearing an ending song to an anime on television, but I have no clear recollection of which one exactly. Most Japanese animation shown on American television at the time was dubbed over in English, but the opening and ending songs remained in their original Japanese. At such a young age I had never really been exposed to a foreign language before. I'm sure I had seen some foreign movies or overheard conversations in foreign languages before (my mother occasionally spoke French with her relatives), but it was through these songs in particular that I became captivated by Japanese. I loved the sound of the language itself. I might have even had slightly unrealistic impressions of Japanese since I had been introduced to it mainly in well written song form. ^^ With all of these however  felt extremely disappointed that I couldn't fully grasp the meaning of them. Now, I do believe it's true that music can take on different meanings for others, evoke certain feelings and transmit meaning past language barriers, but I still longed to understand the lyrics of these songs. I've come a long way since then in terms of knowing Japanese, and consider myself very close to the goal of understanding most song lyrics (with the help of lyrics search engines and a trusty electronic dictionary). I used to think that Japanese music was excellent background/study music since I didn't understand the lyrics at all. Recently I've noticed that I can't concentrate as much as before since I can understand the lyrics now. I couldn't believe it, but I had partly achieved what I had first set out to do. It was a small goal, but one that left me with a feeling of accomplishment (though I will have to find some other background music now!).

'1000say' putting their heart and soul into the music

Coming to Japan was a dream come true, in one small part because I would be able to see some of my favorite bands in person. I've since attended 2 lives ("live concerts") of major bands in concert halls and "livehouses" (what the Japanese call small concert venues, and they can be very small), and a few other shows for less well known upstart bands. I've also had a tremendous amount of fun at small shows organized by clubs (like the Folk Music and Light Music Clubs) at Kansai Gaidai (more on these below).

An energetic live in the club building of Kansai Gaidai

Third-year Kansai Gaidai students covering songs of
one of my favorite Japanese bands, GO!GO!7188

The same concert in the clubroom, with around 20 people having fun moshing
(though they're careful not to bump into anyone not involved in the mosh)
 Similarities and Differences between Japanese and American live shows

Although I cannot speak about the concerts of every different genre of Japanese music (I am sure visual-kei and other genres not found so much in the U.S. are different), I would say that the similarities between the U.S. and Japanese alternative rock shows far outweigh the differences. The reasons for people to join bands and go see their favorite bands in person remain the same. "I love music, it's as simple as that", one student at Kansai Gaidai answered when I asked him why he joined the light music club at Kansai Gaidai. Many students I asked had always wanted to join a band, to have a feeling of membership in something. It was something that couldn't always be done before coming to college. This was their first real opportunity to meet people with similar interests as them and form a band as a way to express themselves. In my discussions with students around campus I also noticed similar responses to the question of why they went to see live shows.

"It's important to go see the bands live, support them, feel the sound of the music in your bones" they answered. I was surprised to hear another reason, to enjoy the show with fans of the same band. It seems that being identified as part of a group of people with similarly minded interests is important, but I find this true in America as well. I have certainly clicked with people who have the same music taste as me. ^^
I would like to share some very important differences that I find telling about Japanese society (or at least part of it; I don't want to generalize too much!). 
Seeing Chatmonchy (チャットモンチー) live in Kobe.
No photos allowed during the concert! ^^;;
  •  Japanese fans can attentively listen to the music when needed. That is, they're usually patient and respectful of the band and other fans around them. Westerners might find it unusual to see Japanese fans standing, attentively listening to the music and offering a round of applause at the end of the song instead of hooting and hollering. I've witnessed it many times and am still amazed by how quiet a Japanese audience can be when a slow, emotional song is played. I really enjoy this aspect of Japanese live shows. People can really get into the music (moshing frequently included), but when they need to be serious and respectful to the artists they can be. At concerts of similar size in America there would always be someone interrupting the quiet songs (at least in my experiences :) ). A Japanese student I interviewed say that he is struck by how even if fans are stuck in the back of the concert venue or field, they will still watch their favorite artists attentively and not push to get closer.
  • Expanding from the sentence above, there is much more order to Japanese concerts. The fans typically synchronize their hand movements, clapping or fist pumping in synchronization. I think this makes it easier for even shy people to join into the festivities. In America there's an emphasis on being an individual and differentiating yourself from others by dancing in a unique way. In Japan though I've found that there's a comforting sense to being part of a group. It may sound bad but it's far less so than I can express in writing. It's not that you can't be an individual at a concert in Japan. You can surely dance or enjoy the music however you want, but joining in the hand movements of the band members (usually the vocalists lead these) and other audience members gives a feeling of being connected to each other and the music. It also makes concerts a whole lot more fun if you can't dance (like me : ) ).
  • This point is very small but I had to say it. Towels!!! Small towels emblazoned with the name of the band is one of the most popular band goods sold in Japan. The fans usually wear them around their necks during the concerts as a kind of sweat band or fashion statement. This is something I definitely didn't see in music merchandise in America. 
I'll end this blog with the words (translated) of a Japanese student whom I talked to regarding popular music in Japan and the world today. "Regardless of the language or style of the music, its popularity or what others think or say of it, listen to music that really grabs (cries out) to you. Listen around, check out some live shows with friends, or meet some there! Find what music matters most to you and try making it yourself if you have the interest and time! And please come to our live shows here at Kansai Gaidai! 以上です!" :D

Special Essay on Leibovitz and Nachtwey

     The photos of Leibovitz and Nachtwey go beyond the standard, merely-practical reasons that photos are used for, that is, as simple reminders or recollections of past events, records or personal mementos. They are at once both art and instruments for change. The photos visually represent the multi-faceted shades of culture, societies, life's struggles, people's light and dark sides, their ideals and personalities.

     Perhaps the most important advice I have garnered from Leibovitz and Nachtwey's photography to becoming a better visual anthropologist is to get closer to my subjects, not merely literally but emotionally and psychologically. One has to become a part of what is going on. To become actively involved in participant observation enables one to connect more deeply into the lives, views, struggles, and personalities of those being represented. Leibovitz places a great deal of importance on listening to and paying attention to the need of her subjects and experiencing their lives firsthand despite the very real dangers and hardships involved (as in her tour with the Rolling Stones in a documentary of Annie's life entitled 'Life Through A Lens'). Nachtwey has a similar philosophy and places a great deal of importance on being respectful and tactful. The subjects are letting you into a very personal moment of their lives, sometimes sharing their grief or sorrow (see the movie War Photographer). The area in which I live in Japan is far from a war zone setting, but some of the same rules still hold true. One has to be mindful of respecting a subject’s privacy, and not crossing the line in order to get an interesting shot. Getting the subject’s permission to use his or her photo can often lead to immensely rewarding conversations and insights into the topic at hand. It takes courage to walk up to strangers and try to start a conversation or merely ask for permission, especially in a foreign language in an unknown place. It is even more important to be respectful since whether one likes it or not, as a foreigner in Japan one becomes an informal representative of his or her country and school. Changing the stereotypical image of the loud, boisterous American is not such a simple exercise. 

Giving a voice to those who cannot speak out...
"Bosnia, 1993 - Mourning a soldier killed in the civil war."
© James Nachtwey (taken from
            Along with getting closer to one’s subjects, it is equally as important to give the subjects a voice and represent them in fair light. But one must not force their impressions and biases on the picture and subject. It is best if you can let the people in your photos “speak”. Just simply talking with your subjects offers a world of insight. But one also has to do some research and preparations. Being knowledgeable about the subject beforehand gives one a lot more leverage into discovering new information (though sometimes feigning ignorance gives an opportunity to hear more from the subject and learn a great deal). Like Bestor and his participant or inquisitive observation in a few neighborhoods and the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, networking and building rapport with the people, businesses, and community is essential to getting a better picture of what defines (even just small parts of) Japanese society and culture. Going out of one’s way to help others and get involved can open many doors into the less visible aspects of the communities around you. Getting back to the task of giving a voice to one’s subjects, I have learned the importance of incorporating something about the person into the photo. In this case I do not merely mean a prop or a favorite clothing accessory. One must try to capture what defines them, whether it be an attitude or what they cherish. It could be the subject’s family, community, work or career, favorite hobby or pet. Capturing the subject’s personality through the lens is extremely challenging. The camera only captures a single brief moment in time, or as Sontag eloquently states, “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt" (394). The photograph presents an opportunity to step back a little from the fast pace of life to appreciate and understand the world and people around us.

Patti Smith with Her Children, Jackson and Jesse, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, 1996. Photograph © Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990 Courtesy of Vanity Fair

            Perhaps the most literal way to improve my representation of Japanese society and culture is through the improvement in my photography techniques. I have learned from Leibovitz and Nachtwey to playing with lighting, to expose the details in the frames, things often hidden from the normal eye. It is important to observe the tiniest ticks in the atmosphere around you. It is the small things, what happens between the main moments, that give a glimpse into what the main moment itself represents. Furthermore, playing with the shadows, darkness and contrast of a picture enables one to focus more on the meaning of the photo, and also on the depth and multiple layers of the scene.
In my blog I want to portray a Japan that is not stereotypical, or catering to the views of Orientalism or nihon-jinron. I want to show a Japan that readers will find familiar but also different in important ways. As in the film “The Japanese Version”, I wish to uncover an under-layer of Japan that helps one discover more about their own culture and themselves. To show what defines Japanese culture and its people, to give more unbiased insight to others around the world is my goal. Accurate information and knowledge helps connect us together and see how similar we all really are at the core.

Portraits of Japanese Friends (and a return from my hiatus!)

I have returned!

     Hello everyone! I am back to writing again after a hiatus of quite longer than necessary. It has been a hectic last few months with evacuations and anxieties, all the while nearing the end of my study abroad term in Japan. I've tried to enjoy my last few weeks in Japan as much as possible and as a result have neglected uploading this blog on time. I really apologize for the break and hope the upcoming posts make up for it! I've been taking notes and thinking about each subject for a while now, and despite posting these entries in quick succession, each post is a culmination of many interactions and adventures with Japanese people. So without further ado, the posts!

Portraits of Japanese Friends

     In this blog I've decided to go a little bit beyond just introducing a single Japanese friend of mine. I'm glad to say that I've befriended many Japanese people all of ages, genders (well honestly, probably more females than males ^^) and backgrounds since I first arrived at Kansai Gaidai University. Not all of my friends today are the same as back when I first arrived however, and many friends I've made have since graduated or embarked on their very own study abroad programs outside of Japan. Despite the short time we've been given together and the different schedules and priorities had, I believe that I've been able to connect with some remarkable people. Each has been incredibly open and honest with their thoughts and opinions, inquisitive about my background and interests, more than accepting of my differences and patient with my blunders in Japanese, and for that I am eternally grateful. :)

We've become friends despite the short time we've been given together. Our time schedules, college and after-graduation plans, hobbies, dreams, how we define ourselves, are all a little bit varied, but we still share a common goal and experience, whether it be to conquer a foreign language, make friends from another culture, or to challenge and find out more about ourselves while studying abroad, there is something that has helped us click.

Akane (あかね)

     The first person that I would like to introduce is Akane, or as she likes to be called in informal settings, Kabu-chan. (She's on the left side of the picture below, while my other friend Mahori is on the right). I met both Akane and Mahori while in the 'Food Booth 2' circle that I joined for Kansai Gaidai's Fall Festival (外大祭 or INFES [International Festival]). Our group's job was to sell mochi waffles and tapioca juice (bubble/boba tea), but the group was far more than just a job or club activity. Through it I was able to meet such wonderful people as Akane, Mahori, and Shoko (her description's next!).

     Akane and I spent time preparing for the festival, went out for dinner and karaoke, met for lunch and between classes to help each other with projects and homework, but also talk about various happenings in our lives. We weren't language partners who were helping each other out of obligation, but rather friends just doing the other a favor and generally having a good time. I was really glad to be able to move past topics of academics with her and hear about things like her family life, what she valued and cherished, her dreams and future plans, and anxieties about her upcoming year abroad. She absolutely adored her older sister, whom had recently married and moved into a new house. Before the marriage Akane and her sister took a trip to India together, being that adventurous and close-knit. Akane was always happy to see you, even if she was exhausted from doing homework most of the night beforehand. She's incredibly gifted at languages (her English is phenomenal and her Mandarin is pretty high up there as well from what I've heard), warm, thoughtful but still with a great sense of humor. I think I could go on most of the day listing positives. : )
I often hear both foreign exchange and Japanese students lament that their foreign friends treat them as tutors first and foremost, and as friends secondly. It's an awkward feeling that I think most students know too well. Surely teaching language is a wonderful thing, and often a good ice-breaker for meeting others, but if one gets the feeling that their partner only likes them for the free English/Japanese lessons, then it gets quite uncomfortable very quickly. In complete opposition to that type of situation, Akane was one of the first Japanese students at Kansai Gaidai that I felt saw me as true friend. Akane is now 4 months into her 9 month study abroad program in Tianjin, China. We had a tearful farewell in late January as she embarked on her journey, but I know we'll meet again in the U.S. or Japan. We still talk online (thank you Facebook and Skype creators! :D) and should be sending each other mail or postcards soon!

Shōko (尚子)

Showing her radiant smile s we watch the Japan vs. Australia soccer match at a sports bar in Namba

     The next person I would like to introduce is Shōko, the fearless leader of INFES Food Booth 2! She was finishing her fourth and final year at Kansai Gaidai, having studied abroad in Canada the year before. She was serious, organized and professional when managing the group, but at the same time was kind to everyone, with a bright, cheerful smile that put everyone at ease. When I think of Shōko, I am reminded not only of kindness, but of courage as well. Shōko is a strong-willed, determined young woman. She met her fiancé (also pictured above) while abroad and has since graduated and moved to Canada to follow her dream of starting her own business in an English speaking country. I am grateful for the kindness she's showed me, in her advice given, leadership shown, and willingness to take time out of her day to go chat over coffee or omuraisu or kushi-katsu or pasta or yaki-niku~! :) I sincerely hope for the best as she follows her dreams in Canada!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Neighborhood Hirakata

It has been more than 6 months since I started living in Japan, and during that time I've had the pleasure to get to know 3 wonderful neighborhoods across Hirakata-shi (Hirakata City).

The park behind the library, alive with children and their families, locals of all ages and backgrounds, and also a good amount of exchange students as well :) The center of the neighborhood familiar to many a Kansai Gaidai student.
I've lived in two of the seminar houses (dormitories) at Kansai Gaidai, both during the first week I arrived in Japan and during half of the 6 week long winter vacation between Fall and Spring semesters here. The first week in the seminar house was my first real take on Japanese life. I was deeply (maybe a bit over-enthusiastically :D) impressed with the sidewalks, street signs, and narrow roads. I'm still impressed by the precision driving of many of the drivers here, and I'm eternally grateful for Japan's strict driving schools when I'm riding my bike down the highway or bumpy side streets.

My first of many trips to Sando-ru, a small, well priced, and
most importantly delicious restaurant, known for its more
than generous proportions and affectionately called
"Obaa-chan's" (Grandma's). Small restaurants like this are
what help make Japanese neighborhoods so special.

But I also felt a little isolated from the locals while in the seminar houses. This could be a result of them getting rather used to all of the foreign students, or maybe because they are less than thrilled when a few students get rowdy and loud in the "beer park" at night. But I was still able to strike up many conversations with the locals here. Going jogging with friends, subsequently getting lost and having to ask directions to find your way back is a great opportunity to meet some interesting and amazingly friendly people and familiarize yourself with the layout of the neighborhood.

A sign cautioning against going too fast on bicycles
(in the Kansai dialect of Japanese, made by some local
elementary school children)
I think I'm getting long winded though so I'll move on to more important parts of my time in Japan. : )

I lived with a host family during the Fall Semester. After orientation week I was hastened off to the city of Katano (Katano-shi) with perhaps maybe 5 other Kansai Gaidai students living in the area. Being part of a host family for three months provided me with a wonderful opportunity to meet family friends, shopkeepers, schoolchildren, and explore even more parks and side streets. I was able to go along with my host family to vote (well, see them voting at least xD) in the local elections, go to an elementary and middle school's Sports Day festival and a high school's Culture Festival (bunka-sai), and see what was important to the community during the town's very own Culture Festival.

The ever-changing rice paddies of Katano-shi (交野市)

Middle School Sports Day

Festival in the streets of Katano-shi, with members of the city
both old and young

After the first semester and winter break though I have once again changed neighborhoods. Each one is different and special in its own way. This time I'm living with two fellow exchange students from my home institution in the U.S. , in the former house of one of these friend's host mother from last semester (confusing I know). It's quite an interesting neighborhood, bustling with small children (I think the family in the house next to us has at least 5 kids under the age of 12) and littered with adorable bikes, unicycles (yes they seem to be really popular with Japanese adolescents these days), jump-ropes, Kamen Rider toys, and presents from all of the dogs in the neighborhood (despite the "Pick up your dog mess!' signs placed every 5 meters along the street).

Most of the houses here are 20 to 30 years old, a little bit run down, not so pretty on the outside, but very usable, efficient, one could say cozy as well (if you have space heaters and electric blankets that is). Towards the middle of this neighborhood there are maybe 6 very large public housing developments, multi-unit apartments, or "mansions" (マンション 'manshon') as they are called in Japanese. The playground between these developments is the meeting place for many of the people here, and the absolutely gigantic Yamada-Ike Kouen (Park) nearby is a place to escape from the cramped living conditions and take some time to fish, exercise, take one's pet out for a walk, or have a barbeque or outing with friends, family, or other loved ones. :) The fall foliage was breathtaking, and the plum blossoms now in bloom provide a welcome place to relax and think deeply (I'd do my homework there if it wasn't so cold lately).

I don't want to sound too much like a book here, but I love the contrasts like this in Japan. Of course other places have the same characteristics, but I feel that in Japan there's an importance placed on emphasizing these contrasts in life. Having one's tightly packed neighborhood right outside of a beautiful, vast park is something very noticible and thought-provoking.

My current neighborhood is also very close to some of Hirakata's less well known businesses, namely love hotels, adult video stores, and some very interesting unattended vending machine areas.

I hope this isn't the last neighborhood that I get to know in Japan. I really want to get to know it better, and do the same with many more neighborhoods. :)

EDIT May 19: This is my third editing of this entry. I had added 6 more pictures and maybe 600 more words of deep reflection to it a few days ago, but I've come back today to notice that none of it updated despite constant autosaves. I must have had an old draft open in a stray firefox tab that saved over my final version, so I've lost all of the information I added (took around 3 hours T_T), so I'm really sorry about that. I can't for the life of me remember exactly what I wrote. I've tried to rewrite it (the ending paragraph), but it's all scattered. Sounded much better the first time (to say I'm frustrated is a heavy understatement... >:( )

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Impressions of Japan: 5 months later (work in progress)

Hello Everyone!

I first came to Japan nearly five and a half months ago after being accepted into the Asian Studies Program at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata-shi, Osaka, Japan. Since then I have been living a dream come true. I'll forever be thankful for the opportunity I've been given. I've learned more in the last 5 months here than I ever have before. I've been shown such innumerable generosity, compassion and kindness by the people here. From mere strangers met around town and in my travels, fellow classmates both Japanese and international, my wonderful host family, and from all of my friends. I've realized the importance of being eager to try new things, whether it be foods, trips, or just striking up random conversations.

I wanted to remember how it was that I felt in the first few days, weeks, and months during my exchange program in Japan. I've looked at some small journals, emails sent, and photos taken from this time and tried to choose images that captured my sense of bewilderment and adventure at first, followed by revelations about Japanese culture, the various people I have met here, what everyday life is like, and what I have discovered about myself as well. I'm far from an expert on Japan, and I still find myself making mistakes time and time again, but I hope this blog can give you insight into what's possible if you do decide to partake in study abroad program in Japan, live with a host family, or just travel to Japan for a short while. So without further ado some pictures from the last 5 months! : )

A friend during my first visit to Kyoto (at Kiyomizu-dera). I love the feeling of exhilaration in the pose here. My feelings paralleled this for the first few weeks I was in Japan.
Running with some friends through neighborhood Hirakata-shi.

The street leading up to Sensouji in Asakusa, Tokyo (January 2011).
The view from the middle observation deck of Tokyo Tower
Itsukashima Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture (Oct. 2010)

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima City (Oct. 2010)
Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima
Thanks for the dream (Kobe, Jan. 2010)
Miyajima, Hiroshima (Oct. 2010). Taken by some friendly Japanese girls after they struck up a conversation upon noticing we had the same camera.