Photo Essay 2016

Alexis Simmons

self portrait

Essay

Set Loose in Japan

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I took a risk and flew to Japan with eleven of my fellow political science classmates. It was my first time abroad and Japan had not initially been my dream destination; although upon landing at Narita Airport in Tokyo, I realized I had made the right decision. Japan would quickly prove to be a country of surprising cultural differences, quiet conversation, and perfectly cooked onigiri.

Looking from the outside in, Japan appears to be relatively similar to America. Japan’s soft power is immense, which contributes to the idea that Japan is very westernized. However, living in Japan for nearly a month taught me that Japan’s culture and societies are the polar opposite of America’s. Japanese people value extreme cleanliness, close family relationships, and “honor” established by societal norms. Although Americans could argue they share the same values, it is certainly not to the extent that the Japanese do. An example of this can be seen in basic care of public areas. Japan’s streets and sidewalks are nearly spotless; there are virtually no weeds or unkempt landscapes, and litter is nowhere to be seen. The people take care of the streets as they take care of their homes: they scrub, dust, and rinse the gaps between the street bricks. In fact, outside of our hotel in Tokyo, I would often stand barefoot on the sidewalk and talk on the phone to my mom. I would never have stood barefoot on the sidewalk in a big city in America.

The trains provided a unique insight to the societal expectations of Japanese people. While riding the train, I was easily able to see the social norms I had studied being played out in real time. People sat silently, keeping to themselves and avoiding direct eye contact. They were very reserved and shy. When we first boarded a train, we found that our friendly midwestern greetings seemed to intimidate them more than anything.

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