By Kyle Gordon
I am studying Japanese language, religion, and culture at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata City, Osaka, Japan. I am taking two Japanese language classes (one spoken and one writing/reading comprehension), a medieval Japanese history class, a religion class focusing on Shinto and Buddhism, and a cinema class of films made by Japanese directors from 1949 to 1987.
Kansai Gaidai and Bennington have an exchange program, so I was able to utilize that connection in order to take part in a program I knew Bennington sanctioned and thought well of. What drew me to Japan more generally are big questions from my Plan as well as my love of the Japanese language. From my very first semester of Japanese Yoshida-sensei told me that she hoped I would study abroad in Japan later on in my time at Bennington, and from then on going to Japan had always been in the back of my mind. Coming here was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is so different from America. I must visit a shrine at least once a week!
My Plan is in music, religious history, and Japanese. At its core it is dedicated to exploring the musical creative impulse and how it has developed through history in tandem with evolving spiritual worldviews and existential ideas, as I am trying to get at an explanation of music history rooted in the backdrop of shifting perceptions of human existence. How an individual makes music as a function of his/her spiritual/religious relationship with the universe is one of my biggest interests. Until studying abroad in Japan I have been posing these questions in the context of Christian European countries and their music history, and Japanese has taken a bit of a side role in my Plan. During this semester however, I’ve been primarily studying Japanese language, the history of religious developments in Japan and how they have affected Japanese intellectual and spiritual culture.
I went to Taiwan over spring break because it was close and I could, and that was amazing too. Even the tempo of life is different, and I am more fluent in Japanese now than I have ever been. I used to think that being able to write an essay about World War II history in Japanese was a feat, but now I am able to talk with my host family about world religion and why I love music, as well as live life day-to-day, entirely in Japanese without referencing any kind of textbook. That kind of functionality in a foreign language feels incredible.
Living with a host family has been a one-of-a-kind experience for me. I was really nervous about it at first, especially being the type of person who is shy at first with people I don’t know, and I worried about my family being too strict, that I wouldn’t be able to talk to them properly in Japanese. In fact, it’s been exactly the opposite. I live in Hirakata City with a couple who are both about 40 years old and their two kids, Komachi and Ryunoshin, who are 7 and 9 respectively. Living with them is an adventure and I enjoy every day of it. The kids are great to be around and have done wonders for my stress just by providing a background of comic relief against my everyday life, and I owe a lot of my truly “Japanese” experiences to my host parents. I have been with them and their friends to many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, including Todaiji in Nara that houses the largest Buddha statue in Japan. They’ve taken me to all kinds of different places to see Japanese shows including kabuki and a concert of traditional Japanese drums called taiko, the sheer power of which was really impressive. Without a doubt, living with a host family has been one of the most eventful and redeeming experiences of my time in Japan. They have been essential in helping me engage with the culture.
Everyone says natto, fermented soybeans, is one of those Japanese foods that foreigners just can’t like. Even among Japanese people it’s a pretty standard joke. I actually don’t mind it; what really blew my mind was Taiwanese “stinky tofu” which truly is disgusting. It smells like rotting feet and tastes even worse. But it’s true what the world says about Japanese sushi. It really is the best. And plum wine, called umeshu in Japanese, is really kick-ass too.
The way I am viewed by native Japanese people has often surprised me in a negative way, but has been a positive experience for me in general. In America, I am a white male and therefore terribly average to look at and subject to relatively little disparaging or cultural bias. But being a white American male in Japan is an entirely different story. I draw the gaze of almost every Japanese person I see on the streets, even when I’m at school where the native students are accustomed to seeing foreign students every day. Especially in small towns or places outside of major metropolitan centers, I feel like a huge eyesore sometimes. You can only imagine how I must have looked as the only white guy in Taiwan speaking Japanese.
Both in Taiwan and Japan, I have experienced being used by natives for my knowledge of English and being the object of a skeptical and sometimes angry gaze. I expected this kind of treatment before I came to Japan though, and having that mindset beforehand has been very helpful. I decided rather than let it wear me down that I would turn it into a positive experience that lets me switch roles from gazer to gazed-at. I understand much better now what it means to be looked at as a minority, whether in America or anywhere else, and what it feels like to be biased against in the minds of native Japanese people who are expecting something from me as a stereotypical-looking foreigner. On one hand, it does sadden me, but on the other I also feel like I have a little more to contribute to any meaningful discussion about such judgments.
One Monday evening when walking home from school, I was crossing a bridge just a couple minutes away from my home-stay when I happened to notice a cherry tree in almost full bloom. An elderly woman was looking at the tree as well, and when we met eyes I said that I thought the tree was beautiful. We had an extended conversation about the park running underneath the bridge we were standing on, describing to me how different it used to be over seventy-five years ago when she was a child. Before we parted ways, she asked me why I had come to Japan, and I told her that even though it was hard to understand what she was saying, I could understand the meaning, and that I came to Japan because I love the culture and the language and because I wanted to become fluent. She was crying when she told me after this that it made her absolutely happy to see a foreigner so interested in Japanese, and that even though she is eighty-eight years old, she was very moved by my interest and my fluency. The connection we made will stay with me always.