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“Why Do You Like Japan?”

June 8, 2012

One common question that I get asked by students, teachers, and random Japanese people alike is, “Do you like Japan?” And, for me, that is a simple one to answer: “Yes! I do like Japan.” However, the follow-up question always leaves me struggling for an answer.

That question is, “Why?”

Why do I like Japan? To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Could it be because I grew up watching My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service on VHS over and over again? Only to discover in seventh grade when I had to take a term of Japanese — yes, it was compulsory, though the program got cut after I graduated from high school — that they were actually Japanese movies? I do attribute that discovery as the initial kick in the pants for me to study the Japanese language. It’s kind of a silly reason, but I wanted to be able to watch the films in their original form and be able to understand it! Is that the reason I like Japan? Probably not, but I’ve always been a Studio Ghibli fan and finding Totoro-themed items always makes my day!

Check out these magnets, for example. Now I have a fun way to keep my coupons in sight.

What about Japanese culture? After all, the more I studied the Japanese language and culture, the more I wanted to study it. So much, in fact, that it became my major in college — Asian Studies with a focus on East Asia (Japan specifically) and with a disciplinary base in Sociology/Anthropology. My senior comprehensive project (affectionately called “comps” within the Carleton community) was entitled, “Redefining Masculinity: The Influence of Women in Japanese Popular Culture and the Japanese Man’s Response” and studied how current conceptions of what is considered attractive for the ideal Japanese man lean more towards what the West would consider more feminized — men with delicate facial features who spend a fair amount of time and money their appearance, from clothes to hairstyles to using lasers for hair removal. My paper was written based on personal observation and analysis of Japanese celebrities and media, and drew on several texts, such as Laura Miller’s book, Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Aesthetics. I loved working on my comps, even while I grumbled when writing all 37 pages of it. Of course, that’s only looking at one specific and detailed part of Japanese culture. I have loads on books on various aspects of the culture back in the States that I’ve purchased over my college career, for classes and for my own reading, and I find myself wishing that I had them here so I could reread them. Not only that, I’ve discovered a bookstore that carries loads of books about Japan written in English that I want to buy and read. Is the culture why I like Japan? Possibly, but I think there’s more to it than just that.

In addition to the culture, there’s Japanese theater. When I studied abroad in Kyoto, I was lucky enough to go to 宝塚 (Takarazuka) twice to see its famous all-female theatre troupe perform. One thing I definitely recommend to someone who will be in Japan for a while is to go to one of these performances. They are amazing and so full of feathers and glitter and sequins. However, traditional Japanese theater is also quite fascinating. When I was a senior in college, I took an art history course that looked at how traditional forms of Japanese theater, such as 能 (nou [we spell it Noh in English]) and 歌舞伎 (kabuki), were portrayed through woodblock prints. We looked at prints in the Edo period all the way to present day. However, in order to understand the contexts of the prints, we also had to read the plays, know about types of actors, learn about world events happening at the time, and study the famous families in the world of acting, among other things. Though the course primarily focused on Kabuki, we also delved a bit into Noh and a couple other forms of Japanese theater. It was such a fun class, especially since Carleton’s gallery was spotlighting Japanese woodblock prints at the time, and I definitely learned a lot. At the same time, I got to take a two-week intensive course on Kabuki acting methods that a visiting professor was teaching. For three hours a day I got to wear a yukata and learn the basics of how to walk, speak, and move like various types of kabuki actors. In summary, my winter term was a Japanese theater nerd’s paradise. Could that be why I like Japan? Honestly, I don’t know, but I definitely enjoy Japanese theater and want to learn more about that world.

A Noh performance at the Sanja Matsuri held May 19, 2012 in Asakusa.

How about the history? I mean, the first things people think of when they hear about Japanese history are 侍 (samurai) and 忍者 (ninja). While those parts of Japanese history are really awesome, I actually really like the Meiji Period, which is when the emperor was reinstated after many years of multiple shoguns ruling their own parts of Japan. It was around this time that the occupation (well, not really an occupation, but the title) of samurai was abolished and Japan really became Westernized. What I think is really interesting is that Japan is known for embracing various parts of Western culture, but at the same time manipulating those parts to suit its own cultural standards. While this is something I would really like to learn more about, it isn’t really the reason why I like Japan.

Oh, so it must be the food. Well, I’d have to say yes and no. As many of you know, I’m not a fan of seafood. I know, I know, some of you may be thinking, “Really? That’s what Japan is famous for!” Studying abroad in Kyoto for a year only cemented my dislike of seafood, even though I was adventurous and tried multiple things. I do love 焼きそば (yakisoba) and お好み焼き (okonomiyaki), and those were two foods that I really missed when I was finishing school back in Minnesota. What I love about Japanese food, though, is all of the sweets. You have traditional Japanese sweets, like 餅 (mochi), a sticky rice cake oftentimes filled with あんこ (anko), which is a sweet red bean paste. However, you also have Japan’s take on Western sweets like cake. Cake is super popular here, though the Japanese definitely have put their own spin on it. You’re able to find cakes flavored with 抹茶 (maccha), and oftentimes most of the cakes will also be loaded with whipped cream. However, I think one of the crown jewels in the Japanese sweets industry is the chocolate. Oh man, is it delicious! There is a specific brand of chocolate covered almonds that I oftentimes found myself wishing I could eat when I was writing my senior comprehensive project. Now that I’m back in Japan, I’ve made sure to really enjoy them every time I buy them!

After considering these options, as well as a few more, I honestly have to say that they all play a part in why I like Japan. I think that while my original intentions were to be able to watch a children’s movie in its original language, learning about the culture, arts, and history of Japan captured my attention and kept me captivated up until where I am today. And I’m still captivated. However, it’s pretty tough to try to explain that to anyone in my level of intermediate Japanese. So, for now, I can only answer the question with, “I don’t know why I like Japan, but I do!”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. alcoyo permalink
    June 8, 2012 7:24 PM

    I’m happy you like Japan and all it has to offer! You watched Big Bird Goes to China…did the monkey kings scare you away?!

    • Carolyn permalink*
      June 8, 2012 8:01 PM

      Oh no, the monkey king didn’t scare me away at all! I really want to visit China someday too!

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