Thoughts Abroad: Cultural Responsibility in Japan

 

“For every grain you don’t eat, a rice farmer will die.”
This is an old Japanese saying I learned the first week that I arrived here, and I’ve been unable to forget it since. Why? Because based on my experience here thus far, I believe this saying is actually a fairly good representation of modern Japanese culture, despite its grim nature and ancient origins. Everyday, I am constantly seeing the values that this saying represents in the ways people talk, behave, and interact with each other.
First, to give you some background, I am living in the Kansai region of Japan in Hirakata City. Hirakata is a region right smack in between two of Japan’s largest cities—Osaka and Kyoto—and both places are easily accessible by train. I am attending Kansai Gaidai University in the Asian Studies program with approximately 250 other international students. Additionally, around 10,000 local Japanese students attend this university; being used to the safe small bubble of Lewis & Clark, it took a bit of getting used to seeing this many students on a daily basis. As far as my living situation goes, I am staying with the most lovely homestay family that I could’ve imagined. They are two parents, Keiko and Kazu, their three children, Mizuki (16), Kou (14), and Mako (12), and their little dog Chocola. Their determination to make me feel like I am a true member of their family has been nothing short of extraordinary.
In the time that I have spent at school interacting with Japanese students, spending time with my homestay family, and traveling around the greater Kansai area, I have noticed a strong emphasis on efficiency. People go to great lengths to keep things neat, orderly, and prevent wasting time, energy, and resources. For instance, turning off the water while you shampoo, always standing in a perfect single file line at the cafeteria, rarely failing to text back immediately, and eating every last bit of food that’s put in front of you. Not only are these common place, but it is simply assumed that you will behave this way. In fact when you don’t, people stare and it’s quite uncomfortable. At first, these behaviors made it seem like people here were cold; a transaction at the grocery store takes 15-20 seconds max because small talk is virtually nonexistent. However, there are some real benefits to a society that values efficiency. Everyone gets where they need to go because the trains are always fast and on time, and just as the aforementioned saying suggests, not a single grain of food gets thrown into the trash.
Something else that has been impossible for me to avoid, and which I think the saying emphasizes, is a sense of social responsibility. I spent an evening lighting off fireworks with a group of local students, and once I was about to leave, I realized I didn’t know which bus to take from that particular place that would get me back home. Before I could even ask anyone to help me, two of them began to furiously research the bus routes that went through my neighborhood. They, in addition to the other ten or so students, would not leave me until I found the correct bus, got on it, and knew exactly which stop to get off at. I was astounded by this and told them several times how kind I thought they were. The two of them laughed at me. To them, this isn’t simply being kind; they feel a responsibility to make sure everyone in the group gets home safely. So why do I even care if the rice farmer lives or dies? Here in Japan, you are responsible for that rice farmer because the well-being of the group is to some extent, always on your mind. I see this as something that those of us living in an individualistic culture can learn from.
I think that this sense of social responsibility is also emphasized by Japan’s landscape. During my commute to school I ride by a rice field. On one side of it is a convenience store, and the other a middle school; it is not uncommon for you to see a farm right next to a business. In Japan, population density is high and land is scarce, so everything is compact. I think this provides another reason why a Japanese person would care about the wellbeing of the rice farmer. It feels almost like the food that is on your table could have been grown a few blocks from you. This is fascinating to me, and I have truly fallen in love with this scenery that is a combination of urban and rural, new and old, expensive and cheap.
I’m not saying that everyone in Japan explicitly thinks of a dying farmer every time they sit down for a meal, but that those values are inherently understood and it is so apparent in the culture. Being able to see and experience these deviations from American culture has begun to open my eyes and my mind. I am learning so much, and am excited to continue learning and exploring throughout the semester.

 

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