■異文化発見 ドラゴ・ウヌク: スロヴェニア人が見た不思議な国・ニッポン 連載 １
Drago Unuk, docent for Slovene literary language at the Faculty of Education in Maribor, Slovenia, recipient of the JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Postdoctoral Fellowship for Foreign Researches to conduct linguistics research in Japan for a period of 12 months, under the leadership of Professor Keiko Mitani (Faculty of Integrated Human Studies, Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies - Kyoto University).I was a lot younger, when I sort of began to see that things are not as we see them and not nearly as they appear to be … How much different could Japan and the Japanese be, while observing those entities with the eyes of a foreigner, who hails from a small, a pocket European country so to speak, which does not count more than 2 million inhabitants, measures a good 20 000 square kilometres, gained its independence some 15 years ago and up to this date remains quite an enigma in the European and virtually unknown in the consciousness of the worldly mind ?
As I had to decide where to conduct my studies, I thought about the USA at first, but after carefully thinking through the corpus of possibilities and expectations, changed my sight to Japan and came to a final decision within mere moments; the decisive arguments being Japan's role as the leading research and developmental power of the world. Although all arrows pointed to »Yes« to a sensitive and resourceful mind, the surroundings I hail from understood my choice as a highly unusual one. It surely raised a lot of interest and as for myself, represented a significant change in life. Our culture is full of stereotypical notions about Japan: it is regarded as a country based on futuristic development and ancient tradition, decent efficiency on one side and the adaptability to the leading economic and other significant demands of the western world. The current image of Japan perceived by where I come from is a mosaic of incorporated information about traditional architecture, geishas and haiku poetry. It' s basically the picture an average European gets through watching TV, surfing the Internet; summa sum arum, broadening his or her mind.
I consciously did not want to rely on such a thwarted image, thus I gained some crucial practical information from a guidebook, willing to get acquainted to where I landed on the spot. Well, one year is quite a substantial amount of time to gain insight and process as much information about the surroundings you ought to become one with.
I caught the first glimpse of what I was to expect, as I, despite being awake all through the flight, admired the sun rise over Japan and while taking a closer look, ran my eye over the shape of Japan's coast, the ships and Kansai Airport, which was getting oh so close. As a new day dawned, I smilingly thought to myself: »well, some romantic ideas about the country I am about to live in for a while, do seem to be true.«
Japan may be far away, but is really so different and obstinate as our culture is made to believe? The formalities at the airport let had let me know, what I should encounter a lot during the following days, namely the exceptional friendliness, consistency and efficiency of the Japanese.
I left Slovenia in mid-winter conditions with 5 inches of snow covering the landscape, that's why I got to sweat a lot because I arrived dressed up perfectly for winter conditions (and I was advised to do so in the handbook) and was greeted by autumn temperatures. »This mild climate is really appealing,« are the words that cross my mind while I admire the surroundings through the train window.
My newfound residence is the Kyoto International Student House, Sakyo-ku, and with regards to my previous travel experience through Europe, I have to admit, that students do not encounter very much luxury at all. The apartment interiors are old and worn out and there is no sign of technological wonders; »have a computer room and one ADSL line for guests«, but what raises my hopes are ideal research conditions my host faculty has to offer.
Wintertime falls over us during the next days, but there is no central heating or at least not the kind we are used to in Slovenia. The heating system does not work, yet I am friendlily assisted with an electrical heater and an extra blanket, which are not much of a help since it is windy and cold to the bone outside. Where is the mild climate now?!
As one takes a walk through the streets, one can see so much: things are so near and there is a whole lot of them but there are also certain small matters that catch the eye. It is always best to look at trees and not see the forest then the other way around, that is, strolling around Kyoto and getting acquainted with it step by step, while at the same time grasping the image of where I actually am.
The buildings. Of course, they are most frequent thing I see – some of them are old, traditional, remains of the past waved in the city; the others are contemporary constructions also divided in two groups, the first being low, private houses and the other encompassing higher multi-story buildings (on a side-note; there do not seem to be any mind-bogglingly high skyscrapers in Kyoto), which as it appears to me point out an interesting interaction between low and high buildings, giving the city quite a lively appearance. The promenades are as wide as there are in Europe and the back streets branch into many smaller ones, where there are mostly private houses. What is more, many buildings appear box-shaped; the advantage being on the side of functionality.
There is a magnificent forest spreading in the outskirts of the city. I am very much surprised by the leafiness of the trees at autumn’s end and even more by their splendid colors, spreading from sunshine-yellow to Bordeaux-red. Since I still am a bit cautious, my main interest lays in exploring the nearest surroundings. I am glad to be living near the outskirts of the city, amidst private houses, which seem to be sort of connected, and the alleys spread around homeliness; there is lots and lots of greenness, blooming pot plants and small backyards. Very much like home!
When there is sunshine, it is especially pleasant to investigate what more there is around me –
an amazing number of shops (flower shops, dry cleaner's and launderettes, small restaurants, fish markets, stationer's and jeweler’s shops). It appears that many of Kyoto's inhabitants are self-employed and service activity is the main source of income. Such a neighborhood is quite rounded up and an apparently self-sufficient unit, since you have everything at reach – from schools to the pharmacist's. I am curious how one can earn enough in such a secluded unit, how profitable are the shops, respectively.
There seems to be one of the prevailing food shops every half a mile (24/7 shops), so there are less department stores than one comes across in my hometown. I have also not yet encountered a mob on a shopping spree. As probably every foreigner, I miss the morning paper and the European tobacco shops; there are just vendors and drink dispensers and if one is persistent enough, one can find a specialized cigarette shop carrying smoking utensils. Luckily I came across The Japan Times in English, satisfied, as I do not watch TV.
It has to be pointed out, that Japanese are very good neighbors. It is a always a privilege to find how eager they are to help, how free they are to give any kind of information, although many cannot speak English and I cannot speak Japanese. Europeans find the Japanese very strict and earnest people. When they do not smile, they appear to us, as if they were angry – but that is just a picture living in the minds of the European population. I must exclaim, that I have never ever before met such friendly people, and they are not only friendly to strange foreigners such as I may be, but to each other as well. Their encounters appear to me as rituals of politeness. One does not have to master the language to see that there are special and unique forms of conversation going on. Despite being foreign, I have not yet had the feeling of being redundant in any place, everyone I have met up to this point made me feel welcome.
Another aspect of the culture I landed in is cleanness. Nowhere in Europe have I ever seen such pedantry when it comes to »keeping ones threshold clean«. There is a sense in the air, that keeping the streets, the homes, the whole environment clean is a leading aspect of everyday life. It reflects how one respects oneself and others.
And then there is the traffic, an overwhelming and important thing for a foreigner, because it has its specifics. As I got a cab soon after landing, I needed a couple of minutes to adjust to the new regime. The driver was sitting on my right but the conclusion kicked it after another couple of minutes. After fighting off the jet lag, there came the revelation. It is the same traffic regime as in Britain. Well, a normal thing, after you are finally fully aware of the differences. But until one reaches this point, some small encounters, like e.g. crossing the road, waiting for the bus on the wrong side, etc. precede the »assimilation«. Fortunately, I am not driving a car here yet.
The basic regime (signs, lights) is the same as in Slovenia. The promenades appear the same as in all big cities. They seem equally long and wide, and the buildings on either side look very much alike. There is another slight problem though – language; signs are mostly in Japanese writing and because there are so many, one easily overlooks the fact that the names of roads and streets are also written in Latin letters. The countless signs do not appear as advertisements to me. They basically do not affect nor address me since I am illiterate when it comes to Kanji, Hiragana or Katakana, yet I find the manner of writing very esthetic and appealing.
I am delighted about the pavements, which are plastered on main streets and, to my amazement, even and the roads smooth and polished. There are no crowds or traffic jams, no stress and no rage. I have this strange feeling that there is a lot less traffic than in my hometown, which counts no more than 100 000 inhabitants. How is this possible?
I must admit I was expecting to see many vehicles of indigenous production. Here and there a Peugeot, maybe a Mercedes, but that is already it. I have fancied Japanese cars for some time now, and I am glad to have the opportunity to get a close look. I was a bit surprised though, to see so many new and well cared for vehicles. It may not be more than five years ago, when we colleagues for the Faculty admired a small Japanese one-seater, parked in front of the main building. The car stunned everyone with its shape and functionality, something we were not accustomed to. »But there is a lot of them here«, I say to my self as I pass by smilingly. Three or four manufacturers appear to prevail. It looks like Mazdas are expensive even here.
I find the palette of colors very unusual: black, white, gray and every other in between. No bright choice if somebody should ask me. I am almost shocked to think, that Mazda surprised the European market with very lively colors and daring combinations. After all I have seen up to now, I am not at all surprised to see no bumped or otherwise damaged cars, something, that is a frequent and not at all pleasant experience in my hometown, especially, when one goes to the supermarket. The Japanese impress me as patient, cultured and polite drivers.
I was furthermore expecting to see numerous motorbikes, scooters and vespas, mostly because I have grown fond of the image of fast and strong Japanese bikes. Another revelation let me know, that there are not that many of them around here. Some of them are, if I may express myself in such manner, old. The first, not very pleasant impression I got, involved a couple of bicycle-riders. A bike seems to be the most appropriate means of transportation for many students I met here on campus. Although his or her style of driving may appear aggressive, no one seems to get hurt or violated in any way. You may get a bit of a scare though.
The bus is also a practical means of transportation. It is reliable, cheap and practical. Although I detect many who express displeasure about its unpunctuality, I personally like to use it, first and foremost, to look around. I finally got fond of it, after I figured out how to pay for the ticket. A foreigner always thinks of novelties as something peculiar, but when the adaptation is complete, he or she accepts them the way the natives to. At least I hope so.
It is often said, that too much of good is not good at all. To be more precise – I have to write about something that I rather would not have experienced. Sadly.
A couple of days ago, I stood at a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the traffic light to change. A man and his young son stood near by and the boy just could not take his eyes off my face. When his father became aware of that, he pulled him aside and began explaining something very intensively. A child of his age normally finds strange and foreign things and people quite interesting, and he kept staring at me, while his father was telling him I do not know what kinds of things and giving him who knows what crucial advice and facts about the presence of foreigners. This is what I presume, after seeing the father holding his son's arm very tightly, while I at the same time found the situation getting more and more embarrassing for me. Well, a bad experience. There is a commentary or an article in the daily newspaper about homicides of children, the last one just occurred in Kyoto. As I already knew and had experienced in the past weeks, Japanese families tend to take special care of their children, thus it is understandable, that the statistics of violent deaths of children, which has recently risen up to 30 per year, arouses much worry. I hail from a country, where there is a yearly average of 30 children dying in traffic accidents (we are a nation of just under 2 million inhabitants), at the same time we have the lowest birth rate in Europe. I thoroughly read all the news about that topic.
Experts in different fields are in constant search for explanations and solutions. The matter is serious and difficult to explain. Children are dependent and the weakest leak of our society. The more traditional a society is, the more it focuses on caring for the frail offspring. Contemporary societies also frequently come across paradox appearances, such as: sexual and other kinds of violence against children, all through to horrid murders, torture of children and elder people etc. These homicides are arousing extra concern, while sadly becoming more frequent. As I can obtain from articles about trials, the culprits are mainly adult males and only one exception among them – a deranged foreigner, thus there is (by fault of TV correspondence, as it says in newspapers) an absurd campaign against foreigners going on, who are branded possible perpetrators. The fact is, that all of those criminals are mentally and differently instable, thus a certain question forces itself into the open: what is the reason of this horridness and what can be done to prevent and in the end stop it?
I started to envelop the shared thought about children by knowing, that they are helpless when compared to adults. What will follow, as thoughts of someone who is merely an observer on the side, may not please the reader. Japan is known worldwide for its comic craze – read by young people but adult men as well and almost anywhere: in restaurants, shops, bookstores … Among these comics is a special kind, emphasizing female characters, who are very childlike in appearance, and those comics contain sexual content. The male characters are portrayed performing different kinds of sexual acts on the female ones, the later mostly being subordinate and exploited, while violence appears to be the background. What is more, the female characters look like children in any way (the exception being sexual attributes, what can be seen in front of or in a bookstore, where there is a special compartment with such comics, whose content is initially visible on the covers). But let us leave the fact aside, that the circle of »readers« is rather limited and that the comics are taped together, so they can be purchased exclusively by adults and one can understand that they are some sort of means of living out sexual frustrations.
In Europe, where there is an intensive protection of children against sexual and other kinds of violence on the minds of the communities and the same time a hunt against pedophilia taking place, something like that would not be possible. The notions sex, violence and children do not have a common denominator.
It is important that the portrayed characters have the appearance of children, who are being sexually and mentally traumatized, and the message of all of that is: they cannot defend themselves. There are sick deviants lurking around in every community, society respectively, and a long special chapter could be spent when describing how they interpret the background message of such comics.
Even the »Cartoons« section in The Japan Times »how do most Guys perceive Japanese women; are we all School Girls, Anime Princesses & Demure Geishas« /.../, makes one think. Since I am a foreigner, I am doing just that, while observing what is usually looked at, but not seen.
■異文化発見 ドラゴ・ウヌク: スロヴェニア人が見た不思議な国・ニッポン 連載 2
In my previous column, I wrote about superficial knowledge about Japan, but I have to make it very clear that Japan is very present in the life and minds of the Europeans, a lot more than the Japanese would ever expect it to be. What I wanted to point out is, how big the difference between reading or hearing about something respectively and actually experiencing it really is. Personally, I am referring to Japan.
You may got the image of me being a shivery creature, but for my defence, I was “fortunate” enough to visit Japan during the coldest winter since 1946. People at home are constantly asking me via e-mail, how I cope when there is up to 12 feet of snow in certain areas of the country and constant news about people freezing to death. Unfortunately, this wintertime is an unpleasant exception and a part of Japan was hit very hard by it. To my questionable fortune I am about to visit that part, more precisely Sapporo, for a couple of days in February, and thus have the opportunity to see the true picture by myself.
One who finds himself in a new environment has to accustom to new circumstances, drop certain habits and expectations and take on new ones. To do the first, meaning, utterly destroying a system of already acquired habits, is far from easy, far from being possible to do in a short period of time, while the other demands even more time and struggle. And when you find yourself being caught between those two phases, you are somewhat stuck in a desert … Why, this is exactly what happened to me. I have just experienced a time of countless holidays and celebrations that brought along a lot of free time and many possibilities to really spend it.
Christmas is basically a holiday of Christian descent and I expected that it would just be acknowledged as a holiday that is celebrated in other parts of the world. This is where I was wrong! Just like McDonald's, it made its way over the "big pond". Well, there were no heavily decorated Christmas trees of all sizes, no twaddle ornaments, no "Santas" standing in front of the entrance of each and every shopping centre, but there were loads of "Merry Christmas" signs and Christmastime-type formulations all over the place, which surprised me even more than scarcely decorated streets before New Year’s Eve.
It is not that I miss the countless variations of Christmas trees or snowflake-shaped symbols respectively, which in Europe tend to thwart the whole image and exceed the boundaries of good taste (but I must say all of that is getting better and better each year where I come from). No, it is just that I am used to all that jazz letting me know in November, that Christmas is just around the corner … Here - it is obviously a different tune. I do not regard the "Merry Christmas" signs as some sort of a western style invasion of the Japanese traditions, but more as a lack of content or conceptual emptiness of the whole linguistic construct; all that matters is celebrating it (even the English speaking community has long forgotten the initial meaning of the first part of that syntagm and thus does not regard the holiday any differently). The sings are therefore more noticeable and because of the difference in writing look a lot like some sort of decoration or a commercial poster. All that put aside, it was nice to be able to buy a Christmas wreath and hang it on the door (the symbol itself originated far before Christianity, but nobody seems to care!), although it meant something totally different to me than to the shop owners who casually put it on display in their shop windows. It may sound funny, but I never expected Christmas to take over Asia as well.
One day I attended a musical performance by school children, which was staged in front of a shopping centre. It was freezing (yes, I know, I've written that dozens of times already), but their music was very pleasant and the people in attendance were overwhelmed by what they had heard, so the conducting teacher had to thoroughly explain to them, that the concert had ended. The children, dressed in their school uniforms, slightly cold and some even shivering, looked very happy when they were allowed to leave. This wonderful performance reminded me of the time when I was their age, the times of socialist youth, but it seemed that all the other visitors were more nostalgic about their childhood. At least that is what I presume.
Let us switch back to New Year. The decoration was of course of such nature, that it did not catch the eye immediately (especially if one's eye is used to usually perceiving something sparkling), but it popped up after I started to look for it carefully. I expected it to be out there somewhere. That was truly the fact and for me it was yet another novelty. Although, as I was told, New Year is regarded as the most important holiday, the decoration itself is a bit homely considering its appearance, the materials it is made of and the perception of it. Only the largest streets are decorated, while there is nothing like that in the outskirts. This was another big surprise. Expectations are of course an important part of us, they spring in our minds and grow within them, so there is nothing new for a foreigner to expect something he or she links to previous experience. What is more, I did not notice any pre-holiday fever or gift-shopping sprees at all. Everything occurs in a different tempo, a different way even: calm, unnoticeable, modest; as I later found after midnight, something specifically Japanese.
Because I did not attend the Christmas party, which the students prepared for their nearest and dearest (many residents including myself have ours thousands of miles away), I decided to await the New Year at the so-called main square. We Europeans presume that cities have such squares and that they are usually situated in the old town, representing the city centre. Of course, Kyoto does not have such a square but only crossings, while the old town of the city is clearly noticeable.
Well, after I was killing time for a while in a completely undecorated coffee shop, hoping to catch a glimpse at how the Japanese await the New Year and in the end concluding that they actually do celebrate it differently, I mixed with the crowd gathering in the main street. Having had enough time to do so, I prepared for something new. It was my first time awaiting the New Year outdoors. It is difficult to say: “Hooray, it's here!” when you are stuck in the middle of the crowd and at the same time I cannot say that I got lost in it either, since my head was lingering high above everybody. Many of them were even curious if I stood on something… I was standing behind three young ladies who wore traditional gowns, and was getting ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was wrong yet again. The ladies took out there cigarettes, exchanged couple of short messages on their cell phones and went back to the dorm. The romantic part of the celebrations was cancelled unexpectedly. I stayed and eagerly waited for the people to start the final countdown, for the firecrackers to start popping and a huge firework to enlighten the sky, but instead of all of that there was nothing but silence. Everyone was turned towards the sanctuary, talking silently and waiting. Just before 2006 dawned upon the world, some ten people started counting down silently, almost like they were talking to themselves. If they had not have done it, I would not have known that 2005 is actually over in this part of the world. To prevent being impolite, I had previously removed my glove to shake hands with the people and wish them all the best, but that was unnecessary. Nobody moved and after some time, a female voice echoed from the sanctuary. At first, I thought that somebody was wishing the crowd a Happy New Year - wrong again! As it became clear to me a bit later, the voice was presumably instructing us how to enter the sanctuary. Wishing people a Happy New Year is different as well. No shouting, no banging, no fireworks; no handshakes, no kissing, no floods of congratulations … Only polite bows exchanged between people standing near to each other. Now it was clear. I am alone and nobody is going to wish me "all the luck in the world". Resigned and a bit disappointed, I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion, that as a foreigner I cannot force myself into their customs, their exclusive family circles. A group of young ladies standing next to me seemed to have noticed that I was really on my own out there. To my pleasant surprise, they decided to bow to me as well. It was a nice experience, especially when I only moments before did not have a clue what was going on around me.
Still stuck in the middle of the crowd, I waited for what was about to happen. Since nothing happened up to that certain point, I figured that something ought to from that point on, but nobody moved, not even for an inch. Again, it took me a lot of time to recognise that everybody was about to go to the sanctuary, but those who were standing where I was, would not reach it for another couple of hours. The limitless patience of those present overwhelmed me. After about two hours, I finally found a way to withdraw from the crowd and head home. I visited the sanctuary two days later, when it was a bit less crowded. Somebody enlightened me what was going on there on New Year's Day.
In the end, it ended up being a special and unforgettable celebration. Japan in its "japanity", is very different from what I had previously expected. The eye sees, but does not know…
Money. Though, to unfortunate circumstances, I was left without money on my birthday (the word “unfortunate” does not refer to the fact that my birthday is so soon after New Year's Day). It is thoroughly unpractical for a foreigner not to be able to read Japanese writing, that is why I did not understand the note on the local bank's entrance, that it and its ATM will be closed, not operating respectively, until January 4th. I presumed that the ATM would be accessible; I did not know that its accessibility depended on the bank being open for business. And Europeans tend to think that the ever-growing complex mass monetary operating with so-called “plastic money” was invented by the Japanese. Wrong again!
If you are penniless or unable to get any money during the holidays, you, as a foreigner, are definitely lost. I bumped into a student I got to know during my stay and told him about my situation. Without asking, he offered to lend me some money to get by for a couple of days. How unexpected and very polite!
Even the whole relationship to money seems to be extremely polite in these parts. In the beginning, the abundance of gestures in relationship to giving or receiving money surprised me a lot and even bothered me a bit. Yep, one does learn on a constant basis … As it is surprising how much trouble the abundance of coins brings to the Dutch and the German (inversely proportioned to the nations), it also surprised me to see how one can here get “rid” of coins without complications. As are all other, the things connected with money are regulated very practically and even a foreigner can adapt to them quite soon. I often get the feeling that it is unnecessary to be thinking to much about how to cope with things, since everything is taken care of as optimally as possible.
As I strolled down the streets of the old town, I thought a lot about how the difference in thinking between natural scientists and humanists is reflected in every-day life, and how important are verbal and non-verbal thinking; how does someone, who was educated and formed through pictographic, iconographic writing respectively, think. How would I think if I would be able to read Japanese writing?
Shops and shopping. In Japan, the time after the holidays is also a time of sales. As a foreigner, I tend to have problems to recognise a shopping centre, shopping centres respectively. I am circumstantially illiterate. There are jewellers on the ground floor, signposts to different other shops and what to find on a particular floor. Yes, yes, in Japanese. The main shopping centres are situated in the heart of the city and although Kyoto is a big city, there are no crowds like those I am used to from home. It looks like people somehow spread around a shopping centre and leave a lot of space for us foreigners to window-shop. There is no such thing as mile-long line of customers waiting hours and hours for the door to open when a sale is about to start, in order to plunder the store within minutes.
The prices here are still a shock, although I was warned about that before I took the trip. The European brands known to me are exceedingly more expensive then they are where I hail from, but still cheaper than the native ones. Japan - an expensive country, one could say, but I needed to buy a new winter coat since what I brought with me is not nearly appropriate enough for this climate. The shop assistants tried to persuade me that the Japanese brands are special, that is why the price is a bit higher. I must admit that the products I was shown really look special, but would they keep me warm?
A shop assistant, who by the way spoke perfect English, mentioned, that she had seen me at the store twice before, lead me around the department, explaining that the merchandise is worth the price, that they sold an awful lot during the sale. She showed me some articles of clothing according to my desires and within the price range I could afford, and in the end politely escorted me towards the exit. I have this feeling that she wanted to show me her perfect English and that she did not understand my indecisiveness in the right way. Well, I bought a coat (of Japanese making, of course) somewhere else; as I expected, I had to bring it to the tailor’s to lengthen the sleeves. I really do not want to test it in extreme conditions, because I still remember the frosty days before Christmas all to well.
The younger generation tends to buy a lot of things at the (that is how I call it) bazaar: this is basically a two streets wide area in the city centre, where you can find it all: boots, socks, expensive hats or cheap earrings. The flow of pedestrians is very frequent here. It looks a lot like, as we call it in Europe, a “corso” - strolling up and down the street, window-shopping on one hand and expecting to meet an acquaintance on the other. It is the same here. The youth like to socialise. Shopping is not all that important, but still is all-present. I was surprised to see certain pieces of clothing, which were up for sale and not cheap by the way, crumpled. I noticed the same in the shopping centre, no matter what kind of fashion trend or whatever their quality. Let us face it, some things just cannot be understood.
It is also quite easy to get an insight on how layered the Japanese society is. As a foreigner, I had to walk through many shops to realise that. What is more appealing to the foreigner are the countless small stores in the old town, where you can spend the whole afternoon just watching and admiring handmade products, which are genuine masterpieces. The prices… let me just say that they are high, but with right. Since there are not so many tourists around here, the shops are mostly meant for the natives. One can easily conclude that the Japanese tend to really hold on to their tradition, but move from the past; the stores are also open on Sundays and holidays. The confectioner's shops are always full, women walk around in traditional gowns and dresses. Watching and admiring this is rather appealing to us Europeans.
When I went to the coffee shop, a family with a young child sat themselves down quite far away from me when they noticed my presence, but a day later I experienced something totally different: a child that waved to me through the shop window was uncannily being taught how to greet somebody in English; on another occasion, I found myself in a very pleasant conversation with an elder, very sociable couple. I do not know if they knew it, but they definitely made my day. It is usually rather difficult to socialise with the Japanese. While on one hand they are very polite and helpful when you need help or do business with them, they are very reserved towards foreigners on the other.
To get ill in Japan is no different from becoming ill anywhere else; a headache and a runny nose are the same nag in Japan and Slovenia. My visit to the doctor's was another interesting experience. The cold and flu season did not pass me. The doctor's office, the interior, the personnel and the doctor-patient relationship reminded of old times when we lived under socialism, but in contrary to that, the organisation of it all is far better here. The doctor spoke English; he did all he could. It would be hard for me to explain that it is cold in my apartment, while he advised me to stay in the warm.
As I see it: I am getting to know this unique and interesting country better and better day by day, but I am still as curious as a little kid.
■異文化発見 ドラゴ・ウヌク: スロヴェニア人が見た不思議な国・ニッポン 連載 3 2006年3月
To thee who does not last long, nothing lasts long. I’ve lived in Japan
for three months now and it still seems the same to me as do the Japanese,
but what about me? Well, I think I, as I was thoroughly warned in the beginning,
did experience a bit of a change by assimilating to a certain extent as
well as altering my perception of what comes my way on a daily basis. For
one, I mastered the usage of sticks, the traditional tableware in this
part of the world, quite quickly. But this is not where it ends; I learned
some Japanese words, figured out how to buy medicine at the chemist’s,
got a grasp on how to manage things at the post office etc. All of these so-called simple
things helped me to get more insight about where I actually am. To prevent drifting away, I shall summon my
thoughts and focus on why I came here in the first place. My main purpose for
being here are studies on linguistics a.k.a. research work. My home country is
to small and to scarcely populated to provide a so-called critical mass of
results, a very important notion for researchers all around the world. There
are just not enough scholars and researchers in my main field of studies, thus
I had to find the “critical mass” elsewhere, especially because I am bound to such
a specific field what studying one’s mother tongue really is.There is nothing unusual about my decision to think deep about the Slovene
language, but the fact that I chose Japan as my venue does not cease to
amaze everyone I meet. It would be a waste of time to present all my arguments
why this is so, that is why I shall mention only two: firstly, any language
is generally speaking nothing more but a mere phenomenon, comprehended
through and linked to basic linguistics, linguistic universalities etc.
– all of it being common to all the languages of the world, and secondly,
things we observe from a certain distance and at the same time possibly
also compare to something related or diametrically dissimilar, appear different
when regarded as main notions of research. There are, for example, numerous
studies of English conducted and composed by non-native speakers or theses
about Japanese history composed by foreigners, thus it is nothing unusual
about Japanese researchers conducting studies on Slavic languages; one
of them being my mentor at postdoctoral studies, Mrs. Mitani.
I cannot say that the regulations and organization at Kyoto University surprised me in any way since I gathered basic information about the university, the faculty and my esteemed mentor Mrs. Mitani prior to making the journey. The department at which I am engaged in research education is rather small compared to others. There are only few educational workers and their assistants employed, but the working conditions are excellent, especially the free and unlimited access to renowned scientific e-publications from all around the world.I think that each and every researcher is aware of the fact how crucial the novelties and findings published in such publications are. Well, to tell the truth, I was absolutely amazed at both libraries – the main and the special. The fact that they contain all foreign and domestic scientific publications is more than common, but the fact that I came across a majority of linguistic monographs from all over the world covering a time span of nearly a century literally made me grasp for air. As people say: “They've got it all!”Science has been internationalised for ages, research methods and presentations of results have mostly been unified and systematically schematised (in their basis, of course). It is quite a relief to slip into a widely adapted and internationally unified system, but there are also some refreshing novelties that caught my eye, such as the linguistic publication issued by the department, which informs the yearning students about the newest expertise and general scientific findings. “New and very appealing,” I think to myself, while I admire the form and fullness of the magazine.I am used to the fact that the authors themselves conduct the editing and design. A leading thought in every researchers life is: Nothing gets done by itself. The core of it all are the distinguished workers of the JSPS system, who make my time worth while: cooperative and devoted professionals who are an exceptional example of individualisation, success and effectiveness, which all put together bring about excellent results. The whole concept of working here is as I had imagined it would be.
My visit here also included a meeting of the Committee of Slavistics in Tokyo as well as the Committee of Russistics in Sapporo. I figured that the named fields are separate (the arguments for this being quite clear) yet there is no real barrier between them. As are many laics, I too was surprised to meet such a number of slavists inJapan, putting aside the reasons that spring from the necessity of the fields of research to develop, although to an ignorant mind they may appear “exotic” and irrelevant for a certain cultural environment. I met researchers of Russian, Polish, Czech … but no expert on Slovene or Macedonian. I was amazed how well each masters the language they are so close to.
The meeting – the presentation of the results and findings was in its last part very amicable and at ease, which was also new to me. “How Slavic,” I said to myself quietly. The interest of students who study one of the Slavic languages on the side was above average. I must add that the working language of the meeting was Japanese so I had my share of problems.
It was quite similar in Sapporo The interest in the biggest Slavic language was more than evident. I counted some 35 referees and auditors but I probably miscounted. The prominent part of researches where from the field of historical past and literature as well as the cultural and social particularities of Russia. The sole linguistics of the language was presented as part of the extra-lingual phenomenon.
It was a pleasant variegation to meet a professor of Japanese who hails from our capital city Ljubljana, a Slovene who three decades ago decided to swap mathematics with linguistics. Our conversation was mostly about the cathedra of Japonology at the Philosophical Faculty in Ljubljana – it was some sort of mutual briefing on past experience, achievements and future plans on one side and the stand of slovenistics at home as well as the necessity of permanent focus on the general theory of linguistics and the findings in its field, to which education abroad is closely linked, on the other. Our debate also took a turn towards slavistic happenings in Europe and of course Japan.
Another event of special importance was the three-day seminar for the JSPS grant recipients in Tokyo: excellent organization, diversity and applicability of what I had heard and seen – that is just a short resume. The organizers and the referees who occupy themselves with JSPS grant recipients concentrated the core and nature of the work to what was really interesting for us in attendance; a concrete, objective and curious segmentation of the position of the system, stay and work of the granted researchers. The attendants were mostly researchers from the field of natural studies or to put it another way, there were not just two them. I would say that this fact clearly expresses the tendency of development both in Europe and Japan.
The participants were mostly Europeans, the majority French and German and there were two Slavs. It was obvious that our hosts were very delicately approaching the question how we perceive and cope with our new working and living environment on one side, and how we feel the Japanese except us on the other. We were granted a special presentation – some sort of a dissection of the Japanese history based on relations with the western world. The tough and demanding criteria and the process of choosing appropriate candidates was outlined once again, what made me appreciate my stay here even more.
In the evenings, we interchanged all kinds of experience. It was difficult for all of us grant-researchers to understand that the Japanese do not understand the meaning of the notion “Cultural shock,” something every foreigner gets just moments after stepping on Japanese soil. It is similar with the unproductiveness in communication, which curiously enough does not spring from language problems since many Japanese speak English and many foreigners are able to communicate in Japanese. Counting all the things that make us wonder does not seem to be leaning towards the end: the curious and astounding architecture, a very strict and traditionalistic approach towards foreigners, a one of a kind melodious interchange of tradition and elements of western-style life, tidiness and cleanliness of living space, technological breakthroughs, order and efficiency of traffic … Things really aren't as we see them, but they definitely are as they appear. Unfortunately, such insightful evenings are to short compared to long days that lie behind, and those that lay ahead.
■異文化発見 ドラゴ・ウヌク: スロヴェニア人が見た不思議な国・ニッポン 連載 4
University of Maribor,Slovania
It is spring – finally! A pleasant turn of events, seasons respectively after the long and cold winter, which set its spawn not only over Japan, but as I had heard over Europe as well. And the Japanese spring? I look, I see, I experience, first and foremost the blossoming cherry trees that combined with other trees on the river shore line for miles and miles on, thus creating a breathtaking scene. The modern man is still bound with nature, what is visibly and olfactory noticeable in magnificent city parks and countless potted plants in front of all the houses, whose odour mixes with gasoline fumes. Here I think of Heisenberg who once said that nature is not what we see, but the image of it one sees in oneself. I moved into a new apartment. Now I reside in the University’s international guesthouse, which is situated literally on the outskirts of the city. The hillside around Kyoto is now so near to me that I feel just like home – there are several hills outside my window in Maribor as well. The apartment is rather small, as seem to be all. We foreigners tend do adjust to the size a bit longer, many often change their quarters but soon find out that they are all the same.
The fact that my new flat is substantially smaller that the previous one and that it is next a train station does not disturb me at all, I adapted quite quickly. It may have helped that I have a balcony and live on the ground floor, which gives me a sense of openness.
In short, I, in contrary to some of my neighbours, like my new “home.” I could easily forget the bad experience I gathered at my previous quarters, but my health unfortunately makes my stay rather painstaking. No matter the situation, I shall call this a new and uplifting beginning. What I cherish the most are the Internet connection and the telephone. It may be true that nobody calls but it still gives me a sense of modernity.
The surroundings are of course much different here. I am much closer to the city centre as well the University itself. The block I am staying at the moment appears to be some sort of crossing between a characteristic city and a place quite removed from the hustle and bustle.
For example: my previous descriptions of Kyoto make me smile; the pavements here are far away from being flat-surfaced; the asphalt is rougher, an experience not particularly enjoyed by the soles of my shoes, which are of English manufacture but not all to suitable for exploring the environment of this place. I like the greenery, especially the river’s shore I tend to stroll in my spare time. It reminds of home as well, although the river here is rather a stream compared to the one in Maribor. Now, after for months, I reckon the city schematised; a map is one thing, experiencing one’s every step another … Somehow I cannot figure I out how the stream of the river is so thoroughly lead through the city. A curious factoid –at least for me rather than the locals– is that there are countless young musicians who take a walk and then decide to make some beautiful music; just like that! I enjoy their classic western sounds and European tunes. Speaking of Europe, as Japan is so far away from the continent, the continent is as far away from Japan itself. America (the USA of course) seems to be playing quite a role in the minds of the locals, which is apparent in lifestyle, fashion, business etc. My thesis: If a visitor from abroad speaks English, he must be American.
Another interesting detail, as I deduct from reading public signs, is that the non-Japanese signs are in English and –that was a surprise, I can tell you– in French. It all stands on a historical explanation of the occurrence and what is written in Latin writing is used for attracting attention or for the purpose of advertising. Globalisation, which goes hand in hand with the English language, also changed the Japanese way of perception: street posters, inscriptions on merchandise etc., but in contrary to the European reality, the English signs here are sometimes as old as I am.
The Japanese are regarded in Europe as people who tend to take the “Best from the West,” adapt it and adjust the quality to the better. English here is also very different from the countries that were influenced by the English speaking culture (for example India), but here it particularly stands out because the difference is not just phonetic or phonological but formal as well. The fact that many people do not understand French does not seem to bother anyone. Ergo, the rule: What is of foreign root (American, French, maybe German, but the German language is not present here) is modern, unique, a bestseller, something all-present in modern ideas of globalisation and integration, especially trade. Well, despite the English language in ads, the fact that I encounter mostly Japanese products cannot be overlooked. Thus, a taste of seclusion remains
A parcel from home containing pictures of Dutch tulips pleasantly surprised me; the named tulips being world renown as Japanese cherries, of course. Every year we have an arboretum – an outdoor flower show in the city park with tens of thousands flowers on display. The authors of the enclosing letter on the other hand are curious about the indigenous cherries since cherries are considered of interest in our parts as well; by the way, our cherries are white during this time of year, far from being ripe and the blossoms are bigger, with a strong but pleasant odour. They are regarded as June-fruit, the same as strawberries, blackberries etc.
During our lives, we often experience pleasant things unplanned, thus I found myself at a rehearsal of the Japanese Nou-theatre, accompanied by three other foreigners. This was also my first visit to a local private house here since the rehearsals take place in a house owned by a professor who used to practice theatre professionally, but the before mentioned rehearsal was lead by a younger successor. I already knew some things about theatre before –from my studies, of course– but seeing things is far different than just reading about them. After two hours of thorough practice of movement, steps and voice modulation the professor invited us to a joint conversation. He did not ask us if we enjoyed the performance, no, he encouraged us to give our own questions, which he answered with a one-hour-long presentation of singing and acting especially for us, strangers, foreigners! As he regarded my questions as relevant, meaning the ones that pointed out the crucial characteristics of this old-type theatre springing from far before the Shakespearian era, I felt like a good student at seminar –something I had not experienced in a long time–while also getting the opportunity to get to know something unique and original. We kindly thanked the professor, who by the way appeared a bit exhausted, and were soon after engaged in a very pleasant debate about his performance. We were overwhelmed and overjoyed, to say the least.
Where I come from, we tend to think about the weather in April as capricious and unpredictable. I reckon it is the same in these parts; the Kyoto-sky can be so beautifully blue but also dim and full of leaden clouds forbidding the sun to spray its rays upon the world.
Sometimes when it rains on a daily basis, I think to myself: “The likeness to the weather in Britain is all too evident.” Not to mention countless other similarities regarding Island-life.
But that is another story …