International Relations: Japan in Review, Part One

So I felt pretty cool today as I walked up to this titanic concrete building near Omote-Santo in my blue polo and flashing Cross-covered dress shoes, and to my left sat a long row of expensive cars flying a rainbow of colored flags all from different colors. Flashing in the morning Tokyo sun above the center entrance of the building was a giant emblem stating proudly, The United Nations. We had been invited by the vice-president of Bunkyo to participate in the United Nations University annual symposium on Africa. Now, to avoid confusion, the UNU is a series of institutions in which many of the world’s top researchers work on solving the big problems facing mankind. The headquarters of this organization, headed up by UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), is located in Tokyo, and the vice-president of Bunkyo University also happens to be a prominent player in the UNU’s operation and formation.

Outside of the UNU, Tokyo, Japan

Outside of the UNU, Tokyo, Japan

Walking into the building made me feel simultaneously like an important representative of my country in the international community, and sad that from the looks of it, Myself and my group were the only representatives from our country there. As we’ve already seen in previous posts, leaving the U.S. brings out a lot of the shadier parts of the country, especially when one finds his/herself in places such as Hiroshima and our UN Symposium. But anyway, the topic of today’s “Africa Day” symposium was, “The global financial crisis and its impact on Africa: the role of Japan and TICAD.” Without going into too many boring details, the talk included addresses by prominent Japanese and international officials including former Japan Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and focuses on Japan’s pledge to continue its support towards the crisis in Africa as well as avocations from African ambassadors on various ramifications that have come from this financial crisis “they did not start.” Personally, I felt unbelievably cool not only seeing but participating in such an important event; more than anything though, I got to wear an official UN translator set complete with amazing earpiece!

Yeah...I look official

Yeah...I look official

This morning out on the international scene, however sweet it was, is not the focus of this post though. I am looking to take the next 700 words or so, and  one or two more posts following this one, to make a sweeping reflection on my last 18 days abroad. I hope that you all will find these posts as useful as they will be to me as I write them.  My focus in this first section is to illuminate some of the most stark contrasts I’ve made between the Japan I read about and the Japan I encountered.

As I believe I may have mentioned in previous posts, one of the pieces of writing that we had to go through during our stay was a book that made a firm case for Japanese identity being rooted in the dark, plain, and old things in life which was titled In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. His essay made several claims, all written during the time of Japanese modernization in the 1930’s, which simply are not in line of what my experience of this culture has been like. For instance, he makes an argument that the Japanese, as a culture, do not care for electric lights or products, but one look around “Electric City” or Shibuya will tell a completely different story. Also, the fact that I watched a real robot dance with a geisha on TV last night as if they were the same person makes me feel as though this argument no longer fits Japanese society.

Another one of the contrasts made in his essay has to do with the women of Japan. He claims that they are generally flat, plainly dressed, and don’t draw attention. Then I went to Harajuku…The Japanese by my experience, and especially the women, dress far nicer than the average Joe and Jill in Boston. The women in particular draw absurd amounts of attention to themselves with multi-inch high heels, bright makeup, short skirts, and even anime maid outfits. The guys by no means dress much less outlandishly, paying constant attention to fashion. To give an idea of the sort of clothing I have seen here, that Vest/shirt/hat combo I have been sporting in many of the formal evenings here is considered the bare minimum when it comes to “flashy” outfits I have seen on the streets of places like Takeshita Street.

Several other things I expected from either hearsay or the class readings which were not as they appeared were the idea that “everyone” speaks English here…not even close to true. I have had the most bizarre encounter here given my inability to communicate in even the slightest way with 90% of those we encounter. As I remarked walking home the the Sushi bar tonight, “Being illiterate truly sucks!” And it’s true, every action is dictated by our ability or lack thereof to read and/or speak the language here. Dinner is decided by, “Do they have a picture menu? English menu? Stupid American menu? Smoke signals?” Makes our selection quite limited (especially if they don’t even have smoke signals!). Another myth I would like to quickly dispel is the American-held idea that Japanese people all drive hyped-up Civics and Toyotas with big spoilers and what-have-you. In reality two things come out of this myth: one, in Tokyo, very few people drive because it is just not practical with the extensive mass transport systems available, two, the Toyotas that are actually driven on the streets of Tokyo are Aztec or Honda Element-shaped boxes of ugly. The nicest cars you see riding around a Japanese city are German cars or all things. (Also, side-note, the best “Japanese” beer, Yebisu, is a German beer recipe brewed in Japan).

There are many more that I may remark on later, but for now I should wrap this up because I have already gone on longer than I planned! As always, you can read previous posts that will talk a bit more about some of the specific differences that I have seen that may not have been mentioned here. I will draft my next section to this summation when I wake up tomorrow. Until then, and in the spirit of the UN symposium, PEACE!


4 Responses to “International Relations: Japan in Review, Part One”

  1. Jeremy Hedley Says:

    Thanks very much to you and your team for joining us yesterday. We’re glad you could make it and hope to see you back at UNU one day soon (who knows, perhaps in a professional capacity).

    Just to clarify, UNU is not “headed up by UNESCO” in any sense, although we collaborate with them very closely on a number of issues and maintain a UNU office at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. UNU, to maintain the academic independence granted by its charter, is an autonomous organ of the United Nations General Assembly. This academic independence is extremely important. In fact, in order to do research with ‘no strings attached’, we don’t even receive funding from the United Nations itself. Our About page has more information (

    Thanks again for joining us, and all the best for the rest of your trip.

    P.S. _In Praise of Shadows_ is wonderful book, and still relevant I think. Although one may have to look harder for the relevance these days, Tanizaki’s poetic imagination is still powerful. When he says that that the Japanese don’t like electric light, for example, it may be worth thinking of it not literally but as something along the lines of ‘the Western form of illumination’ (i.e., discourse or discussion) and to consider that he’s pointing out how different cultures ‘illuminate’ and perceive the world. (I’m not sure how far to take this line of interpretation when he starts talking about toilets, but somehow I agree with what he says there, too!)

    • pbitty Says:

      Thank you very much for the clarification and for having us at your symposium Monday. As you can probably tell, it was extremely beneficial, and helped to make this trip an even better experience for each of us. I suppose I should have made it more clear in regards to UNESCO and the UN as a whole and their ties (or lack-thereof, in a sense) to the UNU, but I thank you again for taking the time to make this distinction.
      On the book, I will definitely agree with you that there is still some relevance in Tanizaki’s words today, especially with his vivid imagery and masterful descriptive skill. In our many discussions on the book itself we had never thought of the conclusion on his metaphoric “illumination” that you bring up. I’m not sure that I can agree to his purpose for making such a comparison because of the realities of a rapidly changing Japan that surrounded the publication of this book, and the proximity of the Manchurian incident which had an impact on cultural identity for the Japanese. I raised the question in our discussion on whether or not Tanizaki was reporting some sort of propaganda for this clearly defined Japanese identity under some sort of government influence, or intending to subvert this idea by creating a satire of it. I tend to choose the latter explanation for his writing because of, as you mentioned, his exaggerated descriptions of even his toilet. This is open to interpretation of course, and I would never claim to know what he really meant. I just thought I would offer another option :-). Thank you once again very much for your valuable insight and clarifications.

  2. ken Says:

    Hey, loved the ‘smoke signal’ allusion!

  3. Tokyo Diaries 7: Who is, whose right? « Theory Teacher’s Blog Says:

    […] felt a little cooler than we actually are at that moment, as my student pointed out in his blog [here]. Some of the people speaking were some major, major dudes such as a former Prime Minister of […]

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