By Angelina Puglisi
In the first week of April, we had a full immersion of Japanese life. Though these immersions were brief, the perspective we gained from this experience was incredible and something my classmates and I will never forget! I have never traveled abroad before, but it is something I have always wanted to do. In the spring 2020 semester I was supposed to travel to France and Germany with the history department. Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevented me from partaking in these events. When the global education department announced the faculty led trip to Japan for May of 2021, I was ecstatic to attend. I was so disappointed when the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on this experience. It was so exciting that we would be able to partake in snippets of the original trip in virtual form!
I have always been mesmerized by Japanese culture. Form a very young age I reached for comic books and animate artwork, I stayed up late at night to catch my favorite anime shows. While the television shows were enjoyable, I was always so intrigued by how different it was from the world that I knew in New Jersey. There was such a difference in culture, expectations, social norms, architecture, clothing, and so much more. My father even bought me a kimono for my thirteenth birthday!
Last semester I took a course on Asian history with Dr. Bennett, and I was so surprised at how much was already familiar to me. Events like the Opium Wars, the Meiji Restoration and the rule of the Shogunate were events I already had heard of, having some background on. I found this incredible, that they would honor and hold so true to their history that it is present in multiple forms; their books, comics and television shows are accurately represented. During the first virtual tour we visited Asakusa (I hope I spelled that correctly), our guide Osamu brought us through the second city center of Tokyo, in which we were able to see thirteen hundred years of temple history. During this tour Osamu informed us that the temples in which we were viewing, were actually damaged in the air raids of the Pacific War in 1945; the facility was burned. Japan decided to not only rebuild this treasured place, but to rebuild it to its original authenticity; this shows how much value they have in their past, their history and their heritage. I was so impressed. In America when these things happen, we usually see these buildings replaced by a modern structure, or even worse, we see historic structures torn down to accommodate larger and more modern establishments. On the final day of our weeklong immersion, we visited the Japanese tea house located on the Georgian Court Campus. We learned about the history of our own tea house, and how the tatami mats were very damaged at one point in the past. Thankfully due to a donor the tea house was able to be repaired and the tatami mats were replaced, also there was parts of the roof where the bamboo was added or replaced as well. This again demonstrated the integrity of the Japanese culture to preserve its original origin so that we can appreciate its history.
As someone who watches a lot of anime, I was very surprised to see a lot of similarities between what I watched and what we saw when we toured through Tokyo and Kyoto. In shows that I have watched there were always a lot of shrines, and I would often think “I wonder if there are really that many shrines in Japan, or if this is overexaggerated.” I was pleased to find out that there are shrines tucked away throughout Japan. Just the other day I was actually re-watching an old favorite anime of mine, Fruits Basket, and they did an episode in the same bamboo garden that we had toured in Kyoto. It was so cool! I also noticed that details down to the sidewalk tiles for assistance to the blind were present too, these were things I would have never noticed before.
As we walked through the cities there were a couple things that I noticed that were extremely interesting. I am not sure if this is due to Corona virus in Japan, but I did notice that there were minimal cars on the streets. I know that mass public transportation is more used and more accessible from what I understand, but I wonder if it is actually discouraged to have a car? Or maybe it is a conscious effort to minimize their pollution contribution? I also noticed that the streets in Kyoto were narrower than the streets in Tokyo, I wonder if there are some neighborhoods or places that are accessible by foot or bike? Another thing that I noticed, and we discussed this briefly during our excursion, was the lack of waste disposals in public areas and on the street. It was said that it was to encourage cleanliness, also because it is considered rude to eat in public spaces like on the train. I had always thought that the lack of waste disposals would create dirtier environment, yet the surrounding areas of japan seemed very clean and well kept. Strangely enough this actually stuck with me for a little bit, I started looking at the public areas near me, and how places like shopping plazas had garbage cans all over and easily accessible. Even so, there seemed to still be a lot of litter and debris nearby, as if one couldn’t be bothered to walk three feet to dispose of it properly. I have also noticed that these same waste receptacles were also not well maintained and sometimes overflowing. This might be a weird cultural difference to hone in on, but I value the respect that the Japanese have for their environment and home whereas American culture appears to be a culture of ‘litter bugs.’
Overall, this virtual trip was a great experience and filled me with lots of hope for May 2022. Considering all the difficulties of the past year it was wonderful that we were able to get a taste of what we will see in the future, it has made me much more excited to go. I didn’t know I could get anymore excited! I also loved our cooking lesson that brought culture into each of our homes by one of our own! I have modified and used this recipe so much already, modifying it for an easy dinner night with whatever vegetables I have in my fridge. This virtual trip has reinforced and reminded me why I became a history major in the first place. It has again opened my eyes to the vast differences in the world, reminding us to value and appreciate our own heritage while exploring others. It also invites us to explore the rich history of the country and the progress they have made; we get to see that the Japanese people love their country as much as we love ours.