(Editor’s note: Chaz Plager, who will be a senior at Palisades High School and started writing for Circling the News last year, is in Japan. Before he left for a month, he agreed to send a weekly report that I could share with readers. This editor feels lucky to have this super talented and smart young man reporting.)
By CHAZ PLAGER
It’s (probably) no secret to anyone that knows me that I really, really like Japan. I love the food, the aesthetics, and the culture. During COVID, I even went so far as to teach myself the language. Yet, I had never been there.
And so, I applied to join The Experiment in International Living. A program based in Vermont, The Experiment groups together 16 teens from diverse backgrounds on a month-long trip to a country of choice.
Not just anyone can get in, either— out of over 400 applicants for the Japanese program, I nearly didn’t make it, coming off the waitlist after a single cancellation.
Since Japan is such a popular choice, there are two groups for the program: Anime and Manga and Language and Culture. Anime and Manga walks aspiring artists and animators through how to create an anime, and Language and Culture teaches students Japanese as they explore the city of Tokyo. Seeing as the former requires you to have artistic talent, I signed up for Language and Culture.
On July 7, at 8 PM, I met my group for the first time. I was very happy to find that they were all nice people, certainly ones I was willing to spend a month. Fifteen come from across the US, while one comes from Oman.
We got to know each other and bonded as we spent 25 hours going from LAX to HND (Haneda National Airport), an experience I dread coming back.
We quickly got used to our lodgings at the Tokyo Central Youth Hostel. While it is not a five-star hotel, they certainly serve food fit for one. We eat breakfast and dinner every day at the hostel, going out to various restaurants to buy lunch. I’ll touch on food next time. Spoiler— I expect to gain a few pounds.
Our daily routine:
7 a.m. – Wake up, breakfast.
Seeing as I share a room with 7 other boys, I get a remarkable amount of sleep. Shoutout to Nick for being a great top bunk.
8:30 a.m. to noon. Language class
Our group is separated into two classes, beginner and advanced. As I had taught myself the languate beforehand, I was placed in advanced. Our teacher, Akane Miyakawa, is excellent at what she does. Her catchphrase is “Hai, hakushuu! (Applause!)”
Noon to 1 p.m.- Lunch
My poor wallet.
(Chaz reported that the Yen is weak now, so he has been spending typically 700-1,000 yen – about $6 to $8.)
1:30 to 4:30 p.m.- Activities in Tokyo.
To say our activities are varied is an understatement. Personal highlights so far include the Tokyo Skytree, which is the tallest broadcasting tower in the world, and a massive shopping mall. I tried the Hatsune Miku cafe while I was there. I got the Miku Drink, which was… just a Baja Blast. I’d say I felt cheated, but I didn’t. I like Baja Blasts.
Yasukuni Shrine is just a walk away from the hostel, and a truly beautiful place. Words can do it justice, but I’d need about 40 pages for it.
Akihabara, AKA Electric Avenue, is the otaku capital of the world, with anime merchandise on every corner. In other words, my poor wallet (x2).
Naturally, I had expectations going into this trip. Some were countered by reality. Some were confirmed. I’ve listed some:
Expectation 1: Japan Has Really Clean Cities
Japan is… really beautiful. While there’s an unfortunate lack of trash cans after the Aum Shinkyo incident years prior, I can’t say I’ve ever seen litter on the street or an unclean public restroom. The U.S. needs to step up.
Expectation 2: Everyone In Japan Takes The Train Or Walks
Result: Mostly True
While there were a surprising number of cars, most Japanese people I’ve spoken to don’t own a car. “I just don’t have to drive that far, said sales clerk Ami. “My family is only an hour by train, and I walk to work. It is nice.”
Expectation 3: I Will Get Made Fun of for Trying to Speak Japanese
Result: Mostly False
While there have been a few unfortunate situations here and there, I’ve found most people are pretty nice! Yes, I have gotten nihongo jouzu*’ by many, both sincerely and patronizingly, but I find that generally people are happy to see someone make an effort to speak their language. Except for the waitress in Akihabara who just laughed at me. That wasn’t very nice.
Expectation 4: Preschoolers Wear Yellow Bucket Hats and Big Red Backpacks as They Walk Single File to School
Indescribably precious. Elementary schoolers also often walk home alone, and take the train by themselves, too! I can’t really imagine a U.S. city where it’s safe for kids to do that.
Expectation 5: Japan Is a Perfect Place Where Everything Is Nice and Nothing Is Bad
This one isn’t a belief I have held at all, but it is too often I find people who fetishize Japan rather than simply admire it, thinking it to be some beautiful place of absolute wonder. Simply put, it is not. As someone whose job is to report the truth, I feel compelled to dispel the romantic notion that many non-Japanese people (including myself, at one point) hold. Japan’s got problems, too.
Tokyo is a place of perfect convenience, where vending machines and convenience stores are on every corner, police stand on every block, and everything you could need or want is within walking distance.
It is perfectly optimized to minimize work downtime and maximize productivity. Many children simply do not know what it is like to have a parent pick them up past preschool— after all, picking them up would mean time not at work, not making money.
American children are constantly reminded of “freedom” from birth onwards, the idea they can do anything is beat into their heads. Japanese children are constantly reminded of “safety” from birth onwards. A safe job, at a stable company, in a safe town, with a safe commute. Japan is a place of perfect capital, where every square inch is wrung to create profit, and the sky is suffocated under crossed telephone wires and buildings that pierce the clouds.
There is a deep sadness in many I rarely see in America— take Tadakichi, who is about 50 years old, sitting at the mahjong parlor, chain smoking. “I go back to work in two hours,” he said at 8:30 p.m. “I have no wife, no kids. I see many Americans complain about a ‘nine to five’— pah!” He spits his cigarette into the garbage as he calls pon on an east wind tile. “They don’t know how good they have it.”“You play good for an American,” he also told me as he proceeded to baiman me for 24000 points.
With three weeks of this trip remaining, I look forward to discovering more about this city. Hopefully in that time, I can figure out how to stop dealing in on South 3.
*nihongo jouzu— an expression that literally translates to “Your Japanese is good.” Often used sincerely, but occasionally used to patronize a struggling speaker.