The weekend before my first day of classes, I had the opportunity to go to my host sister’s school festival. I slid my feet into a pair of forest green slippers, tucked my shoes in a small plastic bag, and shuffled in behind my host father. My host sister was about to play french horn in the brass band’s welcome performance in collaboration with the dance club. An upbeat tune filled the air as girls with matching pigtails and colorful tshirts danced around exciting the crowd. Students, family, and friends swayed side to side while clapping along to the beat, acting as a natural metronome. I joined in without hesitation. However, to my surprise, I discovered the musicians still guide the audience in clapping along even in a more formal concert performance. Japan is a group oriented culture, so I interpreted the audience participation as a way of integrating the community. Over the two days of the school festival, I attended four brass band performances -- each with different members, location, and duration of play. All were reminiscent of my brother’s numerous concerts growing up. Music is a universal form of expression which brings people together, so the familiarity was heartwarming and instantly comforting.
We explored everything the four floors had to offer while weaving through groups of giddy girls ranging from preschool to high school. The photo club covered the classroom walls with images depicting everyday life in Tokyo, reminding me of my first exploration of photography in an academic setting in high school. In contrast, the ikebana (flower arrangement) room had a minimalist aesthetic, filled with fresh flowers my mom and grandmother would love. From the windows of the fourth floor we watched the shodo (calligraphy) performance as my host mother exclaimed, jouzu!, or suteki!, in praise of the students’ skill and beautiful work after the completion of each scroll. We also visited the sadoubu (tea ceremony club), where girls were dressed in gorgeous, colorful kimonos as they elegantly carried out this traditional Japanese practice. The red bean mochi (sticky rice cake) and matcha (powdered green tea) were just as pretty as they were delicious. Unfortunately (and fortunately), my attempt to sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor while sitting on the soles) for the entirety of the ceremony was interrupted when I was kindly presented with a small stool to sit upon for my comfort.
What I found most impressive, however, was a design course called Ad School. Students split into groups and worked to design and produce a commercial for Area Benesse (an educational assistance service) with the guidance of a professional, which would then be shown to employees of Benesse and Dentsu (an international advertising and public relations company). On the second day of the festival, the four groups gathered in the auditorium to see who would be announced the winner. There were three awards: Most Popular (determined by votes during the first day of the school festival), the Dentsu Creative Award (which my host sister’s group won!), and the award for the winner as deemed by Benesse. At the end a panel gave feedback and a lot of constructive criticism to the students. I was delightfully surprised by the extent of the students’ success after all their hard work and dedication. It reminded me to uphold the concept of ganbaru, which is deeply rooted in Japanese society, as I start my own schooling. While this directly translates as “to do one’s best,” it more importantly evokes the idea of persevering until the very end, and additionally its sentiment of determination translates beyond the individual to the community as a whole.
Excited to finally start school myself, I walked from Yotsuya Station towards the main gate of Sophia University. Around me was a sea of black haired students congregating, happy to see each other after summer break. The majority of girls around me were dolled up in full face makeup and heels -- a stark contrast to myself who sports merely winged eyeliner and Birkenstocks, or combat boots. Although I was overwhelmed by the amount of fast-paced, casual Japanese spoken around me, it mentally prepared me for my first class: Japanese. Finding this classroom wasn’t a problem, however maneuvering the elevators was difficult. Not only because you cram as many people (and their backpacks) in as possible, but because the doors close so quickly. I’ve already lost track of the number of times the metal doors have sandwiched me within a few seconds of stepping in the crowded box. Navigating campus itself was easy since Sophia is a relatively small school with around 12,000 undergraduate students. However, the organization of the courses was rather confusing the first week. At Sophia there’s no capacity for class size, which is convenient since you’re guaranteed registration for all your desired classes. Unfortunately, in order to fit all the students, the classroom is subject to change at any time, so it’s important to keep track of your classroom listings on Sophia’s bulletin board.
This semester I’m taking a Japanese language course, Gender in Japanese Visual Culture, Japanese Religions, and an Introduction to Linguistics course which looks specifically at English and Japanese. My language class has international students from America, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Jordan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This wide range creates a rich context for the discussion of cultural differences in our home countries as we learn social norms and customs in Japan. Thus far, all of my time in Tokyo has been a learning opportunity. Navigating unfamiliar spaces, breaking through language barriers, and discerning differences in a foreign land is not an easy task. Just remember -- there’s people in the same boat as you eager to embrace these waves.