“Alienate yourself as much as possible – go to Japan,” advises Associate Professor of Classics Leah Himmelhoch after returning from Technos International Week, a cross-cultural exchange program sponsored by Technos International College in Tokyo and the Tanaka Ikueikai Educational Trust. “When you come across something alien to you, investigate and make sense of it, seek an explanation. In finding that explanation, you can create a bridge between your culture and another.”
For students Colin Desko ’13 and Vienna Farlow ’12 who joined Himmelhoch in the exchange, Japan certainly presented something alien. “I got off the plane, and everything was in Japanese,” said Desko. “I had no idea what was going on!”
However, the alienation was not one of discomfort, but one of discovery. “The Japanese took wonderful care of us. They made us feel completely comfortable, yet I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” adds Farlow, who spent her time with students at the college doing traditional Japanese dance in a kimono, and recording the voice track for a student-made anime.
Even after arriving to a red carpet and the shouts of Technos students eagerly holding welcome signs, the celebrity treatment continued. All three commented on the friendly nature of the Japanese. “They are the nicest people I have encountered,” says Desko. “They were always so eager to help out.”
This kindness extended beyond the college and into the homes in which Farlow and Desko had the opportunity to live and learn alongside gracious hosts. Farlow stayed with her Japanese pen pal, who first sparked Farlow’s interest in Japan. “We’ve been corresponding since I was very young,” explains Farlow.
The two have been writing each other in English, sending mementos from both the United States and Japan. A few years ago, her pen pal stayed with her on a visit to the United States. Being able to visit with her friend in her home and learn about the places transcribed in letters was an amazing experience. “Her mother is also an English professor, so I was able to ask a lot of questions about Japanese culture and about things I had encountered on the trip,” says Farlow.
Desko was surprised when his host family brought him to Saitama Stadium, where four 2002 World Cup matches were played. “On my application, I indicated that I really liked soccer,” says Desko. “So my hosts tried to incorporate it into every aspect of my stay.” Not only did they take him to the stadium, but his host parents also brought him to Riki Riki, a famous sports bar in the city known for showing soccer games to crowds of fervent fans.
Despite being unable to speak Japanese, the language barrier wasn’t too difficult for Desko and his host family to overcome thanks in part to modern technology. “My host family really wanted to practice their English,” explains Desko. “My host father had a translator on his phone. When he couldn’t think of a word, he found it in seconds. It worked out perfectly.”
The exchange also included tours to famous cities and sites around Tokyo including the Diabutsu, a giant statue of Buddha, Matsumoto Castle, and the Zenko-ji Temple. “The whole time we were looking at history and culture,” says Himmelhoch. “As a classicist, that’s what I do. There are doorways to the West, and to Classics, in Japanese culture. There are so many experiences that I will include in my future teaching.”
One such enlightening experience was an evening kabuki performance at the National Theater that Himmelhoch describes as “an electrifying spectacle.” The Japanese art of kabuki theater is passed down to each generation through performance rather than written word, and marked by elaborate make-up, song, and dance. “It was the most emotional, intriguing moment of the trip,” says Himmelhoch with wonder. “It was particularly amazing for me as a scholar who specializes in tragedy; it was both breathtaking and wonderful to see a performance that, very realistically, could have been performed centuries ago.”
“There are moments that you know will continue to resonate throughout your life,” adds Himmelhoch. “This was one of those moments.”
The performance also illustrates a major aspect of Japanese culture – the strange combination of the ancient past and the hypermodern present. “We went to the city of Kamakura, and there was a Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple on the same site,” marvels Himmelhoch. “It was just this perfect example of how Japan is an amalgam of so many things – many cultures, the past and present.”
Desko noticed this juxtaposition in aspects of everyday Japanese life. “You’ll see a very traditional house right next to a very modern house,” recalls Desko. “It really shows their connection to the past – that they’re eager to preserve it and keep it a part of daily life.”
Although the three traveled with each other and visited the same sights, each traveler took away something different from their experiences. “Our world is so interconnected at this point. We can get to Japan in 13 hours – that’s crazy!” says Farlow who gained a new outlook on being a global citizen. “I think this program is especially important from a global perspective. Asia is a place we don’t seem to know a lot about in the West, but we have a lot of connections with Japan and China. Knowing about this country – that has such an impact on our daily life – is essential. This is about knowing our neighbors.”
“You do not know about your own culture until you’ve seen another,” says Himmelhoch, sharing similar sentiments. “Difference is the backdoor to seeing we are the same.”
Technos International Week began in 1992, thanks to the generosity of the Tanaka family and the Tanaka Memorial Foundation, whose gifts established the Tanaka Asian Studies Endowment and annually supports the Asian Studies Program, the Tanaka Lectureship in Japanese, and more. In addition to the endowment, 1992 marked the beginning of two exchanges with Technos International College (sponsored by the Tanaka Ikueikai Educational Trust), the exchange of International Prices for Academic Excellence and International Understanding, and the Technos International Week.