Sensei Appreciation Day

The jet lag is finally starting to wear off, and what started as a series of 2am wakeups has shifted to 5am. After writing yesterday’s blog post detailing our packed and fascinating day with Noto-san, I decided to slip on my running shoes and reflect while exploring the area around Waseda’s main campus. The sidewalks were already bustling as I set out on my run. Weaving between schoolchildren and commuters, I relished the extent to which my Japanese language skills have improved after only being here for four days and felt a deep sense of gratitude for the integral role my peers and professors have played in this growth. Language practice was often confined to the classroom and office hours while I was at Bowdoin; however, it finds life here in every train ride, meal conversation, walk, and intellectual discussion. Accordingly, it is deepening my linguistic and sociocultural knowledge and providing me with the skills I will need in my coming Fulbright year. I am especially grateful for the knowledge, generous patience, and open disposition Aridome-sensei, Selinger-sensei, Christmas-sensei, and Anna-san have displayed in response to my unending questions—ranging from the grammatical to the personal. As I reflect on all that their mentorship has given me, I feel the kind of debt accumulating that can never be repaid.

One particularly notable example of this came today, as we visited the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Museum in Yume no Shima. This museum provides information about and houses the Japanese tuna trawler that was radiated by US hydrogen bomb testing in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. As we students worked our way through the museum, we did our best to glean information from the wall labels that were written solely in Japanese. While this normally would have presented a daunting and difficult endeavor, Aridome-sensei, Anna-san, and Selinger-sensei worked with us to fill in our gaps of knowledge with regards to kanji and vocabulary, providing explanations almost exclusively in Japanese. Furthermore, when I sought out one of the curatorial assistants to ask a question, Selinger-sensei advocated for me and explained our group interests, which resulted in an invitation into the museum’s archives in order to view primary source documents related to our questions. I know from my own research last summer in Hiroshima that these kinds of opportunities are few and far between, and the difficulty of mustering the courage and confidence to seek them out as a foreign language learner limits them even further. Moving forward, I feel a renewed sense of energy about the possibilities that can arise from Japanese language study and will continue to do my best to take advantage of every opportunity to improve.

祓い and 腹いっぱい

Today marked another incredible learning experience. Up until now, we have been fortunate to meet with experts in the specific area of research we are pursuing on each given day, and today was no exception. We began the day by travelling to Gakushuin, the university attended by many members of the royal family including Emperor Akihito, where we met Selinger-sensei’s college friend Noto-san. Noto-san holds a PhD in Shinto studies, and her father and sister are Shinto priests (with her father being one of the highest ranking priests in Japan). She grew up in Ishikawa Prefecture, where she spent a great deal of time at her home shrine until she moved to Tokyo at eighteen. It was heart-warming and inspiring to see them reconnect as old friends and scholars, and I found myself imagining that we students could find ourselves in similar positions one day as well.

During the lecture Noto-san taught us about various elements of Shinto, ranging from the etymological origins of Shinto-related kanji to the architectural layout of shrines and the symbolic significance of this layout. She overlooked no detail, patiently explaining the hierarchy of hakama colors donned by Shinto priests and the significance of various Shinto rituals. She set a particular focus on Meiji Shrine, which was especially relevant given the fact that we travelled there immediately after the lecture (and a quick lunch in Gakushuin’s dining hall).

Upon arrival at Meiji Shrine, I found the forest surrounding the shrine more breathtaking than I had anticipated. Despite only being one hundred years old, it felt truly eternal and abundant with life (the constant mosquito bites certainly contributed to this feeling). We had the opportunity to receive a guided tour from Meiji Shrine’s resident forestry expert, and the combination of his expertise with the knowledge of Noto-san and the rest of our group energized the tour and created a fast-paced learning environment.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted and doing my best not to fall asleep on the train ride home. This feeling was definitely exacerbated by our delicious yakiniku dinner and the environment engendered by the (over)eager tabehoudai attitude taken by Nan-chan and Christmas-sensei, but overall it was an amazing day. Looking forward to another one tomorrow.

Kanpo Clinic Visit

This morning we had the incredible opportunity to visit the Soya-Kanpo School and speak with Dr. Qiu about her clinical practice. Kanpo, a traditional medicinal form adopted from China in the 7th century, takes a holistic approach towards treating illness and largely employs herbal medicines in order to do so. Dr. Qiu has been a practicing Kanpo doctor for many years and is very well known throughout Japan. We were only able to meet her thanks to the generosity of Aridome-sensei’s sister, who has interviewed Dr. Qiu many times while writing health-related pieces for magazine publication and kindly offered to introduce us.

Upon arrival, Dr. Qiu welcomed us into the clinic and provided a space for us to sit down. Having only spent time in Western clinics myself, several differences were immediately apparent. The walls were lined with jars of herbs including several varieties of mushrooms, plant roots, and even seahorses. Diminishing some of the skepticism that I initially felt upon seeing these, Dr. Qiu explained that each of the ingredients used in Kanpo is rigorously tested (for heavy metals, purity, radiation, and potentially dangerous microbes) by the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. She further added that Kanpo practitioners are typically trained in Western medicine as well, such that knowledge from these two approaches is not only reconciled but actually employed in a complementary fashion. By focusing on the acquisition of knowledge surrounding disease etiology at the molecular level, Western medicine can provide more specific details about the underlying causes of some illnesses. This can bolster Kanpo’s understanding of illness, which considers factors ranging from bodily constitution and age of a patient to the season and other environmental factors in which an illness emerges.

I want to note one compelling example explained by Dr. Qiu in which Kanpo has been able to work more effectively than Western medicinal approaches. Although she provided several compelling examples, I was particularly interested in her description of atopic dermatitis, a condition for which the cause is unknown where dry and scaly patches appear on the skin. While Western medicine has only been able to treat atopic dermatitis with antihistamines, which prevent the itching that arises from swelling and vasodilation characteristic of an allergic reaction, Kanpo has been able to more effectively treat the underlying causes. It has thus been necessarily embraced and supported by the Dermatological Society of Japan. Given that traditional medicinal approaches such as Kanpo are often overlooked as pseudo- or non-scientific, I found it fascinating that they have been forced to embrace it as a more suitable treatment for atopic dermatitis than anything they have been able to provide so far.

Overall, I was deeply moved by our visit to the clinic. Not only did it attenuate my skepticism surrounding Kanpo, but it opened my eyes to another opportunity in which science, East Asian studies, and Japanese language intersect. Having often heard skepticism myself from others at Bowdoin upon hearing that I study these subjects, it was inspiring to see a kind, skilled, and charismatic medical practitioner employing her extensive knowledge surrounding each of them for the sole purpose of improving the health of her patients.

Tsukiji !

After a rushed visit to a konbini to grab breakfast, we began our day at Waseda University where we met Aridome-sensei’s former elementary school classmate, Ozaki-san. I chatted briefly with Ozaki-san as we walked towards Tsukiji Fish Market and immediately felt grateful to have such a warm and caring guide for the day. Tsukiji was massive and overwhelming. We shuffled in and out of rows of intermediate wholesalers selling everything from huge pieces of tuna to thousands of squirming sardines. As I thought back to Theodore Bestor’s piece entitled “Wholesale Sushi: Culture and Commodity in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market” that we had read in preparation for our visit, I tried to look for consistencies and inconsistencies at the marketplace itself. For example, Bestor discusses the perception of fish as fundamentally Japanese cuisine, such that the market not only serves as a place of transactions but also as “the stage upon which consumption is rehearsed and displayed.” The sheer fact that so many tourists—foreign and Japanese—gathered with cameras around the market was sufficient to demonstrate the extent to which this market and its fish provide a deep cultural experience, and are thus perceived as fundamentally Japanese. In contrast, however, I did not feel that the arrangement of the market or the attitude of its wholesalers were geared towards observers and consumers whatsoever. Very few English signs or labels were present relative to many other parts of Tokyo, and wholesalers barely acknowledged the existence of those walking through (besides yelling or honking their horns for them to move). I wonder if Bestor’s idea that Tsukiji rehearses and displays consumption will shift to not just include the marketplace as one node in a chain that determines the prices, demand, and availability of fish, but also to include visual displays at the marketplace itself. As Tsukiji prepares for relocation in the near future, it will be fascinating to see how these perceptions of fish as fundamentally Japanese and the boom in tourism intersect to create a new kind of marketplace.

Uniting Diverse Research Interests

One of the highlights of today was an energizing and engaging lecture by Professors Sakura Christmas and Matt Klingle. As we delved into two readings, “The Problem with Purity” by Richard White and “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value” by Julia Thomas, the interconnected nature of our group’s varied research projects began to emerge for me for the first time. In his 1999 lecture focusing on the problematic yet inextricable mixing of the social and the natural, Thomas questions, “Having created a mixed and dirty world in which what is cultural and what is natural becomes less and less clear and as hybrids of the two become more and more common, what do we do?” I think this is a question that can serve as a theoretical framework to unite each of our diverse research interests. Over the course of the next two weeks, we will explore fisheries, zoos, activism surrounding nuclear energy, Buddhism, traditional medicine, and animation—all of which demonstrate clear links to the environment, but not necessarily clear links to one another. As we rapidly move from site location to site location (and research topic to research topic), I think that continuing to actively engage with this framework will enrich our projects and allow us to cultivate a deeper understanding of their larger sociocultural implications. It will also be useful to question: how do our own cultural conceptions of nature affect our ideas about nature in a Japanese cultural context? How can we preemptively increase our awareness of these preconceived notions within our own group before departing for Japan? Given that many of us students and professors alike come from diverse cultural backgrounds, it seems that one starting point would be continuing to discuss our own cultural notions of nature in order to elucidate points of similarity and difference.