Spring Break

After five exams, two papers, and one presentation, I can finally say I survived midterms week! The last few days have been spring break for Kansai students, and I’ve spent mine traveling to nearby places.

As for the exams, they were not terribly difficult. I studied mostly for my Japanese language courses (Spoken and Reading/Writing), as they had two exams each to test our reading, speaking, and listening skills. I’m confident I did well, but I’ll find out when I go back.

On monday I went to the Kobe prefecture with some friends to explore an abandoned railway that shut down twenty-five years ago. The train had been in service since 1899, but was closed when Japan converted to electric rails, and the route was moved to a more convenient area.


On the left is the entrance to the path of the old railway. It follows a wide, shallow river with massive rocks, where dark green water rushes. No houses interrupt the tree line, and the highway sounds nearby fade off, leaving the leaves shaking and water sloshing.



Remember to bring a flashlight if you decide to come here! We forgot to bring one and ended up groping through the dark train tunnels, which are long and lightless. It’s not possible to see the other end for most of them, either.





The next day I went to Osakajo and saw the famous Osaka Castle.

The whole area is more impressive than I anticipated. Surmounted on a fortress of interlocking granite, Osaka Castle rests in the center of this stone platform, where on all sides a moat protects it.


In 1583, construction began under Toyotomi Hideyoshi who wanted to surpass the splendor of Azuchi Castle, where Oda Nobunaga lived. The castle was completed more than ten years later, the same year of Hideyoshi’s death, who passed it to his son Hideyori.

For twenty years the castle endured seige, even warding off the Tokugawa clan, an army twice the size of Hideyoshi’s. But eventually it fell to Ieyasu after he filled in the moat, the castle’s greatest defense.

Over the last five hundred years, it was struck by lightning twice, burned to the ground by invasion, bombed during WWII, and rebuilt every time. The latest restorations were made in 1995, this time rendering it a museum.


After exploring Osaka Castle, some friends and I went out to eat and then to a karaoke club, where we ate and drank and sang until nearly midnight, when the trains shut down.


Spring break is nearly over now, and that means my time in Japan is halfway done. Tomorrow I’m heading to Kobe to meet my homevisit family, where I’ll have dinner with a fellow student and her relatives. I’ll be sure to write about it when I get back.

Coming up: my trip to Tokyo on April 11th!


Film Review: Late Spring

Yasujiro Ozu’s film Late Spring is the first in a trilogy of films, concluding with his most famous Tokyo Story. The films center on the changing dynamics of family life, gender and marriage in postwar Japan as America ushers in its Western culture. In Late Spring we watch the conflict of a widowed father and his young daughter, hesitant to marry, as they encounter a world of changing gender roles and marriage values.

The conflict in Late Spring is caused entirely by the fact that every character is desperately trying to create as little conflict as possible. Everyone does their best to smile and laugh even when they ought to yell and cry, as the goal of every person is the happiness of others. It’s for this reason, however, that trouble starts. Nobody can agree on how to make each other happy while not disrupting the social order they are trying to preserve.

The influence of the West on Japan is subtly laced throughout the film’s dialogue and imagery. We hear in the opening scene a young man asking on the spelling of ‘Franz Liszt’ as he translates a Western book; and later, when Noriko and a younger man, Hattori, are riding bikes down a sunny path, a sign saying ‘DRINK COCA COLA’ punctuates the landscape. Even when Noriko’s potential husband is described to her, he is likened to “Gary Cooper” as if his Western physiognomy is a virtue.

Many other examples show too how the West has already begun to silently penetrate into old Japan after its defeat in WWII. The most significant was the changing perspective of women’s roles and marriage. Some characters, like Noriko’s friend, see marriage as a kind of game, like baseball, in which one is either lucky and gets a good pitch or has to keep on batting. Noriko’s aunt sees marriage as a business transaction, saying of the Japanese “Gary Cooper” that ‘even his office approves of him,’ as if she had gone out interviewing references. In a similar way, Noriko’s ‘shelf-life’ is running short; she will inevitably become a piece of useless merchandise.

But the war’s impact on gender roles was much greater. In a scene where Noriko’s father has sat to drink with a friend, they mention the ‘new’ robustness of his daughter, who was apparently a member of a labor camp and was starving during the war. The men in the movie do not know how to react to the more industrious women like Noriko, and her comments about her father’s friend remarrying are laughed off as the worries of a silly girl.

Noriko, however, seems just as confused by the changing gender roles, being caught between her aunt and her friend, between traditional and modern Japan. She is progressive in the sense that she does not need marriage to be fulfilled, yet she is traditional in the sense that she is fulfilled by subservience to her father. Hoping to make her family happy but not herself, she accepts the arranged marriage and assimilates fully into the traditional Japanese woman.

By the end, Noriko and her father have both lied to each other: Noriko lies about her willingness to marry so that her father will be free to remarry, and her father lies about his intention to remarry so that Noriko will not feel she is abandoning him. Nobody is able to say what they truly want, hoping only to make the others happy. In the end, none of them are satisfied except the aunt, who thinks she has acted in the interest of both characters. Instead, she has only caused greater miscommunication.

The film is surprisingly sad despite being filled with so many smiling actors. But this is precisely what makes the movie so quietly devastating. The bright, smiling face of Noriko on her wedding day is the saddest moment of the film.

Yamada Pond


Coming from the harsh New Hampshire winter, others have often looked oddly at me for wearing shorts and t-shirts while they, still bundled up in scarves and jackets, lament their homes of warmer latitude. Yet along with March has come a brighter, hotter sun. Gone are the flurries of snow, and the rainclouds have dissolved, refreshing Japan with the advent of spring.

Yesterday, with no obligations and beautiful weather, I decided to explore a bike route near the local grocery store. The bike route is often used by joggers, but the traffic is mostly bicyclers.

To the left, over the many rooftops, where flower gardens and drying laundry hang on latticed porches, is the horizon of Hirakata; while to the right the long canal, carved into the Japanese soil, gives water to the fertile rice fields.


I had no destination in mind but eventually I came to a crosswalk leading to a stony path that fed into a forest. Until then I had seen only urban Japan. I parked my bike at the edge of the path and went among the trees, where the sun poked through the canopies and dotted the path with flecks of light.


A grassy hill leading to a beachside cliff overlooked the calm, blue Yamada Pond (山田池). By the water’s edge the fishermen toss their lines and sit happily on their cushioned seats in the shallow water, staring with binoculars across the flat surface, upon which birds rest idly. The old trees hang heavily over the water, as if thirsty and reaching their branches for a sip.


I began to wander the long, serpentine perimeter of the lake. A flower garden welcomes visitors as they walk the varied way. I felt very calm among the trees and flowers, and felt close and familiar to the forest, as when I roam the woods of home. On the path, too, was the season’s first plum tree blossoms, the white and pink petals bright and blooming.


Nearby, I rested on the grass to eat an apple. Farther up the hill I saw an orange blur: the bright, fuzzy fur of a feral cat, one of many in Japan. The cat was thin, a bit of its ear missing and its tail cut off; its whiskers were caked with mud and in its hair was dried blood. It had obviously been attacked by one of the other feral cats. When it saw me, it walked to where I sat, lay in the grass at my feet, and placed its paw on my ankle.

I felt bad to leave the cat, but what could I do? There were signs mentioning them, and the image of a cat being pet with a big red ‘ex’ drawn through it was fairly obvious. I stayed with it while it slept, and poured water into an empty ramen cup, which it drank eagerly.


Finally I left the cat and began looping the lake again. From far away I heard the sound of music. The song was familiar, and I remembered it was ‘I Can Show You the World’ as I found the source: two girls in school uniform, one playing the saxophone, the other the flute, in the shade of trees.


The music accompanied me down the path, and soon, through a screen of bamboo, I saw the grey upright slabs of a cemetery. I jogged up the hill and saw the grid of headstones, vertically marked by family names in kanji.


Nearby the cemetery were the broad doors of a Buddhist shrine. Through them I saw the body of the Buddha, rising up from a bed of bushes, his stone shoulders glowing in the bright sunbeams. Beside him was a bronze bell, which I rang. As the clapper struck the bronze, I felt the vibrations transfer into my feet, and the echo of the broad, humming chord was hypnotizing.


I returned to the entrance soon after and rode my bike to the seminar house. It was a silent, contemplative day, and I felt even more the immediacy of Japan, which, despite its newness, has very slowly impressed on me the fact that, yes, I am in Japan.

I always knew that visting another country would be remarkable, but what I have found as valuable is my interaction with the other foreign students, from whom I have learned so much already.

The other night, I listened to my friend Taewon describe his life in South Korea, and how he is fortunate not to have lived in North Korea, whose population is so starved they must eat tree roots. Despite the hunger, the government of North Korea spends its money on weapons, while everyday the populace grows more emaciated. At any moment, said Taewon, if South Korea declared war on another country, he must leave immediately and fight.

I could not imagine being from a country that refused me the choice to defend it. Wherever he is in the world, the power of his country is greater than his liberty as an individual.

I am aware now how very unique my own home is, though for my entire life it had always seemed a trivial and even a worthless thing to have grown up in New Hampshire. I have become, in short, aware of what it means to others that I am an American, but also what this means to me.