Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
15 Jan 2016

There's a saying that "All good things must come to an end," and with the flip of the calendar to the new year, our favorite webmaster, Adam, has decided to focus exclusively now on the development of the language learning game that he's making so useful for you. He's been kind enough to allow me to write to you today from the heart, so I'll share with you how my life has changed because we lived and traveled in Japan and the Far East for more than a decade. Perhaps, partly from my humble words, you can draw some understanding or inspiration about how your life may be affected if you travel and learn about Japan. As Dr. Seuss wrote, "Oh, the places you'll go" and "Oh, the Things that you'll see!"

I guess the biggest effect that visiting and living overseas has had on me is to change the way that I look at almost everything. That's a pretty sweeping statement, but, at least in my case, it seems to be true. However, that doesn't mean that I've totally assimilated into the Japanese culture. I worked on an English language project with Ryukyu University professors and a couple of Americans, one of whom was doing her very best to "become" Japanese. I applaud her efforts, but she seemed at times to be almost a caricature with exaggerated Japanese behaviors that seemed alien to her. Do we have to go that far, to lose ourselves? I think that it's possible to appreciate another culture without giving up one's own identity in the process. But, hey, she had a mastery of the Japanese language and culture that I'll never achieve, so maybe it's just jealousy speaking.

I guess that I'm too "American," aka too independent, to be dictated to by adherence to strict sets of rules, such as those of the ikebana methods of flower arrangements. Something buried way deep in my soul resists not being allowed to deviate from the dictates of the traditional arrangements. However, that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the traditions and the beauty of the art that's practiced by others. Being aware of the art behind the floral arrangements and knowing something of the traditions has helped me understand and appreciate ikebana even more than I had before I lived in Japan, and that has enriched my life.

When you come back from your travels abroad, your friends and family will ask you how your trip was. When you begin to answer them with any kind of detail, you may see their eyes begin to glaze over, especially if they haven't had travel opportunities or experiences. It's a lonely feeling at first, being back in the U.S. after living extended periods overseas. You'll look at the shelves in the big box stores and may just stand and stare, unable to select a shampoo from the shelves holding many different types of products. Hearing English (mostly) all around you may seem strange, too. It might take a while for you to "fit into" your groups when you return home. You may feel out of place and even overwhelmed at the cultural diversity at home; Japanese culture is largely homologous, although people from all over the globe enjoy visiting Japan. After prolonged exposure to the Japanese population, it may seem that you're amid strangers at home who don't share your experiences and insights. But, be patient. You'll meet those along the way who will listen avidly to your tales and even share some of their own. There will be comfort in that, and warmth in your heart knowing that you've shared in amazing cross-cultural experiences.

One word can describe a wealth of reasons that I admire the Japanese culture, and that is "elegance." Elegance can be stylish appearance. Whether it is the carefully applied makeup and elaborate costumes of geisha, a simple yet powerful ikebana arrangement, the peacefulness of a zen rock garden or the lovingly trimmed tiny Japanese city gardens and bonsai treasures, Japan's elegance surrounds us. One of the pleasures we enjoy most is eating out in virtually any Japanese restaurant, where the presentation of the food, how carefully it's prepared and how artfully it's arranged on the plate or put into the bento box makes each meal special. Perfect sauces accompany each dish, inviting us to eat, rather than simply admire, these works of art.

Another meaning of elegance is the admirable simple and ingenious way of solving problems. That meaning especially applies to the Japanese culture. When presented with a problem, such as very small apartments where pets aren't allowed, cat cafes have sprung up all over Tokyo and other large Japanese cities where people can spend quality time with cats and even get to know individual cats over time. Petting and holding cats is encouraged. High rents for apartments, hotels and motels give rise to coffee shops that double as internet cafes and Spartan quarters where the unemployed or underemployed can spend the night. Even those with apartments have a lifestyle that maximizes the use of the available space. During the day, a room can be outfitted with a small table and used as a dining room, an exercise room or simply a place to read and relax. At night, the tatami mats come out of the wardrobe and futons are placed on them, providing an instant bedroom area. Bathrooms often are divided into a couple of rooms. The toilet will be down the hall, and can feature "paperless" use. The bath and shower areas are in another room, often a wet room, where the shower runs down a central drain. One always showers before taking a bath. That way, the bath can be used for more than one person, conserving water resources. Of course, hotels, motels and housing intended for Western visitors or residents is more likely to be built to Western specifications and expectations.

I'd be naïve to think that I'm the only one deeply influenced by the Japanese way of life. After all, the U.S. currently has almost 50,000 military personnel deployed to Japan, some of whom are accompanied by family. Those who've lived in Japan come back to the U.S. with their own set of experiences and impressions, and perhaps even some new Japanese relatives. Japanese culture already influences the American way of life. Bonsai and ikebana displays are common. Sushi bars and Japanese buffets are in all major U.S. cities. Young people are experimenting with new ways of living in "tiny houses," some of which surely could reflect Japanese influence. Although I miss Japan when I'm in the U.S., I feel right at home when we go for sashimi and I can order in Japanese (if I have a Japanese waiter!) When I climb into our SUV, I enjoy the best of Japanese engineering and the elegant design of the interior and exterior. I'll be grateful forever for the experiences that I've had in Japan, for the increased personal knowledge I have of their culture and the openness I've gained to other cultures, as well. I wish you, our readers, even more opportunities in your lifetimes than I've enjoyed. "Happy trails to you," as the quintessential American cowboy Roy Rogers said "till we meet again."

Photo credits Manuel, Roger W and angela n.

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