Haas Travel Study Program: Japan

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Guest Post written by Amy Vatcha (Haas ’18)

Last month, 22 Haas students traveled to Japan for a week through the Kakehashi Project. ‘Kakehashi’ literally means building bridges, to improve US-Japan relations and encourage future business with Japan. Given the current political climate, building cultural bridges is vital. As a first time visitor to Japan, my reflections are through the lens of an outsider’s first impressions.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were screened by masked officials and body heat scanners. The surgical masks worn on the subway, the constant hand sanitizing, and the quarantine at the airport are evidence of their strong commitment to hygiene. This is reflected in Japan’s healthcare system with universal free coverage and the longevity of their aging population.

We visited four cities: Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, and Nara. In the short time span of a week, we were given a taste of the regional contrasts. Inter-city travel was speedy with the shinkansen bullet trains travelling at 200mph. Within each city, the polite silence of the Japanese commuters complemented the quiet whizz of the subway. Train travel in Japan was a relief from the electric screeching on BART. Japan’s punctual trains were packed with commuters so the lack of personal space took some getting used to! I noted the presence of women’s carriages on trains, and questioned why they were necessary. As always, Japanese products had a perfect eye for detail: the subway trains had hand grips of different lengths for people of different heights.

As government ambassadors, we were lectured by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). In a ‘progressive’ Westernized society, I was dismayed to see only 2 female speakers out of the 10+ lecturers in the ministry. The MoFA panelists tried to challenge our belief that the TPP was dead without addressing their plan if the TPP failed, which is relevant considering the new Executive Order to cancel U.S. participation in the TPP.

America is widely regarded as a land of abundance with a wasteful culture, but the unnecessary plastic bags, layers of packaging, and large decorative boxes in Japan surprised me. For a country that recently suffered a nuclear disaster, the vending machines at every corner seemed to be a waste of electricity.

basketweavingIn addition to touring factories and a sake brewery, we visited a basket weaver’s workshop. Keeping artisanship alive in this era of modernization brings out their humble pride, as the artisan proudly showed us his crooked knuckles after 50+ years of basket weaving. Japan can truly embody the best of the East and the West, tradition and modernity.

Visiting 2-3 shrines on a week-long business school trip highlighted the role of religion in everyday life. When we visited Ikuta shrine in Kobe at 7am, a commuter switched directions to escort us when she realized we were lost. I cannot imagine a commuter here getting late for work to help lost tourists. I hope to bring some Japanese manners home!

ikutashrineStepping out of California’s diverse population into a homogenous society made my week in Japan a stark contrast to my life here. I got used to cooked vegetables and raw fish, customer-centric hospitality with intense waving and goodbyes, a lack of visible homeless people, and anti-fog bathroom mirrors. Although we saw so much in a week, I did not exchange back my remaining currency because I am seriously considering revisiting. I was expecting a week full of sushi, but I learned so much from the bright neon billboards in an alien language and the seas of people at Shibuya crossing—the busiest street crossing in the world. I am deeply grateful to Berkeley-Haas, The Kakehashi Project, our Japanese host Mayumi-san, Professor Jon Metzler, and the UGBA 193i squad for memories to last a lifetime.

 

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