My Stay in Japan: Expectations and Realities
I was invited by Professor Shinichi Takeuchi, Director of the African Studies Center at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies from October1, 2019 up to January 31 2020. Before my plan to travel to Tokyo, I had to gather some information about Japan from my colleagues who did their postgraduate studies there and from Japanese academicians who frequently come to Ethiopia for their research works. I heard that Japan is an island country with a population of 130 million, aging but a technologically advanced society. 'Seeing is believing', and soon after my arrival in Tokyo, I planned to move around, talk to people, and see places to make sure if what I was told were truly there. They were there; yes, Japan is really an island country consisting of 6,852 islands in East Asia and always ready to stumble upon earthquakes.
In my eyes, everything is in order in Japan and citizens run to maintain that as a culture. Time is everything as every activity is time bound for the Japanese. They know exactly when they should leave home to catch a train or a bus to go to work. They are busy; they walk fast and they talk less. That is true for majority of the employees I know at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Being established in 1873, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) devoted to foreign studies where students and professors specialize in the study of different countries. In that way the university connects Japan to the rest of the world through its non-degree programs, undergraduate programs, graduate programs, and research fellows. Staff in the various departments, faculties, and centers such as the African Studies Center, and the Research Institute of Asian and African Languages and Cultures are always busy at their table to fulfill the university mission through their rigorous studies of humanities.
However, the overall decline of the population is/and will be a challenge to the university too. I was worried about the number of both undergraduate and graduate students in my 2019/20 winter classes. I had eight students for the course Indigenous Knowledge Systems where, at the end, two students did not complete the course work. A similar, even worse, situation was with the number of students in my MA class for the elective course entitled Ethnography of Africa. At the beginning, I found that two students were registered for the course, where at last I ended up with only one as the other student dropped out for reasons beyond my knowledge. What are the causes for these and for the overall decline of the number of students in TUFS? Is it because the number of children who complete their high school and join universities is decreasing, or is it because Japanese families cannot afford paying for their children's higher education, or is it because some reasonable number of Japanese families do not have children at all to send to school or universities? I cannot tell the exact cause, but I can tell that Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, with all the wonderful facilities, and skilled human power, has the potential to admit and teach several more number of students than it has today.
Consistent with what my colleagues told me before I left for Japan, I realized that the country's population seems declining because of aging. According the UN population projection, the fertility rate for Japan in 2019 was 1.369 births per woman, which was a 0.07% decline from 2018. Of course, my colleagues at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies frequently told me that the population of Japan had decreased from 130 million in the past ten years to the present estimation of 124 million. Could this be a worrisome fact for the nation? Likely yes, because, added upon the fact of aging, there are signs of misogamy among some young people whom I talked to during my stay. But, to be fair, a four month stay of mine in the city of Tokyo may not be sufficient to tell the real cause why those young men/women did not want to talk about marriage and children. Truly speaking, it may be a guess if I point to the high cost of living in the city as a main cause, because unwarranted dependence on technology may deny them of time to think about socialization and the making family. Yet, two facts seem obvious to tell about the effects of aging and population decrease: the living situation of aging people in many of the villages I visited in Fuchu City of Tokyo Prefecture, and shortage of human power in the routine businesses.
The situation in Tokyo shows that Japan has an aging society. In my village of Fuchu City which is relatively a suburb compared to the inner-city center of Tokyo, I often encountered aged couples where one of them pulls a rolling bag and the other pulls a pet, usually a dog. They are neither accompanied by young or small children. That worries me as a man who is brought up in an African society where one can easily find old people supported by their younger children or grand children. In my observation, the other consequence of the decline of Japanese population is shortage of manpower. Shops, restaurants, and other big companies were often complaining lack of workers. At this point, I may not be true but I heard that Japan is planning to release Diversity Visa lottery for citizens of Asian countries. I may have a 'Wow' gesture for this plan, but am not sure if Japan should rely on human power from abroad to sustain its current strong economy which is anchored in the local culture.
During my stay I learned that many countries, including Ethiopia, have enough reasons for taking Japan as their development model. In Ethiopian, Japan has been considered a model in different regimes. What Kebede Mikael, an Ethiopian writer, tried to illuminate in his book entitled ጃፓን እንዴት ስለጠነች, and roughly translated as 'How did Japan become civilized' is an exemplary attempt. This inspiriting Amharic book tells about Japan's awe-inspiring achievements after that distressing WW II. From the book, I could learn how Japanese aristocracy managed to build a strong, self-supporting, and technologically advanced state under the Meiji Dynasty. For me, the secret behind this performance after that soaring World War II is one: self-discipline-the art of using local institutions, and readiness to learn from others without the disfigurement of one's own culture. So, I now found that Japan is a country where local culture and western modernization serve hand in hand for the advancement of Japan's technology and the wellbeing of its citizens.
In addition to its higher education institutions such as TUFS which always labors to clear the ground for Japan to connect to the rest of the world, the country has developed famous institutions such as Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) to contribute to Japanese economic and social development through enhancing trade and investment and research in developing countries such as Africa where JETRO has now opened new offices in Accra (Ghana) and in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) for the same mission.
Japan's Shrines and Temples connect Japanese past and present. They are the main sources of tourism. When I went to Kyoto for a seminar, I got the opportunity to visit places of wonderful natural and man-made attractions. The shrines in Tokyo are heart capturing. Ōkunitama Shrine in Fuchu City, Fushimi Inari Taisha with a tunnel consisting of more than 10,000 torii gates is something to see in Kyoto.
The issue of food always comes to my mind whenever I think back about Tokyo being at home here in Africa. For some who do not have the experience, Japan is not that much a multicultural society. I know some of my Japanese friends might have the same opinion. Of course, as compared to some other countries in Europe, America or Africa where diversity is so discernible in terms of race and cultures, Japan seems less heterogeneous. Yet, that is not the case at least in Tokyo. One can see people of different nationalities from Asian countries who are permanent residents of the city owning their own businesses. Here, I heard that Chinese migrants take the highest number while South Koreans take the second largest migrant population in the city. As one goes down to the heart of Tokyo, as I did, in places such as Akihabara and Shinjuku, and Tokyo Train Station itself, one can witness that the city is a multicultural centre where languages, foods and cloths are shared in the markets. These people of diverse culture have their restaurants open for all. There are Korean, Chinese, Indian, Nepalese, or even Ethiopian restaurants at your service to provide Japanese foods or foods of their own 'brands'. What interested me much in these restaurants was variety of the dishes one can see in the menu of these restaurants. They are always at your disposal to make you feel at ease, particularly if you are in groups, to choose as many dishes as you can from the list of cultural foods from different countries.
Social distancing together with trustworthiness is something that I have recognized in Tokyo. Before arriving there in Japan, I heard that many Japanese are shy to easily mix with people of other cultures. Yes, but not. For an outside observer who does not have the experience of winning the heat of others, that may be true. In shops and train stations, you may not find many people who approach you to share ideas. In the train stations such as Shinjuku which connects almost all parts of Tokyo with its lines such as JR Yamanote Line, JR Chuo Line, and Seibu Line, it is much easy to move from one station to another. I often connect from the Seibu local train to the Chuo Line at Musashi Sakai Station where I usually hear this statement on every rapid train: 'This is a rapid train down for Tokyo'. As you go down to the centre of Shinjuku on your way to Tokyo Station, you find several tracks that carry trains of any size to transport people forth and back their work places every day. When you see these lines, you really cannot stand witnessing how far Japan has gone in train technology or train industry. You can also witness that distancing has become part of Tokyo's life. In those rapid and local trains which make several thousand rounds of travel every day, you see people who mainly do two things until they reach their destination: looking at their mobile phones or sleeping. These daily routines of individual passenger's life in the trains made me to accept that distancing a norm. Could this contribute to the control of the spread of COVID-19 in Japan/ Tokyo? Hope it could. Truly speaking, however, whether they create a social or a physical distance, it does not mean that Japanese are not willing to help others. On the contrary, I found many of them go further than the limit to assist whenever they encounter a stranger in need of support. At this point I should be so polite to appreciate the man who assisted me to finally get back to the central train station to go back to my apartment after several hours of roaming and window shopping in Shinjuku busy shops. Oh, thank you the man whose name I do not know.
Finally, confession and words of gratitude. I am sorry to tell this in front of my Japanese colleagues who have really wonderful skills of cooking, but I have to confess that I am poor at cooking, even that lovely Japanese sticking white rice. Yet, thanks to the convenience store chains such as Family Mart, Lawson, and Seven Eleven, it did not worry me much because everything is in these stores, ranging from a bottle of hot milk tea to a plate of cooked chicken or Sushi. I regret for not satisfying my hunger of Okonomiyaki and my thirst of Sake. Oishikatta desu! Thank you Tokyo (Japan) for understanding my laziness in cooking and for easing my living in your heart during my stay!
I thank all staff of the African Studies Center at TUFS for everything.