What do the cities of Los Angeles, USA and Nagoya, Japan have in common besides their bustling metropolitan energy? This summer it was my job to find out; tasked with living with a Japanese family, attending a traditional high school, and meeting with local legislators to foster mutual understanding between our cities. President Eisenhower created an initiative to foster the bond between the cities of Los Angeles and Nagoya, the hub of industrial companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi. Since then the two cities on opposite ends of the pacific have embraced their status as sister cities. Every year, reciprocal student exchanges between the cities occur in a longstanding tradition of an immersive cultural opportunities for high school students. My turn came this summer to act as a bridge between our communities.
Right off the bat, adventures in Japan began with an early start, woken up to the sound of my host mother calling my name across their house, beckoning for us to come down and enjoy a typical Japanese breakfast. A common one was miso soup, rice, local fish, and chili paste. After struggling to exit my dorm-size twin bed, and raking on my school uniform, we made our way to the car, for a ten minute car ride to our local train station, where we proceeded to stand in the cramped subway for another forty minutes.
A shocking contrast to the life I lead in the states began on my second day of being in the country. Considering the grueling flight I sat on the previous day I expected to have a relaxing morning consisting of little physical exercise (a common pattern in the states). A surprising twist to the hypothetical plan began at 7am, when we visited the Higashiyama Zoo, a part of my research project in which I compared the influence of animal rights movements on urban structures. In an attempt to learn about the endemic species the nation had to offer, my host sister and I traversed through the zoo for hours. It was at this time when I encountered the first major cultural shock; the lack of trash cans. Despite the surplus of iconic Japanese vending machines, decked with an array of fruity sodas and iced coffees, trash cans were a rarity. The few I was able to locate had signs indicating to please not dispose any outside trash. Something of this nature would not be typical in the US where a sense of entitlement over resources is prominent.
Now the train station, that is a story of its own. Notorious for its exuberant amount of etiquette, passengers following a procedure to the T each and every day. After stepping into the train, especially during rush hour, riders are packed like sardines, each with less than a square foot of space. Prior to boarding, passengers line up single file into the car they wish to ride in, leaving space for people walking past. I was shocked upon seeing grown adults line up single file similar to elementary school students. After the train arrives, everyone enters the train and the process then initiates: passengers who’ve been standing in their cart for a whilte transition into the center of the cars and move into empty chairs (which rarely exist). The newest addition: incoming passengers stand closer to the doors, placing their bags in between their legs, standing in silence. And the silence is deafening, no small talk, a common sight was a young school girl, decked out in a sailor uniform, headphones on, cellphone six inches from her face, bag atop her lap.
The universal understanding of subway etiquette in Japan highlights the country’s appreciation for polite behavior, illustrating the norm I noticed throughout my three week stay: compassion. Wherever I went, the individuals did everything in their capacity to make me feel welcome. From stepping aside to not bump me on the sidewalk to gifting omiyage at every event, it was evident that the Japanese felt strongly on welcoming guests.
This trip taught me all about my perception of the world and its perception of the US as a country. While we perceive ourselves with the utmost respect, the expectations other countries have for themselves in regards to their performance exceeds anything we would do.