Monday, March 23, 2015

How to be a Girl in Japan

Kimono are a good place to start

A good amount of the time I spend online, I spend reading articles and blog posts my friends post on Facebook...I love a good, interesting read. And it seems that in America, there is a big debate about beauty and femininity going on. A couple of generations of feminism and what have we got? Articles about yoga pants and how patriarchal it is to even expect women to be more aesthetically pleasing than men.

As a Christian woman who went to a (very liberal) liberal arts school, I often feel oddly sandwiched between the two, though both inspire the internal debate: is it ok to try to be beautiful? On the one hand, I shouldn't be overly concerned with my physical appearance because as Scripture tells us we should be using our hearts and attitudes to make ourselves beautiful, rather than pretty clothes and jewelry. On the other hand, the zeitgiest of America that says a woman should be free to look and do however she wants--but to be too feminine might mean we're still trapped in a patriarchal view and nobody wants that, neither should we  ever be 100% satisfied with our bodies, Pinterest and the magazine racks remind us.

In Japan, there is a such a different dynamic going on. Western men come here and seem blown away by the abundance of "beautiful women" because in general, Japanese women have been taught to care more about their appearance than American women have. There is also a greater distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" things and behaviors here. Many products are marketed smaller and pinker "for women". I'll never forget the ad I saw for a new laptop, "So clean, light and simple, even women enjoy using it!" America has traveled into a brave new world with feminism, one that Japan so far doesn't seem so interested in.

How do I fit in? Just like in America, there are some cultural elements that pull me towards comfort with my femininity and physical appearance. Just like in America, there are also elements that remind me to never be completely ok with how I look. They are just slightly different than back home.

Here are things that encourage me:

-for the first time in my life my body shape is close to the cultural ideal. In America all the songs are about big butts and boobs, things I'll never have, but in Japan the prettiest shape is stick-thin and the aforementioned body parts are not so necessary. Think wearing kimono. Kimono fit best on rectangular people with flat bodies and no big curves sticking out.

-I have a "small face." Japanese people love small (I think they mean delicate? As opposed to the typical round moon-face many Asians have) faces. Also big eyes and a pointy nose, go figure. Basically the Japanese ideal is a thin Western person's face.

-Public bathing. It's interesting going to a public bath where all the women bathe naked together. People in onsen don't care if their bodies are fit to be seen or not. And it's all there. Saggy parts, extra weight, scars, stretch marks...everyone's just human and enjoying the hot water. No shame and no showing off. Refreshing in more ways than one!

And now the things that discourage me:

-the pressure to always look good in public. Makeup, hair, clothes, must all be perfectly in order. And by clothes I mean many more dresses/skirts and heels in everyday life than this American is used to. I'm not very good at makeup, and I've never even tried to have trendy hair.

-My skin is not clear and there is a big obsession here with 美白、beautiful pale flawless skin.

-My mannerisms, gestures, way of walking, talking, and carrying myself are not feminine by Japanese standards. In Japan the most feminine girls are the ones who seem to be trying to take up as little space in the world as possible.

There is an expression in Japanese, 女子力 "girl power" and no it doesn't mean at all what you think it means. It means the power to be feminine. 女子力 is a woman's attention to detail about her looks, a gentleness towards herself and others, an effort to look like a lady, long smooth silky hair, manicured nails, pearls, lace, a tiny high voice, small gestures, a charming lack of (the display of) self-confidence, and a hand placed demurely over the mouth when laughing.

And dear me, I ain't got it. At first it made me feel like a life-form from another planet...American friends might think I'm feminine but to the average Japanese, I barely even count as female. I'll never forget the comment from one of my husband's co-workers: "I just can't see American women as female."

When I was dating my husband, I did worry sometimes...I would never be as (apparently) flawless or cute as a Japanese girl, and I hoped he wasn't disappointed...a silly thing to worry about, because if he'd wanted to be with a Japanese girl he wouldn't have dated me. At the same time, as a married woman I'm opening up to the idea of enjoying femininity and beauty, because now there is someone who legitimately appreciates it, who also loves me just the same in crazy bed hair and pajamas.

I want to navigate this social dynamic in a healthy way--I don't want to be materialistic or compare myself to others or let my confidence hang on something as transient as looks and "girl power"--totally not me--but even if I'll never be a "real woman" here I do love seeing my husband's face when I make a little effort. There is also some food for thought in the culture of femininity here. We have made so many efforts in the name of feminism in America. The rest of world can see it clearly: to them our women seem no different from men. A victory? Or a loss? I think we have definitely lost a part of our culture, for better or for worse: the ability, passed down from mother to daughter, to be feminine in an American way. I couldn't even describe it, because I have never seen it first-hand. But there must have been, years ago, a similar but uniquely American feminine side to our own culture. We got rid of it in the name of freedom and equality, so it is socially taboo now to try and rediscover it. It's at least fascinating to see the Japanese version of it alive and well here, in all its high-heeled glory.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Favorite Places and Spaces: Sanzen-in 三千院


When I was an exchange student, I spent a lot of my free time sight-seeing. I would get up early every weekend, hop on my bike, with friends or by myself, and spend the day exploring or visiting some famous historical sight. I wanted to squeeze in as much of "Kyoto" as I could in my short year abroad. 
Now that I've lived here a few years and started working, I don't feel the same pressure to go out and find something new, take a lot of photos and "enjoy Japan"--it became my normal life. Now I rarely visit temples or touristy spots in Kyoto, unless friends come to visit. 

The one exception is Sanzen-in Temple, which I have visited a few times now and is one of my favorite places in Kyoto. 

It's tucked away up in the mountainous village of Ohara, at the end of a twisty-turny bus-ride that starts at the very end of the Karasuma subway line at Kokusai Kaikan (the giant ugly structure with a beautiful park where the Kyoto Protocol was signed). Since it's rather removed from the city center, it seems to be the temple a lot of tourists skip in favor of the more accessible Kiyomizu or golden Kinkakuji Temple. 

I didn't visit it myself until my last month in Japan as a student, and thought "why didn't I come here sooner??"

Sanzen-in is a secluded, quiet place and a feast for the five senses. 

After you get off the bus, you cross the street to a narrow little road and an uphill climb to the temple. The road is lined with little shops and cafes, many selling shiso products--the purplish-red savory herb Ohara has grown since ancient times. I love the salty taste of shiso, especially in salad dressing, though it's a unique one we don't encounter in the States. 
In any case, the shops around Sanzen-in are definitely aimed at Japanese, rather than foreign, tourists. It makes for a more authentic sights and smells, I think. 

Along the other side of the road is a small river flowing in a deep channel, overshadowed with Japanese maple trees. Depending on the time of year, you can spot all kinds of wildlife, especially of the six-legged variety. When we visited in summer, there was a warning sign to look out for suzume-bachi, the giant Japanese wasps. Luckily we have yet to see one there!

After the climb is the temple itself! It's not too expensive as far as temples go, and the complex offers some great experiences. First you take off your shoes and put them in a provided plastic bag to carry, then you can wander through the main hall of the temple. I love Japanese temple architecture: the straight, clean lines, the open spaces that frame views of the many lovely gardens. Take your time; feel the wooden floors in your sock feet. It's especially lovely if you go during a gentle rain. Within the temple there is a room where you can trace a sutra (Buddhist prayer) with a brush-pen for free. Try out your kanji-writing skills! You kneel at a low little desk and trace unpronounceable archaic kanji. I don't think you can take the paper home unfortunately. I tried it once, and later thought it's probably not the best thing for a Christian to be involved in, use your judgement. 

Once you've wandered through the main hall you will catch a glimpse of the moss garden and feel it's time move on. You put on your shoes and walk through the beautiful moss lawns, dotted with weepy Japanese maples and towering cedar trees. I recommend visiting in late spring to summer to see the moss when it's vibrant green. There's a little rivulet and pond stocked with colorful koi. 

After the moss garden are some steps up to the temple complex for their funeral functions. You can find many strange little altars and places to put candles for deceased loved ones. In this way it is much more obviously a functional temple than some of the more touristy ones, because real people are interred/memorialized there. This area also has a lovely hydrangea field--visit in June to see the blue and purple blooms, baby frogs too if you're lucky. There is also usually a booth giving out free samples--when we went in June, cold shiso juice that stained your teeth like wine. When we went in September, hot shiso tea with real gold flakes sprinkled in--a luxurious-looking pale pink and slightly salty liquid. 



I recommend wandering through the hydrangea garden on your return route, there are little rivulets tinkling along the forest path and again many cedars and ginko trees. 

After you've left the temple, you might feel a bit sad it's over and need a little pick-me-up in the way of edibles--there is a little noodle shop right outside the temple that offers great views over the valley, and you can try more shiso in your soba or udon. 

Back at the bus stop, if you still feel like walking, there is a path going in the opposite direction that leads to a network of hiking trails. I've never gone far on them yet but if you do, be prepared with proper hiking shoes and bug repellent. 

I love this temple for its quietude and relaxed atmosphere, its closeness to nature and abundant greenery. Living in the city center, I need green in my life regularly. Now it's the tail-end of winter and there's hasn't been green since November of last year, and I'm so ready for spring to come and freshen up the drab mountains around Kyoto! Hence this post on Sanzen-in, my favorite temple in Kyoto, which I highly recommend visiting in the green months of May to October. 



The beauty of this place may even inspire you to open your long-abandoned sketchbook


Monday, March 9, 2015

"Do you like Japanese culture?"

My time in Japan has been a slow unmasking of this mysterious country

The question came at the worst time. I was in a bank, one of my least favorite places. The asker was an old man and a stranger, the demographic I'm least likely to trust after a few bad experiences. And it was June, two months into my husband's new job...I was in a fog made of equal parts sleep-deprivation and culture shock.

All that might explain why I bluntly responded, "Not really, no." and that was the end of our conversation.

Do you like Japanese culture?
Not really, no.

In that moment how different I was from the girl in community college eagerly lapping up each new Japanese vocabulary word, who spent hours reading a Japanese-English dictionary. How different I was from the bright-eyed exchange student convinced she'd found, on the other side of the world, a place where she "fit" and could be herself.

Now I want to laugh at those early versions of myself. But how could I have known any better with the limited experience I had?

We learned in college every country and culture has its warts, its social ills, its gap between what it says are virtues and the actual practice of those virtues. Every country has problems with corruption, greed, and unjust social practices. The Japanese are just better than others at hiding the unpleasantness. I knew things were this way since I started studying Japan, but reading about it in books is different from experiencing it through someone you love.

It is only in the past year since getting married that I feel like both my husband and I have been initiated into the "real Japan" since my husband became a 社会人, an adult, literally a "member of society". For many cultures, "family" is the basic unit and building block of society. In Japan, however, I wonder if that building block is perhaps 会社、"company". More than families, more than politics, companies drive and support the Japanese economy. It is in the company and business practices that one can see Japanese thinking, culture, and values distilled in their most concentrated forms. Imagine the company is the heart, pumping money and life into all other institutions--including education, churches, and to some extent families. So since my husband has been initiated into this ultimate core of Japanese-ness, I'm seeing a much deeper side of Japan. And most days, I don't like what I see.

It's simply because the Japanese system runs on values completely different from ours.

My husband and I want to value family through time--rather than money--spent together. We have very little interest in the "carrot" of financial well-being and social status that Japanese companies hold out to workers.

We want to value religious freedom and the ability to practice our faith without having to face bullying and threats as a result. I know we're very privileged in America to enjoy freedom from this kind of "soft" persecution, but we want to respect fellow human beings as equals before God, and not participate in workplace drinking parties, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment, which are not rare practices in Japanese companies. Perhaps not rare in America either, but at least there it is more acceptable to voice complaints and pursue justice.

In Japan there is this phrase, しょうがない、"nothing you can do about it" "it is what it is" attitude towards problems, it means you just shut up and bear with them. Patience is a great virtue and can be a wonderful thing, but it also means change is very slow and rarely comes bottom-up (from the people) in Japan.

In this year of work it's become obvious that as Christians we do not fit the majority culture here. That is a big part of my feeling of culture shock...it's natural that I, the American, would feel out-of-place, but the scariest thing is watching my made-in-Japan Japanese husband and many of our Japanese Christian friends, in a variety of industries and companies, all undergo similar struggles when they start working. One friend went into a deep depression, another was hospitalized. Why?? Is this normal? I want to scream. Your young people--supposed to be the most energetic, creative, vibrant demographic of workers--getting completely shattered by work life? But that is the Japanese way. It takes discipline and the squashing of the individual to achieve sameness and unity. Sameness and unity offer the benefits of security and stability. At what cost? I want to ask.

Being different at this deep level, in a country that values homogeneity so much, is sometimes frightening and lonely. It's not socially acceptable to complain, to take pride in being different, or to do your own thing here.

I don't intend to bash Japan, since I believe all humans are imperfect, I expect to find problems in any country. And there are many parts of Japanese culture I do enjoy, the parts the poor old man in the bank was probably referring to: kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, hospitality, non-confrontational politeness, cleanliness, gardens and flower-arranging. But even my appreciation for those things has taken on a new and slightly sad dimension, since I know it is the underlying values that make those things possible.

It also gives me food for thought about my own country: what if I'm more blind to America's cultural sins, what if they don't offend me simply because I'm more used to them? We have to be careful we're not mindlessly endeavoring to fit the pattern of a particular culture, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That is why I named this blog "foreign objects" in the plural sense, because wherever we go, at least one of us will be a foreigner. It's a constant reminder that our true citizenship is in heaven.

My feelings about Japan are summed up in my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien quote:


“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I think we have a duty to find and preserve the "much that is fair" in God's sight and cultivate it in ourselves. No matter what happens, no matter how frustrated I get over some things we have to deal with now, I never want to forget that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What I Learned from a Year of Marriage

Some ladies at church have asked me how is married life, and isn't there anything I've struggled with this first year?

No, there really isn't, not anything between Yuya and I with our relationship anyway. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, maybe it means we chose each other well and have a peaceful, stable relationship, or maybe it means we're still in the honeymoon stage and reality hasn't set in yet? I don't want to think it's the latter; Yuya's start at his company took care of that, a nice dousing of ice-cold Japanese reality a month into our marriage.

I learned two big things about marriage this year.

One was, marriage is not so different from dating. In a lot of Christian circles, there is a kind of mysticism or romanticism surrounding the idea of marriage, this glorious end-goal of a dating relationship, a fountain of blessings, a tool for sanctification, a godly engagement of (hitherto righteously un-awakened) sexual passion, and unicorns and puppies and spiritual leadership and rainbows and sparkles.

But at least for us, it's not been so different from our dating relationship. The habits we made then, the trust we built up over the years, the basic ways we communicate (or not), remained very much the same...it makes sense, it's not like a wedding ceremony was a mystical experience that changed us into different people! It is also true that like any human relationship, marriage is what you make it. The good things: romance, passion, sharing, companionship, partnership--are not inherently there on the other side of "I do"; they are all things that we have to work to put into our marriage. We can choose to put them in there or not. By the same token the bad things: fights, hostility, disdain, annoyances, power struggles, are not inherently in marriage either, but we put them there ourselves. For me it's very freeing to realize this. Putting the responsibility on ourselves to grow our marriage takes away both expectations and despair surrounding the idea of marriage. My side of it, what I contribute, at least, is in my control.
Whether someone believes marriage is a sacred covenant entered into by vowing before God, or just a social nicety and piece of paper, they will reap exactly what is sown into the relationship. Marriage can be anything from a special kind of hell, or a special kind of happiness and joy. It all depends on what you and your partner are choosing to make it.
For us, we are trying to model our relationship on patterns found in the Bible, where each party is thinking of the other's needs first, with honesty, self-sacrifice, and trust in God to make things right in the end. It's a lot to work on, but God is faithful!

The other thing I learned was, marriage is so different from dating! For one thing, we are now living together. Two quite different adults in the same (small) house can be a source of annoyance to both parties, but on the other hand, there is the feeling that this is it--we're stuck with each other. When we were dating, I realize I was always testing, or interviewing, Yuya. What does he think of this or that, and did that tiny thing he said/did last week make him good husband material, or not? It probably made me a pretty lame girlfriend some of the time, and it wasn't a very natural way of relating to someone, but it did make me confident I'd chosen a good one when I said yes to Yuya. There is the saying that before marriage, keep your eyes wide open, and after marriage, half-shut. And it's true. I don't "test" Yuya anymore because we belong to each other, and my duty now is not to keep on figuring out if I made a good choice or not, but to care for him as a partner in life.
So marriage is much more peaceful than dating, I've found. I don't spend sleepless hours of the night analyzing all possible meanings of that one text message he sent yesterday. There is a confidence and a trust and rest in the solemnity and permanency of our vows that we couldn't enjoy before.
Alright, marriage says, we've chosen each other and gotten hitched to the same plow, so now let's pull together! No looking back or to the side! Only forward, and together! I like this feeling, a lot. No insane worries like I had before (I swear, I must have been a pain-in-the-neck girlfriend).

Perhaps the only danger of this peaceful confidence and trust is if it goes too long unexamined, unspoken, thankless.

So, for this next second year of marriage, what I want to learn more of is thankfulness. Practicing gratitude is something that seems to fix a lot of ills. Being truly thankful for something means you've given thought to the value of the thing, and how you don't really deserve it. Thankfulness to God and to Yuya, for the large and small things keeps me humble. I get a little grumpy when cooking (a chore I dislike) but Yuya's "thank you for making this" instantly puts a smile on my face--his words give value to my efforts. Saying "thank you" ありがとう、is a way to cultivating humility...and it seems to me that humble people are the happiest. The secret, I think, is that humility puts the key to happiness in your own pocket. If I'm grateful for everything, I'm not dependent on other people or my circumstances to decide "yes, now this is good, this is happy" I'm much more free to value things as God does. And wow, does God ever value Yuya. I will never come close to loving him even a smidgen as much, but I know God must have a reason for putting us together, and I'm so grateful He did, so I'll do my best!