Good Reads

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books.

Alien Rice by Ichiro Kawasaki

This story is written from the perspective of British woman who marries a Japanese salaryman, and returns to Japan in the 1970s. At first you wonder how such a union between two people who seem to have so little in common survive the trials of married life. As the story progresses, you realise that both Alice and Saburo need each other. They are both adventurous and brave enough to try new things. Alice comes from a working class family, and while working for a Japanese firm she begins to realise her self-worth and the advantage of simply being a western woman in a Japanese firm. Saburo is not the typical Japanese man, and he wants to experience life in London to the fullest. So they fall in love and get married. At this point, you might expect me to say ‘and they live happily ever after’. Not so soon. Saburo is transfered back to Japan. A son is born to them. Alice’s ideas on parenting are different than Japanese mothers. Moreover, she wants a life of her own beyond her roles of wife and mother. For a while, she is successful in schieving that in Japan. But soon enough, they realise that Alice would never feel that she belonged there, and neither would their son. So, they embark upon another adventure.

36 Views of Mount Fuji by Cathy N. Davidson

This is an account of an American visiting professor who teaches English at a Japanese women’s college. She visited and lived in Japan four different times, and then wrote this book. It is very thoughtful book. When you live in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language fluently, you almost feel like you are there as an observer on a fact finding mission, and it takes some time to feel comfortable, and be a part of life rather than just looking in from the outside. This feeling of inadequacy is very appropriately described. Being an American woman, she finds that her students imitate her and also share their hopes and dreams with her. For her part, she notes that her stereotypes about Japanese society are contradicted. She gathers insight into the lives of women in she comes in touch with. On a refereshing note, she also learns of the rituals of ordinary life which have a calming effect on life in a fast moving island nation. Her admiration for this different outlook on life grows so much that she attempts to create it back in the States.

36 Japanese Women by Kumiko Fujimuraby Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda

This is a collection of essays written about Japanese women by Japanese women. It deals mostly with current women’s issues — marriage, work, changing roles of men and women, role of education, a woman’s place in society and government, sexism and the portrayal of women in modern culture. These are serious topics, and applicable to women’s lives in all societies. This book is very educational, but easy to read and informative.

Copyright @ Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy. All rights reserved.

Schools – are they good enough ?

In the past few months, there have been a lot of discussions about the merits of the education system in Japan. On the one hand, Japanese school children score high marks in math and science. On the other hand, preschool age children are known to be attending cram school in order to get admission to the ‘right’ preschool.

In another situation, a distraught mother whose child did not gain admission to the preschool of choice, killed another preschooler who did gain admission. Of course, these situations should not be generalized as the norm, but they do make headlines. In addition, Japanese government officials are now concerned that most Japanese lack good command of the English language. Apparently, they anticipate this to cause problems in our internet savvy world. In Japan, all children attend 6 years of elementary school starting at the age of six.

After elementary school, they attend middle school for three years. All Japanese children are required to attend school through the ninth grade. Even though, high school is not compulsory, more than 97% pass tests to gain admission into high school, and complete high school. After three years of high school, Japanese students must pass tests to gain admission to junior colleges or universities. Over 48% of high school graduates continue their education after high school. Education is valued highly in Japanese culture. In addition to learning Japanese, arithmetic, science, social studies, music, crafts, physical education and home economics, in elementary school, Japanese school children start learning English in middle school.

Research has shown that children can learn a foreign language more easily when they are younger. Since there is a concern that most Japanese people are not conversant in English, even though they are studying it in school, it might be better to start learning the language at a younger age. As part of learning Japanese, there are about 1,945 kanji that have been specified for daily use. By the end of elementary school, the children are expected to have mastered 1,006 of them. So most Japanese acquire a common level of literacy by the end of the ninth grade.

The children wear school uniforms, eat school provided lunches with their classmates, do extracurricular activities, and also have cleaning duties during their school day.

Moreover, they also attend school on some Saturdays. In order to prepare for the exams, the children attend cram schools. In short, the school children in Japan, have very demanding, disciplined lives. As part of any school system, there will be critics. But it seems that the current system is successfully producing future workers who are literate, possess some command of the English language, and disciplined with a strong work ethic.

All this does not sound like a bad track record.

Copyright @ Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy. All rights reserved.

Origami – Old and new

During this holiday season, my preschool age daughter and I made snowflakes out of white paper. This is a fairly common art project done by preschoolers in the United States during winter. Small, white circle shaped paper is folded into a cone shape. Then, a pattern is drawn on the cone, and the paper is cut accordingly. After that, the cone is unfolded, and a snowflake emerges which can be taped on the window. When a few of these snowflakes are placed on the window, it creates a feeling of winter. As I was enjoying this event, the art of Origami came to my mind.

Origami is the ancient art of paper folding thought to have originated in Japan. Origami comes from the Japanese word for folding, ‘ori’ and the Japanese word for paper, ‘kami’. Evidence shows that the practice of origami began in Japan in the early 700s. There is some dispute among experts as to whether this art form originated in Japan or whether it came from China. Moreover, there is evidence of paper folding in Europe also but it was much later. Initially, since paper was a valuable commodity, origami was used for ceremonial functions by the aristocrats. As paper became more affordable, origami became a hobby and was used for recreation and became popular. There are different schools of thought as to the definition of Origami. Some experts believe that only a single sheet of square shaped paper should be used while others allow more than one sheet of paper. Similarly, some experts believe that the paper should not be cut while others allow cutting. Inspite of all possible origins of origami, it is only in Japan that this art form continues to be revered and is a part of everyday life.

Japanese school children might learn origami shapes from their parents and grandparents. The best known shape is the crane ‘ozizuru’. Throughout history, Japanese women and children have pursued this activity more than the men and boys. It is a common practice for girls to create one thousand paper cranes and connect them with a thread for hanging with the belief that one’s wishes will come true. If a classmate or friend is ill, the fellow students will send that person one thousand cranes. You will see them in parks signifying peace. In addition to the recreational pleasure which origami provides, it has been recognized as an educational tool for teaching children to follow precise directions, and geometric shapes and concepts.

Currently, in the west, origami is being pursued by adults as an hobby. There are classes offered for origami. There are several organizations, societies which have formed for people interested in origami. Just imagine if everyone could make a paper crane, and then one thousand paper cranes, and then wish for peace.

Copyright @ Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy. All rights reserved.

Japan – you caught my eye

My interest in Japanese society, culture and language has been like a long distant love affair which began almost 20 years ago. How do people develop an interest in a different culture and language? Does this come about through a positive experience with a person from that culture? In my case, that was certainly true.

I attended an international school in what used to be West Germany, and one of my closest friends happened to be Japanese. Both of us had lived in foreign countries, and had similar experiences and outlooks. Moreover, both of us are Asian women. As our friendship grew, I was exposed to the food, culture, social mores and the arts. At that time, there were several students from Japan in our school. As a result, I began to notice some cultural similarities among the Japanese students.

On the whole, most of them were very polite, conscientious, hard working students. In addition, they were very neat in appearance and tidy with their belongings. These characteristics are probably stereotypes of most Asians but in a school where most of the students and the staff were from Western countries, these characteristics were very appreciated and applauded by the staff.

After graduation, both my friend and I went on to college – she returned to Japan and I moved to the US. Even after all these years, we have still kept in touch by visiting each other, writing letters and emails. For the past ten years, I have pursued learning Japanese off and on, read voraciously about Japan, adore Japanese food and arts. One of my goals in life is to live in Japan for a few years so that I can become fluent in the language.

Until that happens, I continue pursuing my love from afar. It seems fitting that I now share some of my memorable experiences / observations from my trip to Japan in 1991. At that time, I could understand some Japanese but I was not confident in speaking. I remember taking the cable car ride near Mt. Fuji over a scenic valley. My husband and I shared the cable car with others. One of the other women was terrified of heights _ I was scared too, so I sat in the center of the cable car, and not near the windows – and she was freaking out – I was so glad that I did not understand what she was saying because that would have frightened me even more.

On another occasion, I was so surprised to experience the kindness of strangers who helped us find the place we were going to by escorting us to the address. It is also interesting to note how the old and the new Japan have learnt to coexist – since the old buildings and neighborhoods maybe right next to the skyscrapers and the street system is so complex, it is often difficult to find an address – this is in contrast to how towns and cities are always being rebuilt in the US.

Another example of this phenomena is the existence of dark, old fashioned, public toilets in a country which has been in the forefront in the development of high tech toilets.

One of the nicest facts about traveling in Japan is the relative safety and peace of mind that foreigners feel even though they obviously stand out. I could go on and on reminiscing about these events but it is time to talk about the present. I read that the Japanese economy is recovering, the education system is being reevaluated, a distraught mother of a toddler killed another toddler – as with every year, there is some good news and some bad. Pokemon is very popular this holiday season.

Shitsurei Shimasu and best wishes for the new year.

Copyright @ Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy. All rights reserved.