2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!
Did your time exploring a new culture help you grow as a person? For our tenth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU fall 1998 alum Victor Berry, and discover how his time in Hikone both challenged his expectations of Japan and helped him grow personally and professionally as a result.
The year was 1998. Shiga and Michigan were celebrating the 30th year of their sister-state relationship. The 10-year anniversary of JCMU was right around the corner, and I was participating in the first year that JCMU offered a single semester program.
When reflecting on my journey to Japan, I first ask myself what started my journey. What was that exact moment that kindled that desire to travel to Japan to learn the language and culture? When did my journey begin? Did it begin the day I applied to the JCMU program? Did it begin the day I boarded the airplane? To these last two questions, I would say “no”: this was a journey long in the making for me.
A budding interest in Japan
The late 70s and early 80s was an interesting time to grow up as a kid in the U.S. I grew up on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons of what I would call first-wave anime that was hitting America’s shores. This includes rebranded cartoons like Star Blazer, Robotech, and Voltron, along with their Japanese-inspired American counterparts.
However, it was my time watching the TV miniseries Shogun in 1980 that I truly became interested in learning more about the actual country of Japan. Although I did not realize it at the time, it was that moment that drove my desire to travel to Japan.
Growing up in small town U.S.A., my opportunities to learn Japanese were nonexistent. I would later become a student at Northern Michigan University, where Japanese was one of the language courses available to students. However, even then I was unable to begin studying Japanese, as I never saw these classes listed during enrollment. I didn’t find out till my last year that I had to travel to Japan to take the language course. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.
The long trip to Hikone
Getting to JCMU was an adventure in itself. The flight to Japan was scheduled to leave the same day as the Northwest Airlines strike. After our original flight was canceled, I was one of four that volunteered to fly KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) to Amsterdam with a layover and then fly over the Russian Federation that was still struggling from the fall of the Soviet Union and had recently opened their airspace to international flights. The rest of our class was flying out of O’Hare airport in Chicago on United Airlines the next day. We landed at Kansai airport in Osaka that had just opened the previous year.
I still remember my first moments exploring Japan. My first meal was a cold bento-style lunch composed of fried tofu covered rice balls from the Lawson convenience store at the airport. We were greeted by Aizawa-sensei, who guided us through the network of train rides from Osaka to Kyoto to eventually Hikone. It must have been a strange sight for the locals: 4 foreign kids quickly running through Kyoto Station to catch our connecting train.
I did not sleep the entire trip from the U.S. to JCMU’s campus in Hikone. To this day, I still struggle to count how many consecutive hours I was awake during the whole ordeal.
Expectations versus reality
As my journey progressed, I realized something that surely many other alumni can relate to: I struggled to come to terms with the fact that my expectations of Japan clashed with the reality that was before me. Very simply, Japan was not what I expected.
Every day I was on sensory overload and there were too many new experiences to take in and the smallest experience could be overwhelming. A short trip to the Lawson across the street was traveling to a new and exotic destination. A high school band playing music from Mononoke-hime in Apple Hall sounded like the Philharmonic. Watching the Kinomoto Festival that my language partner took me to was like stepping back into feudal Japan. In some ways it was like being a kid all over again. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was in grade school, so I even had to get in extra practice to make sure that I wouldn’t end up in a bike accident.
However, my JCMU classmates helped me eventually become more comfortable with what I was experiencing. We were one of the smaller classes that year which I think led to us becoming a fairly tight-knit group. We would often have difficulty choosing between the temples or bars. It was fun learning about where all of our classmates were from and getting to know all of our new Japanese friends. As with many other JCMU alumni throughout the years, we had a wonderful time together visiting Sugimoto’s restaurant, trying not to get mugged by the deer at Nara Park and navigating the Heiwado mall.
The journey that never ends
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end – or so I thought. When I returned home, I found that my journey still had not ended. My first job following graduation was with a Japanese company. My cultural knowledge and language skills gave me the ability to make strong connections with the Japanese employees. I even ended up tutoring their kids outside of work.
Currently, I work for an Italian company with manufacturing facilities and offices worldwide. I am regularly interacting with coworkers from Italy, Mexico, Japan, Poland even on occasion China and India. With so many different cultures, the need to be able to navigate the conflicts that can and will arise because of our cultural differences makes my JCMU experience all the more beneficial.
Your time at JCMU will affect you in ways that you do not initially realize. It teaches you how to listen, how to recognize cultural differences, and it will give you tools that can be applied to all walks of life. I realize now that my JCMU experience, being immersed in another culture so different from my own, helped me recognize cultural differences with anyone that I meet, allowing me to build more successful and lasting relationships with others.
And as a last bit of advice; when visiting Arashiyama Monkī Pāku, please don’t talk sense to the monkeys.