Why do we love Japan so much? What drives us to obsess over its culture, language, food, and everything else? Why do we keep coming back day after day to read articles about a country that, for many of us, is on the other side of the planet? For some the answer is easy, but for others, not so much.
One group for whom foreigners’ love of Japan is especially difficult to comprehend is the Japanese people themselves. Many of them have no idea why so many of us would bother to take an interest in Japan, much less learn its intimidating language. In an effort to try to figure this out, one of our RocketNews24 Japanese writers who lives in England did some investigate journalism and interviewed three students studying Japanese at the University of Cambridge.
Do their reasons for loving Japan match yours? Read on to find out!
The three University of Cambridge Japanese students we spoke to were (left to right) Sakari, Emma, and Kirsten. On their course, they don’t just study Japanese language and literature, but Japanese history, culture, politics, society, and more. Each of them has studied abroad in Japan for a full year, so they have a lot of experience to help answer our questions pertaining to their interest in Japan and Japanese.
RN24: So first question: what made you first interested in Japan?
Sakari: For me it was video games. Like in Age of Empires there were samurai, and seeing them made me interested in learning more about Japan. I was 15 at the time, and I thought it would be really cool if I could speak Japanese, so I started studying it. Japan just had a sort of foreign appeal to it. Plus I thought kanji looked really cool.
RN24: And so that’s how you ended up studying Japanese at college?
Sakari: Yeah. I was just looking over the courses available at Cambridge, and I happened to see ones about Japan. I’d never even thought classes about Japan existed up until then, but they were all in my areas of interest: sociology, history, politics, and the language too. So I took them and went from there.
Kirsten: For me I got into Japanese through Visual Kei groups. I just happened to see the band SOPHIA on YouTube perform their song “Strawberry and Lion,” and I’ve been hooked ever since.
▼ Yeah, I’d want answers if I saw this too.
Emma: For me I just wanted to major in a language at university. I was tired of studying European languages in high school, so I looked for something new and fresh and decided to go with Japanese.
RN24: So what do you think of the Japanese language, having studied it for several years now?
Sakari: The grammar is completely different from English. I was shocked. At the beginning it was like I was learning a programming language.
Emma: Learning kanji is hard work.
Sakari: I’ve had a lot of fun learning kanji. I use flashcards, and they’re nice to just go through and relax with.
Kirsten: Kanji are hard. If you don’t use them a lot then they’re easy to forget. Even our teachers who are Japanese say that they’ve been in England for too long and they’ve forgotten a lot of kanji too.
Emma: The grammar and sentence construction is certainly different from English, but I think it’s very logical. So I don’t think it’s really that bad.
RN24: Well, just putting it out there, but as a Japanese person myself, I had a hard time learning kanji too! Going on that though, do you have any favorite words or sayings in Japanese?
Sakari: I like yoroshiku [onegaishimasu] (“I look forward to working with you”) and otsukare (“thanks for your hard work”). Yoroshiku is such a convenient word to have when you ask someone to do something. All you have to say is: A, kore yoroshiku. Ja ne! (“Oh, please take care of this. Thanks, bye!”) and you’re good. And otsukare [sama] is something we really don’t have in English. You can say “you did a good job” or something, but then it just feels like you’re looking down at the person from above.
Emma: I love words like gorogoro (“lazy”) and tokidoki (“sometimes”) that repeat the same sound twice. They’re so interesting and sound cute, and we have nothing like them in English.
▼ And you don’t even have to pick a favorite because there’s so many of them it’s impossible to choose!
RN24: Sakari, during your third year of study you spent 12 months as an exchange student at Sophia University in Tokyo. And Emma and Kirsten, you spent a year at Doshisha University in Kyoto. What was it like living in Japan?
Sakari: My classes weren’t particularly difficult, so I skipped them a lot to go travel (laughs). I was in the dance club at my school, and whenever I changed everyone liked to point out my chest hair. I guess it’s kind of rare in Japan.
RN24: Yes, that’s for sure. Did it help make you popular with the ladies?
Sakari: Oh, yeah. It was always like: “He’s foreign! And has blue eyes! And brown hair!” It was nuts.
Emma: Kirsten and I lived in Kyoto, and while it was usually quiet, the election cars that drove around the neighborhood all day with their megaphones blaring on and on about whatever candidate were really annoying. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the temples and geisha and other Japanese things. Although the subculture scene in Japan wasn’t as big as I’d thought. I’d always imagined it being amazing, but it didn’t really live up to my imagination.
RN24: Did you learn any Kansai-ben (Kansai dialect)?
Emma: A little bit, but our teacher always told us to speak standard Japanese. They said it’d be weird if a foreigner spoke in Kansai-ben.
RN24: Oh really? I think it’d be cool if an English person spoke in Kansai-ben! By the way, after returning home, do you miss anything about Japan?
Together: Convenience stores! Izakaya (Japanese pubs)! Karaoke!
Sakari: Oh and Matsuya (a Japanese fast food chain serving beef bowls, curry, etc.)
▼ A typical Matsuya, with its inviting yellow glow.
RN24: Matsuya? Why Matsuya?
Sakari: Because it’s the best! The miso soup that comes with each meal is fantastic. And they really lay the sauce on thick on their meat, and it’s just amazing. Highly recommended.
Emma: I miss the beautiful mountains and scenery. I always loved watching people practice their instruments by the river. It was just beautiful to watch.
RN24: All right, last question: did anything in Japan surprise you?
Emma: Everyone says kawaii (“cute”) a lot. I mean, way more than you’d ever expect. And they don’t just say it about people or animals, but drinks and other random everyday things get a loud, squealing kawaii! pretty often. At first I had no idea what was going on.
Kirsten: I was surprised by how much everyone dresses up. At lectures, some of the female students wore high heels! In England pretty much everyone just wears sneakers.
RN24: Yes, I usually see English students, girls, in jeans and tennis shoes or sneakers. Quite different from Japan.
Kirsten: And it always seemed like the men in Japan were very fussy about their hair.
Emma: Oh yes. They tamper with their hair way too much. Also, everyone is very conservative when it comes to showing off their upper-body. If I wore a tank top, I’d get looks or people would tell me I was showing off too much skin. And yet, no one cares when it comes to the lower body. Girls would walk around with the tiniest skirts and no one would care. In England it’s pretty much the opposite, which I thought was interesting.
Kirsten: And in Japan everything talks! Garbage trucks, automatic doors, escalators. They all say “Backing up! Watch out!” or “Watch your step at the end of the track!” or something. It’s crazy.
▼ Japan’s inanimate objects just have a lot to say… not all of it necessarily polite.
Emma: Also the sales girls who shout and try to sell things, like outside of stores or on the phone or whatever, have really high-pitched voices.
Kirsten: Yeah, that was pretty much headache-inducing.
Sakari: It took me a long time to understand the hierarchical relationships in Japan. Being one year apart in Japan is a big deal, whereas in Europe it usually doesn’t matter. There’s also the difference in how people think about rules. In Japan, following the rules is equivalent to being a good person, so if you don’t follow every single stupid rule, then you’re automatically a bad person. Like, for example, the year before I went to college I did a homestay in Japan, and the whole time they had this rule banning cellphones. I asked why all the time, but no one cared to explain. It was just a rule, and we were expected to obey.
Emma: Yeah, I lived in a girls’ dorm in Kyoto, and no men were allowed in at all. That even included students’ fathers; they weren’t allowed in unless they were accompanied by the mother too. In England pretty much all dorms are co-educational, so I was pretty surprised by that.
RN24: Well thank you all very much for your time today. It’s been an interesting experience peeking into your minds and getting a glimpse at Japan from an outsider’s perspective. Thank you very much for this opportunity!
So there you have it, three college students’ reasons behind studying Japan and the Japanese language, as well as why they continue to have an interest in this sometimes bizarre yet oddly loveable country.
Are their reasons similar to yours, or completely different? Let’s give the Japanese people anxious to know why we think their country is cool some more data to study by leaving your own reasons in the comments section below!
Photos © RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted
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