Cultural lessons from the Japanese

Katrine K, Bachelor of Nursing

University Life in Japan: Kimono, Matcha and You at Sonoda Women’s University (December 2016)

Konnichiwa! My name is Katrine, and I’m a third year student studying the Bachelor of Nursing. In the first two weeks of the December holidays, I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange program hosted by the Sonoda Women’s University in Amagasaki, Japan. Not only did this unforgettable experience enrich my awareness of cultural diversity, but the kindness and warmth of the Japanese people made it possible to form friendships with almost anyone I encountered; whether that be at university or on the streets of Osaka! Throughout this program, I have been incredibly lucky to experience many unique and wonderful moments.

One memorable highlight of my trip however, would have to be the week-end I stayed with the Fujii family in Ojiro. Although I could speak or understand little Japanese, my host father, mother, sister and visiting locals were extremely sympathetic and accommodating to my needs and often tried their best to speak in English to ease my anxiety and restlessness. I thought this gesture was very thoughtful and generous of them and once again empathised the kindliness of the Japanese people. From the moment I arrived, my host family offered me food, snow boots, manga, fresh clothes, and my very own tatami room! I was also surprised and deeply touched at the lengths of preparation they put into arranging my bedroom. I never expected to have a mini decorated Christmas tree with flickering lights standing before me when I entered to unpack my bags! These experiences made me reflect on a time when my classmates and I had a cultural lesson with Keiji. He stated that Japanese people generally have a “you”-centred attitude or a “guessing culture”. This meant that they will often try to guess what the other person is feeling in order to accommodate their needs, believing this showed humanity. As a foreigner, I found the Japanese culture in this context quite refreshing and surprisingly relatable. I eagerly wanted to learn more about their culture as I too, coming from a nursing background, believe passionately in upholding similar values.

While living in Ojiro, I went on many insightful and exciting adventures! This included visiting the captivating sand sculptures at the Sand Museum and conquering the Tottori sand dunes through freezing winds. Another memorable highlight of staying in Ojiro was the opportunity to design and sculpt my own jewellery from stone.  The stone used to make our pendants were known as “magatama”, and were traditionally made from jade, glass or rocks. What I enjoyed most about this experience was not only learning of its historical value and appeal since the Jomon period, but the connection magatama had to religious practices including shamanism and Shinto. In addition to its spiritual significance, I found the crafting of magatama a challenging, but truly rewarding experience that I will never forget!

During the time when my classmates and I were not living in Ojiro, we inhabited the cosy grounds of Sonoda Woman’s University to learn Japanese or explored the historic highlights of Amagasaki where we took part in cultural activities. While at Sonoda Woman’s University however, I immediately noticed how small and homely the campus was in comparison to the blocky high rises that occupied the grounds of QUT. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the students (which were no more than 200!) noticed our presence and gave us their utmost attention. My allocated group were particularly fortunate to receive a dynamic culture class presented by the university’s students themselves which I had the pleasure of attending. One unforgettable moment from our experiences was taking part in the traditional Japanese game, “suikawari”, and then learning about the meticulous process in which “katsuobushi” is made. Katsuobushi, in particular, made the most impression on me as I never expected dried fermented fish to appear as an oddly shaped rock or a chunky piece of wood that would later become an essential ingredient used in traditional Japanese foods, such as dashi. In addition, the kindliness and welcoming mannerisms of the students were, again, infectious and I felt a great sense of belonging and acceptance when I was asked to introduce myself to the class and share with them the cultural practices I engaged in while living in Australia.

My cultural experiences in Japan have been endless, and I felt so grateful for the time the Sonoda University staff gave us to make it such a pleasant experience! I would also like to say how very thankful I am to the teachers who managed, without fail, to remain optimistic and deeply passionate about teaching Japanese. I’m very proud to say that I’m now quite confident in ordering food in restaurants, thanks to a large appetite for Curry House CoCo and the multiple visits I’ve had to the “taiyaki” (fish-shaped pastries filled with custard or red bean paste) stand near Amagasaki station. I would highly recommend this exchange program for anyone, both young and old!

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