By Maya Martin, Foster Undergraduate participating in the Spring Break Kakehashi Project in Japan.
I remember first seeing the flyer for the Kakehashi project last October. I had just come to UW after two years at community college, and I was hungry for opportunities to both get more involved with Foster and to gain a greater perspective on international business. I had also always dreamed of going to Japan, so I knew I had to apply for this program. However, I had no idea how much I would actually learn and experience on this trip.
The flight from Seattle to Narita was the longest flight I have ever been on, but surprisingly it went by quickly and was not an uncomfortable experience. I was excited to see my first taste of Japanese culture in some of the Japanese-inspired food on the flight, as well as in the film options on the flight. I watched out the window as our plan landed in Narita, trying to catch my first sight of Japan. However, it wasn’t until our bus ride to Tokyo that I began to realize we were really in Japan. We drove by small towns of houses with tile roofs that reminded me of anime movies I have seen. On arriving at the hotel, the amazing view of the Tokyo Skytree reminded me that we really were in Japan. However, my initial impression was that Tokyo was very similar to other large, global cities, like Los Angeles, New York, or even Vancouver, B.C. As a developed country, sometimes even considered a western country in my urban development and international studies courses, it makes sense that Tokyo would not be a large culture shock beyond the language barrier. However, later in the trip, differences became more apparent.
On our first full day in Japan, we attended lectures by members of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture on trade. It was interesting to see just how many of Japan’s markets rely almost solely on imports, particularly the energy market and many agricultural products. They heavily emphasized the Trans Pacific Partnership, an agreement often ignored in the contemporary US political climate. It was apparent just how important this trade agreement would be to the Japanese economy, and I realized that the U.S.’s decision to leave this agreement will have a huge impact on the future of trade in the Pacific region.
Throughout our trip, we all made many observations about Japan and Japanese culture, but one of the most significant cultural observations I noted is that while local citizens we encountered would often seem cold or withdrawn at first interaction, there was a culture of generosity, kindness, and etiquette that was very different than that experienced in the United States. On one occasion, my friends Marady, Stephen, and I were trying to find our way back to the hotel from Akihabara. When we realized we were lost, we looked for police or employees of Tokyo Metro to ask for help. However, we were not able to find someone, and so instead we asked a stranger for help. While he didn’t speak English, he used Google Maps and the advice of another stranger to walk us to the train station and led us to the right train. I heard similar stories from many of the other UW students on the trip. Since this experience, I have tried to follow the Japanese example and be more intentional when helping people with directions, particularly tourists on the UW campus.
While visiting Kyoto and Tokyo in particular, it was also amazing to witness the juxtaposition of modern Japan with their centuries-old history. This is something I was looking forward to before the trip, but it was even more incredible than I expected. Riding the Shinkansen to the small, traditional town of Nagahama was a reminder that Japan continues to value its history while promoting ingenuity. Our last night stands out as one of the best examples of this. While visiting the Kaminarimon in Asakusa, Tokyo, I was awed by the beauty of the shrine and the serenity that was present there in the middle of the world’s largest city. However, the shrine was a short distance from the Tokyo Skytree, one of the world’s tallest structures and an incredible example of Japanese innovation. At one point, I could just view the top of the Skytree over the top of the Senso-ji shrine. I think this vision will always stay with me as a description of Japan in a single picture.
Every place we visited, I noticed the importance of precision and attention to detail as well as convenience and efficiency. Both factories we visited, Nissan and Yanmar, had very small margins of error in their plants. All of Japan, particularly Tokyo, were notably clean and well organized. Still, this was not at the sacrifice of convenience. One seemingly petty example is the presence of vending machines with tea or coffee on almost every street, and the popularity of convenience stores like 7-11 and Family Mart.The Shinkansen, or the bullet train, is perhaps the best example of this. It is an incredible transportation advancement that performs almost flawlessly, but it is very convenient and well used by the Japanese, especially those travelling between Osaka and Tokyo regularly. Japan has a knack for convenience without laziness.
Visiting Japan was my first experience traveling abroad, and it helped confirm my interest in international business and working abroad one day. Since returning I have applied to CISB, to intern in India this summer, and I am planning to complete a minor in South Asian Studies to further develop my global mindset. Visiting Japan was a once in a lifetime experience that I will not forget and will surely share with friends and colleagues for years to come.