People talk about convergence all the time, of things coming together in a more convenient form. Living in Japan, one of my favorite examples of convergence are hot spring baths (onsen) that offer other services too, like a restaurant where we can eat and enjoy a cold beer, a “massage corner” where we can say goodbye to the week’s stress, and a barber shop where my kids and I can cut our hair before going to the baths to get clean. A few weeks ago my son and I were about to get our hair cut, and the barber asked how he wanted his hair to look. My son has a bit of a shy streak, and he looked over expecting me to answer for him, but I told him, “Speak up and tell the man how you want your hair cut. If you don’t open your mouth and tell people what you want, you’ll never get it.” For some reason this statement was interesting to the staff in the barber shop, since Japanese kids are never told to be assertive or specify their own choices in a direct way, and soon we were all involved in a discussion on the differences between raising kids in Japan and the U.S.
Yes, seen from Japan, America is definitely a country where a person has to be very assertive if they want to get anywhere in life, and one of the things Japanese who study in the States must do is make a conscious effort to become more strong-willed. This “acquired boldness” can take many forms, such as learning to express opinions to others that would probably be kept to one’s self in Japan and realizing that there’s no shame in being more focused on yourself than on the overall group. My son got a lesson in comparative culture studies when, while attending a summer day camp in San Diego one year, the staff forgot to tell him where the lunches had been put so he could get his. If he’d spoken up and asked where his lunch was, the staff would have told him and all would have been well, but he sat there expecting someone to notice that he had no lunch — which would have probably been the case in Japan — so he went hungry all day. My project to get my son to assert himself more seems to be getting some results. At his special English elementary school, the teachers organized a weekly basketball club during recess for the kids. My son prefers dodgeball, though, and so he and some of his friends formed an official commission of kids to present their case to the teachers explaining why they wanted to have a choice between the two sports. It was a big success, and the new school dodgeball club starts next week.
One of the most popular categories of products at J-List are Japanese study-related items like kanji cards, hiragana practice notebooks and the best-selling Genki textbook series, and this gives me a warm feeling since I love to promote interest in the language whenever I can. Learning Japanese is a very challenging endeavor since it’s so different from Western languages, but even a little bit of Japanese study opens new doors of understanding about the country. Although I generally recommend studying at a four-year university with a study-in-Japan option for serious students, there are lots of innovative ways to make Japanese study work, such as reading manga, developing an interest in “J-Dorama,” playing import games in Japanese or getting into J-Pop/J-Rock. One of the best methods I found for learning Japanese was to memorize songs for karaoke, writing out the lyrics you want to learn several times. The act of writing the song aids memorization and when you’ve learned it, it’s actually possible to retrieve words from memory by singing the song back to yourself, which helped me on more than one test in college. If this sounds like a good idea to you, I recommend the new book Songs for Learning Japanese, a textbook with two CDs that present some great popular and traditional Japanese songs for you to learn.