Being lost – actually, truly lost – was something absent from my catalogue of life experiences prior to January 7, 2018. But there I was, standing outside Shinjuku Station in the Middle of Tokyo. Shinjuku is one of the largest, busiest train stations in the world. My phone battery was dead, it was raining, and I had no idea which train line I needed to use to get to my apartment. I was fresh off a ten-hour flight and all I wanted was to eat something small and fall asleep. I stood still with my two big pieces of luggage staring absently at the weaving train lines printed on the station map. I may as well have unpacked my bags in the middle of the train station and readied my towel as a blanket, because there was no way I was making it to my bed that night. In a move of desperation I uttered the one bit of Japanese I knew to two strangers looking at the map: “Sumimasen…English.” To my utter disbelief these two gentlemen responded by saying, “Yeah, what can we help you with?” I then showed them my map that I had previously printed out and they informed me that we were heading in the same direction. They helped me with my bags and we talked the entire train ride before I departed for the apartment, never to see these men again. In a city of 20 million, it was unlikely that we’d ever recognize each other, even if we did.
I share this story because I think it serves as a microcosm of Japanese culture. From language to etiquette, and almost everything in between, Japan is far different from America in almost every way. But it has been my experience that the Japanese most exceed American expectations in their treatment of others. Respect, courtesy, and honor all flow seamlessly through the Japanese culture. It has made studying here one of the best experiences of my life.
In Japan, I’ve had the pleasure of taking International Protection of Human Rights taught by Professor Vipasha Bansal. In addition the material being incredibly interesting, the class was the most diverse I’d ever taken. In one class group activity, we were split into groups of four and asked to identify different aspects of our culture. The reason this “think, pair, share” activity was unique was because I, a white American male, was paired with a Canadian professional, a Chinese-American student, and a student who heavily identifies with South American culture, in a class taught by an Indian professor who grew up in the UK and carried a Dutch passport, in a Japanese classroom. Needless to say, our answers defining our culture were different.
Japan, itself, is a country which houses enchanting beauty. Its beauty stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the United States. Where Americans are animated and flashy, the Japanese are calm and subdued. Japanese colors are soft and there is an appreciation for the changing seasons. Even the presentation of sushi changes based on the season. Kabuki Theater entrances the audience with geishas dancing to melodic tunes dressed in intricate kimonos. The blooming cherry blossoms decorate the blue skies with pink and white, and natives turn out in thousands to camp out with friends and enjoy the fleeting flowers. Even the sumo wrestling tournaments, one of Japan’s most popular athletic events, are imbued with as much theater as sport, with traditional singing and dress in between bouts. The old, traditional island of Miyajima hosts dozens of Japanese temples and the famous Otorri gate on its tide.
While I have loved traveling all over the country and taking in the sights of a tourist, I have equally enjoyed living the life of a local and finding my favorite spots in the city to eat and visit. I absolutely love Japanese curry from Hinoya Curry. If I feel like I need to relax and enjoy the feeling of home cooking then I’ll go to one of many excellent coffee shops or bakeries in the city and enjoy a Vienna coffee with a shrimp omu rice and cheesecake. And if I need a night in then I’ll hop on over to the grocery store. Among the isles lined with foreign food items I usually end up getting fresh fish, an avocado, and rice.
Finally I want to end with the following story and bring this post full circle. Since coming to Tokyo I started a part time internship at a law firm called Hayabusa Asuka Law Offices. One of my colleagues named Yasu invited me to dinner with him and some friends. Of course I said I’d go – it sounded like fun. His two friends were two women who were getting their LLMs from a law school in the Philippines and were visiting Tokyo for a school trip. We all met at a small, back alley soba shop where Yasu knew the owner. I barely knew Yasu and I had just met his friends. Nonetheless, we all spent three hours at this soba shop tasting noodles, steak, and tempura and downing Japanese whiskey before heading out to Shinjuku to socialize for the night. Looking back it felt like a dream – my night in Tokyo with three strangers. But, ultimately, that has been my experience in Japan. It has been absolute pleasure living in Tokyo for my last semester of law school. My parents met in Japan in 1989 and would often share their memories living abroad. Almost thirty years later, I’m happy that I now have my own.
Since 1994, Temple Law’s Program in Japan has offered law students a unique opportunity to participate in a study-abroad experience that prepares the next generation of lawyers to practice in the global marketplace. In addition to studying Asian, international, and comparative law with an outstanding faculty composed of American and Japanese-educated professors, students are immersed daily in Japanese culture. Interacting with peers from Japan and elsewhere promotes cultural understanding and provides students with long-term professional contacts. Living in Japan helps students to appreciate cultural differences and to develop skills that enable true cross-cultural cooperation. Temple’s program is the only ABA-approved semester abroad program located in Asia. J.D. students might also be able to take advantage of the opportunity to apply credits earned in Tokyo towards Temple’s LL.M. in Transnational Law.