On a day I needed to clear my head, I decided to visit Mount Takao (or, Takaosan). Just outside of Tokyo, it’s a popular escape-the-city destination. At the bottom of the mountain, just outside the train station is a very nice onsen where you can rest your weary feet (and rest of your body).
One of the best characterizations of the fundamental differences between living in Japan, and living in America, that I’ve heard, came from Diet Member Kikawada Hitoshi-sensei. I was working with his office for 3 weeks, and during my welcome dinner the conversation turned to our two culture’s approach to information flow and communication. Of everyone at the table, he was the only other person to have spent significant time in the United States (he did his Master’s degree at the University of Maryland).
He thought for a minute, and then explained to his staff that when he was a student in the US he always had to check his bank account to make sure that the bank hadn’t made a mistake. That sometimes they did make mistakes, and if that happened, it was his responsibility to find it and make sure it got corrected. He said he’d found several errors in his account during his time in the US.
His staff were shocked.
But I imagine, if you’re American, your response to the above scenario was something along the lines of, “Oh well, yeah. That happens. I wish it wasn’t that way, but …no one is perfect.”
Whereas in Japan, perfection is expected. Institutions are trustworthy. You don’t have to question the bank. The trains run on time. If someone says something, they have a good reason. Being able to count on things going according to plan is …incredibly relaxing. But for an American, it is sometimes completely disorienting. Because the flip side to trusting your institutions, is that information is doled out sparingly. Often, for the benefit of the peace-of-mind of the consumer/citizen, the details are glossed over. It’s covered! Why are you worried?
We’re worried, because in America, you need to be in charge of all the information, all the time. The responsibility lies with you. You the citizen; you the consumer; you the litigant. You must know what is happening with all things even remotely in your sphere. It is what we expect.
So when you pluck someone from the American way of doing things, and plop them in the middle of a society that trusts their institutions, it’s not just another culture, it’s like learning how to breathe underwater.
Where. Is. My. Information.
I mean, it’s awesome. It’s just very, very confusing.
So, if we were to compare the social fabric of America and Japan, America might be considered a loosely knit sweater; Japan, a tightly woven silk. There are gaps between the threads of the American sweater; it might be a little lumpy; it’s a little uneven; but it wears well after many washings, and keeps you warm. A snag is an isolated problem with a few threads, and can be easily mended.
On the other hand, the Japanese silk is strong, even, and beautiful. The fabric drapes elegantly, each thread perfectly in line with the next. There is symmetry and balance. But a snag, a disruption, an irregularity, has far-reaching consequences to the overall fabric. No one wants to be the snag.
This is all to say that there is an inter-dependence in Japan that doesn’t exist on the same level in America. Our loosely-knit society allows for irregularities, departures from the norm, and quite a bit of chaos.
During another conversation, much more recently, I was asked if Americans trusted their government. My initial reaction was a half scoff, half snort. (snoff?) But the answer, I think, is both yes and no.
I think we, at least more often than not, still trust the intent upon which our institutions are built. We (want to) believe the foundation is still solid. But we are skeptics. And we are very skeptical of the structures build on top of these foundations. We are skeptical of our fellow citizens, and our leaders. We don’t necessarily trust them. So we challenge them. All the time. This is part of who we are. The sweater has to be made of sturdy stuff because it is being yanked and pulled and twisted into all sorts of contortions, every single day. And we have a great faith that it won’t disintegrate in our hands. That we can’t actually pull it apart. That this is currently being tested, is morbidly, horrifyingly, fascinating.
To be able to speak about Japan in this context is way beyond my level of expertise, but I do think the weave of society, the fabric itself, is designed differently. There is a subtlety and uniform understanding about certain things. The trust in institutions isn’t flawless, but it’s close. This shared concept of the way things should be would all start to unravel if too many new ideas were introduced all at once. If too many threads of varying thickness and strength came into the weave, it would introduce too much uncertainty, and the beautiful, lofty, serene (if customer)/ insanely stressful (if employee) way of life would start to falter. I think this is why many Japanese citizens are not overly enthusiastic about welcoming large numbers of immigrants. Too many mismatched pieces of thread. Too much potential for their whole approach to life to break down.
I don’t know what the right answer is, or if there even is one, …but I get it. I understand the fear, and the wish to preserve the social fabric as it is.
I’ve spent the last 10 months teasing apart some of the differences and similarities between Japan and the US. And while there are many things that set the two countries apart, one striking similarity is the zealousness of conservation biologists, particularly those who work out in the field. A field biologist is a field biologist is a field biologist, regardless of where they are born and raised. It’s a case of convergent evolution, with maybe some selection for personality types predisposed to appreciate playing in the mud.
In early September, representatives from many of my placements over the coming year gathered at the office of the National Personnel Authority in Tokyo. Since the fellowship focuses on federal agencies, there were a lot of suits.
I was in a suit. My fellow Fellows were all in suits. And a majority of the agency representatives were in suits. And then there was one man sitting in the front row, more casually dressed, snazzy glasses, slightly bemused, …definitely not impressed by the suits. This was Dr. Tomohiro Deguchi of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. A field biologist.
For more than 10 years, Dr. Deguchi-san’s main mission has been the reintroduction of short-tailed albatross to a remote, protected island. He, and his research partners, are essentially saving this critically endangered species. As I’m writing this, I realize he could easily have belonged in the book Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.
Suits, are not his style.
Between February 20th– March 5th I had the great fortune to work with the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, which included two days of introduction to the research done by the Institute from their headquarters office in Abiko, to spending a week at the remote, uninhabited island of Mukojima.
Mud was involved. But so was the incomparable opportunity to camp on this protected island and participate in field observations of this new colony of short-tailed albatross.
Background: I’m going to skip over many of the details here, but short-tailed albatross (アホウドリ , or ahoudori in Japanese), were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. During surveys in 1939 and 1949 there wasn’t a single short-tail albatross found. They reappeared on the Torishima (Bird Island) in 1951 and on the Senkaku Islands in 1971. Since then the population has increased to approximately 3500 animals, mostly on Torishima (there might be around 350 animals on the Senkaku Islands but because of political tensions, surveys have been impossible there). The big problem here is that Torishima, the main, almost only, breeding location for this endangered species, is under threat of a volcanic eruption.
Life history details: Albatross are long-lived birds who spend the first 4-5 years of their lives at sea. Let that sink in for a minute. They then return to their area of their birth to find a mating partner and breed. From that point forward they spend their summers and autumn feeding in the northern latitudes, and return to (usually) their exact breeding area in the winter and summer to mate (with the same mate; they are monogamous) and raise chicks. It is believed that they imprint on their geographic location very early, which meant that if researchers wanted to expand the short-tail albatross range to include areas not under political dispute or risk of volcanic eruption, they had to do it at an early life stage.
Enter Deguchi-san and team. Between 2008-2012 they translocated a total of 70 chicks by helicopter from Torishima to the uninhabited and volcanically inert, Mukojima. This effort took place after two years of test relocations with less endangered species with similar life history habits (Laysan albatross chicks were translocated from Sand Island to Kauai, and black-footed albatross chicks were moved from Nakodojima to Mukojima).
The short-tail albatross translocations to Mukojima were a success, with 99% of the chicks fledging. The next test would be to see whether the adults returned to Mukojima after their 4-5 years at sea, and then to see whether they would mate and successfully rear chicks there (Deguchi et al., 2013).
In 2011 the first Mukojima raised chick, Y-01, returned to Mukojima. He paired with a female (raised in the wild) and they laid their first egg in 2012. Two more eggs were laid in subsequent years, and then in the fourth year a chick hatched and successfully fledged (yay!). Another translocated bird (Y11) paired with a non-translocated albatross and hatched a chick on neighboring Nakoudojima. (Deguchi et al. 2016).
Then, in 2016 Y01 and his mate had another chick on Mukojima, Y76, who I got to watch through binoculars and long-range scope in February. This was the fourth short-tail chick to hatch on Mukojima and neighboring islands. I felt a particular affinity for this chick who has the same number as my birth year. I plan to follow his/her success through life.
Another exciting event was the sighting of M170 who is the daughter of Y11 referred to above. Since M170 was reared on Nakoudojima it was meaningful for her to show up in Mukojima, giving rise to hopes that she might decide to mate and raise her chicks there instead (thereby growing and giving strength to this new colony).
I will let the photo essay below tell more of the story of my week on Mukojima.
Deguchi et al., 2016. Translocation and hand-rearing result in short-tailed albatrosses returning to breed in the Ogasawara Islands 80 years after extirpation. Animal Conservation.
Deguchi et al., 2013. Translocation and hand-rearing of the short-tailed albatross Phoebastria albatrus: early indicators of success for species conservation and island restoration. Oryx 48(2), 195-203.
I just spent three full days in Beijing. Incredible history, art, culture, food, and humanity; a bit overshadowed by the air quality, but that was part of the experience too. Am hoping to get around to recording more of my thoughts later, but in the meantime, here are the pictures.
From February 1-3rd, the 21st class of Mansfield Fellows traveled to Nagasaki on a trip sponsored by both the National Personnel Authority and the City of Nagasaki. We had a behind-the-scenes tour of the airport, a sobering and moving visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, the Peace Park, the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, Dejima where the Dutch traders lived, Mount Inasa, Glover Garden, Oura Church, and Urakami Cathedral. We also paid a courtesy visit to the Mayor of Nagasaki, Tomihisa Taue-sensei.
In 1955, ten years after the dropping of the atomic bomb, Louis W. Hill Jr., grandson of Minnesota railroad baron James J. Hill, reached out to the city of Nagasaki to create the first sister city relationship between American and Japanese cities. On December 7th, 1955 Nagasaki and St. Paul became sister cities.
I was born in St. Paul and spent the first 10 years of my life there (only to move a short distance away). I remember visiting the James J Hill house, now registered as a National Historic Landmark. During the holidays, actors would dress in period costume to give tours and bring us back in time. Little could I imagine that many years later I would be in the office of the Mayor of Nagasaki, shaking his hand in recognition of the bond between his city and my hometown, that Mr. Hill’s grandson helped bring about.
For 218 years, starting in the 1630’s, Japan was closed to the world through a policy called “sakoku“, a policy of national isolation. All trade was banned, except for one single port: Nagasaki. I’m piecing this history together very quickly after a 3-day trip and consulting some websites, so please do your own investigation into this fascinating history. I believe all trade had to be conducted at Dejima, an island in the port of Nagasaki, which was created specifically for this purpose.
We were also fortunate to be visiting Nagasaki during the Lantern Festival, which is held during the Chinese New Year.
Beginning Japanese Breakdown: both a break-down of very basic Japanese grammar points, and what my brain is currently undergoing.
Before I begin this post, I want to just state that I have a great respect for, and fascination with, the Japanese language. I’m enjoying learning, and look forward to the day, faaaaaaaaarrrr faaaaarrrr in the future, when I am more comfortable speaking it on a daily basis. I think I wrote before, that my fellow fellows and I have been taking intensive language classes for the past 6 weeks. It’s been a humbling, and overwhelming (though enjoyable) experience. I tried below, to give you a little taste of what the past 6 weeks have been like, and also try to put what I’ve learned into my own words.
Today we’re going to talk about verbs.
Japanese verbs can do a lot more than English verbs. They’re more …verby. Or at least they can look a lot different while doing many of the same things. Think of a verb as a paper doll with different outfits to wear. English verbs have a slightly limited closet. They can wear present form, past form, and infinitive, and maaaaybe a few others. I write. I wrote. I am writing. To modify it further we need additional words, sort of like paper …accessories: I will write. I want to write. I didn’t write. I won’t write. But, it’s mostly write, write, write.
Japanese verbs, on the other hand, have a lot more going on with their wardrobe. Japanese verbs have options.
Take かく(kaku): the dictionary form of “to write”
Kaku = to write (dictionary form, present positive plain form)
Kaita = wrote (positive past tense plain form, also the -ta form)
Kakanai = don’t/won’t write (present negative plain form, also the -nai form)
Kakanakatta = didn’t write (past negative plain form)
Kakimasu = write (positive present tense polite form, also known as the –masu form)
Kakimasen = don’t/won’t write (present, negative, polite form)
Kakimashita = wrote (past, polite)
Kakimasendeshita = didn’t write (past, negative, polite)
Kaimashou = let’s write (polite)
Kakaimasenka = would you like to write? (polite)
Kakitai = want to write (-tai form)
Kakitakunaidesu = don’t want to write (-tai form)
Kaite = writing (-te form)
And then the forms I haven’t learned yet:
So far that’s 18 different outfits that “kaku” could wear. And you still have to remember that it’s kaku.
Now, just so you don’t think that this brimming closet means that Japanese verbs have done away with accessories. But it’s essential that the accessory matches the overall outfit. So, if today, kaku is expressing itself as kaite, you could add:
The –masu form of imasu to show a state of being: kaite imasu is “I am writing”
Or you could add “mo ii desu ka” to ask if something is okay to do
Or you could add “wa ikemasen” to express prohibition (e.g. you can’t …do such and such)
Or add “kudasai” to indicate a request to do something
Or if kaku is wearing the –nai form (take kakanai: present negative plain form and drop the nai, to get kaka), you could also add:
~naide kudasai, as in “kakanai de kudasai” to indicate that one shouldn’t write (please don’t write)
Or ~ “nakerebanarimasen” to mean you must do something
Or ~ “nakutemoiidesu” to mean it is okay to do something
Alright, that is just two examples of the groups of modifiers, or ‘accessories’ that exist for different verb forms, and I’m boring myself, so let’s move on to verb characterization.
You may have observed the above list of 18 outfits and deduced that some simple rules could be followed for conjugating these verbs into their different forms. Fool! You forget that Japanese is a ninja language. And verbs fall into 3 different groups. Let me introduce you to the groups:
Group I: う(u)-verbs, otherwise known as the verbs whose –masu form roots end in い (i)
Group II: る (ru)- verbs, otherwise known as the verbs whose –masu form roots end in え (e) , except for those whose roots end inい but don’t get along with Group I so want to hang out in Group II (eg. mimasu, imasu, okimasu, karimasu, orimasu, abimasu, dekimasu).
And then there’s Group III: I call these the ‘take-your-rules-and-shove-it’ verbs. They include: kimasu (kuru) and shimasu (suru).
Groups I, II and III all follow slightly different rules when conjugating into the different forms, and then of course there are the exception verbs (arimasu, ikimasu and others).
You may have noticed that there is both a plain form and a polite form. The -masu form, which is the polite form, and should be used in formal situations and when addressing anyone who’s social stature is the same or greater than yours, except of course, for when you shouldn’t use it, which turns out to be a lot of the time. (For example: sentences describing one’s thoughts, or what someone said, will combine both the plain form (the thought or quote) with the polite form of “think” or “said”. )
Also, the –masu (ます) form root is what is used to conjugate the verbs into the –te (て) form and the –tai (たい) form, the –nai (ない) form and the -ta (た) form, also known as the plain form, which you can use alone with friends, or in combination sentences with the polite form in polite company when speaking in quotations or modifying a noun (with a verb, because that happens).
ときどきアメリカじんは かなをよむ ことが できませんから、これはロマンジで かきました。
Nihonglish. That’s what I’m calling my new conglomeration of Japanese and English as I start to cobble together new bits of Japanese and find that I’m forgetting some simple English vocab and grammar. My intent had been to write here about the process of language learning, and what I’ve learned so far from our 6 weeks of intensive Japanese classes. And I will just have to save that for later, but for now I will say that it feels like trying to drink from a firehose. My sentence above might be correct, …and it might not be.
The literal translation is “I am drinking Japanese by firehose”. (and the で should maybe be a から）。It probably doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, but that’s a fair reflection of where I’m at. I commented to a friend that when speaking Japanese I felt like I was the equivalent of a 3-year old, asking “why?” “why?” “doushite?” all the time. She responded that after only 7 weeks, I was aging quickly. I thought about that, and even though I did have some time invested in language classes before arriving, during my first week my language abilities were infantile. I was reduced to what felt like babbling different consonant-vowel combinations that I knew were Japanese, and just hoped I was producing coherent, inoffensive words.
So yes, 3, if it’s even that, feels like an accomplishment.
My head is too full of grammar and vocab (though it refuses to behave when needed) to write more here. I’m all atangle in ‘tango’ and ‘bunpo’, but here are some にほんでとったしゃしんです。
It was a pleasant November afternoon in Washington DC when 16 strangers took the elevator to the 11th floor and gathered expectantly just outside the lobby of 1156 15th Street NW, Suite 1105. We were all ‘suited up’ and looking around at each other, Hunger Games style, trying to make pleasant conversation. We had all made it to the interview stage of the selection process for the Mike Mansfield Fellowship, and now just had to survive the group interview. Only ten of the 16 would be selected, hence the slightly awkward evaluation of everyone standing genially in the circle. I looked around the group and thought “oh boy, I might be out of my league,” but so I expect, did most everyone else.
What followed was a bizarrely stressful group interview. As we entered the DC office of The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation we were each assigned to one of two tables. Whatever meager alliances had been formed in the lobby were dashed. We were then given a number of written scenarios to choose from as a group, and then 30 minutes to discuss and work through how our group would respond. Cooperatively. As we discussed the scenarios and debated our potential responses to each point, the selection panel walked around with clipboards and listened in to our discussion, scribbling away and nodding occasionally.
Then we presented our conclusions in front of the room (both groups chose the same scenario: awkward!), made a brief round of thank yous and good-byes, and that was it. Thank you for your time. You’re free to go. You’ll hear from us soon.
And what were we vying for so pleasantly? A chance to spend a year in Japan, embed in agencies, organizations and companies close to our given specialties, further our Japanese skills, and, hopefully, help to increase the cooperation and understanding between Japan and the United States. I had been a Japan-o-phile for years, so this was a dream opportunity. Fortunately my agency also valued the chance to build bridges between Japan’s sister agencies and our own, and endorsed my application.*
The panel wasted no time, and on Monday morning I received an e-mail saying I’d been selected. Soon an e-mail went out introducing the entire group of 10, the 21st class of Mansfield Fellows, and we began organizing our first happy hour (thank you Jocelyn!).
We are a diverse group career-wise, with the following agencies represented: NOAA, NASA, FDA, SEC, Department of Labor, FAA, Air Force, State Department (2), and FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).
The first week in Japan was spent in Tokyo with orientation meetings and working with housing realtors and furniture lessors, setting up what will be home for 10 months. Then we took the shinkansen to Kanazawa in the Ishikawa Prefecture. We’re spending 7 weeks here, taking language classes at the Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange and participating in homestays. We are also undergoing a crash-course in Japanese culture, and have had a tour of a national garden (Kenrokuen), a pottery class, a calligraphy class, a visit to a local elementary school, and an audience with the Governor of Ishikawa. Tomorrow we’re doing seal engraving (no, not the animal, the name sign).
What started as 10 strangers sussing one another out in the hallway of a DC office building is now a pretty tight-knit group of people who genuinely enjoy one another’s company. Two of our group are expecting the imminent arrival of the(ir) next generation, and so aren’t able to join in the Kanazawa portion of the Fellowship, but they have visited once and we look forward to seeing them and their families soon! While my main goal during this year is to foster relationships with our Japanese colleagues, I’m also continuously impressed by the other fellows and hope to learn a lot from them in the coming year. I’ll also say that while we differ in specialties, I think we are fairly similar in our drive and motivation. And when you take 10 over-achievers and place us in a situation where we lose a degree of autonomy, it leads to repeated …‘learning moments’, and a good deal of bonding.
When we return to Tokyo we’ll have another week of orientation, this time for our ten months of placements, and then the work begins! (…or continues). My placement schedule is as follows:
Fisheries Research Agency (8 weeks)
National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries (5 weeks)
Fisheries Agency, Resources Management Division (MAFF) (9 weeks)
Zengyoren, Japan Fisheries Cooperatives (9 days)
Yamashina Institute for Ornithology (2 weeks, including a trip to Ogasawara)
Nature Conservation Society (2 weeks)
Diet (4 weeks)
Kanagawa Prefecture Fisheries Technology Center (2 weeks)
Tokyo University of Marine Science (1 month)
Ministry of the Environment (1 week)
University of Tokyo (2 weeks)
I think I’ll sleep sometime in the fall of 2017.
*The Mansfield Fellowship is only offered to federal employees.