Uni students find Japan defies their expectations

Uni students find Japan defies their expectations

URBANA — Nothing reinforces what's taught in a high school Japanese class quite like a quick trip to Tokyo.

So Uni High teacher Mari Innami did just that — rounding up 19 of her students, plus a chaperone, and taking them on a December field trip of sorts to Japan's capital, as well as Naha, Okinawa.

The adventure happened courtesy of the Kakehashi Project, a Japanese-American program for youth designed to help promote leadership and strengthen relations between the two countries.

Fresh off the flight home from Japan — they touched down Tuesday night at Willard Airport — four Uni students shared their thoughts on the experience of a lifetime.

On the landscape

"Watching the scenery pass by, it's not at all what I expected," said Alyssa Rauschenberger, a junior. "In Tokyo, I was looking for an industrialized society, with crowded streets and tall, colorful skyscrapers. Instead, the buildings are whites and pastels, and even during rush hour, it's much quieter than Chicago. It's a much more comfortable feel than any city I've visited and certainly than I expected."

Added sophomore Xanthe Brown: "I really enjoy seeing the natural landscape and the architecture of Japan. Especially in Okinawa, but in all of Japan, the trees and brush are really different from the ones we have in Champaign. They're a lot more delicate-looking — and in Okinawa, they have palm trees, which is really exciting to an Urbana native.

"Also, I like seeing the mix of older architecture with tiled roofs and modern-looking architecture. It creates a unique look. And seeing the sea in Okinawa and the reefs was beautiful, too. I really love coral reefs."

On the language

"It was a little difficult to adapt to speaking and listening on a daily basis. At first, it was just overwhelming — so many words, some that are familiar, but most that were not," said Irina Cheng, a Uni sophomore. "But as my brain slowly began to catch up to everything, I was able to hear and understand some sentences, and could actually respond appropriately."

"We only learned informal speech in class recently, which is a speech pattern you use with peers, versus the formal speech that you use with superiors," Brown said. "I used informal speech with my host student to show her I was comfortable around her, and used formal language with the parents to show respect. I think it helped me become closer with my host student.

"Also, when I didn't know how to express what I wanted to say, I had enough Japanese words and the family had enough English words to communicate. It was fun trying to piece things together, sort of a challenge for all of us."

On interactions

"I was surprised and amazed at how highly hospitality is valued in the society," said John Easley, a sophomore. "Especially during the home stay, I was blown away at how much kindness and generosity was shown to me by my host family. Though hospitality is certainly valued in the United States, I was not expecting how much more it is valued in Japanese culture."

Rauschenberger seconds that: "I was expecting interactions to be more formal or stiff, but everyone is quite sociable, more so than in America. They stop to give directions or take photos. And while it's not an extremely industrialized society, it's also not the strict traditional society I was expecting either."

On Western influence

"I've been really surprised at how much English I see everywhere," Brown said. "In museums, under Japanese explanations of exhibits, there's always an English one. Lots of brand names are written in English, as well as names on some restaurants. Also, my host family almost never listened to Japanese music in the car — it was always either Taylor Swift or American Christmas songs. Almost everyone speaks at least a little English."

Cheng said she saw bits and pieces of America in the southern islands: "In Okinawa, I've enjoyed seeing the unique culture that is very different from the rest of Japan. I was honestly very surprised by how different Okinawa is in terms of culture from the rest of Japan. If you think about it, it makes sense — it used to be its own kingdom and then was occupied by America after becoming a part of Japan, so there would be different influences."

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