Travelogue Three

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The 3rd of 4 travelogues regarding travel to Korea and Japan during July and August, 2014.

Korea and Japan are distinctly different from each other. Both countries have significant land mass that is unusable. The mountains of each country form a backdrop that is unique: as much geographic as it is cultural, the 70% unusable mountainous landmass of Japan and it’s vulnerability to the vagaries of tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons have produced a bedrock value that stresses harmony between all things. I sensed a similar attitude in Korea. The last 50-60 years of Korean history have eclipsed much of the traditional orientations. Korea is impatient to develop itself into the 21st Century. It is moving ahead and Seoul is very much a 21st century cosmopolis.

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ShintoShrineEchizen

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For many years Japan was economically dominant in comparison to Korea. That has changed and now both countries have similar economies. They are both looking toward the next economic vehicle of development. Both countries have solid middle classes. Both countries deeply value education in a way that is vastly different from the convoluted, passive/aggressive manner we in America value education. I believe there was a time when America believed in the intrinsic good of education. Unfortunately, that time has passed and we now value it solely for the economic capacity it will provide. Kindergarten has become an academic sweatshop (http://wapo.st/1pEivqm) and there is much handwringing about the direction education in America has taken. Not so in these two countries. Korea especially holds sacred institutional associations and they will undertake enormous efforts to assist their children in obtaining entrance to the best schools, both at home and abroad. Young Koreans are global citizens, particularly those who have completed college. They travel to and live in other countries to peruse their professions. They help their fellow citizens in whatever way they can. Japan is also deeply committed to education. They engage over 4,000 Japan Exchange Teachers (native speakers of English) every year and embed them in their English language programs at all levels of learning. They employ several thousand Assistant Language Teachers as well, and many of these native English speakers work in private companies and English Language learning schools.

Each country is moving toward a more casual culture. I believe this will be a long time to arrive. The traditional respect and civility within each culture honors the small, and larger, human exchanges. Conversation is structured so as to avoid confrontation or embarrassment. As a forthright person, it was a challenge for me to enter into these habits. I often felt conversationally clumsy and awkward in my ability to assist my fellow conversationalist in feeling at ease. And yet, some of the richest conversations I had were the exchanges where we each shared our perceptions and ideas about our lives.

What does it mean to enjoy one’s life? What does the word enjoy mean in Japan? It is very tied to traditional roles, and yet not in an unhappy way. In America, this word and idea is veering off toward the land of entitled indulgence. Gratification and appeasement are also part of our sense of enjoyment. These suggest the ever insidious presence of our “bigger-is-always-better” attitude, which is the most extreme devil within America. I make this connection because of the trend of prolonging the youth period in one’s life has produced a certain sense of the extreme. For example, the American prom tradition has morphed into a 4-day weekend, including flying off to the Caribbean for an offshore extended party experience. Not every prom in America ends in wild partying post plane trip. In Japan, enjoyment is tied to duty towards others. It is less self-focused. Asked if you enjoy your life, in Japan, you would likely get an answer of, “no”. Enjoyment is understood as a harmony in relation to others. The connectivity between family, co-workers, friends, and peers that is embedded in Japanese culture is deeper than in our culture because of this tradition of harmony. This short rumination is meant to articulate what I have noticed and thought about on my travels. And while the sense of honoring harbors a strong connectivity, it does not de-facto produce emotional closeness. It does produce a society that has manners and a graciousness towards others that can feel shocking. Above all else, the Japanese are a circumspect people who value the human element. Speaking their minds is not part of this tradition, though it is not necessarily anathema to it.

OhiTeaCup

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I was often stunned by the simple beauty in everyday life in both countries. Even manhole covers in Japan strive toward elegance. The determined connection to the natural world is readily apparent. Each house has plants outside the door. There are places set aside within the home just for the display of beautiful things. The Japanese take time for beauty. As busy and industrious as they are, there is still an undercurrent of connection to the natural world. In Korea, everywhere there are gardens growing food. Rice paddies fill any landscape in each country, but my heart went to the Koreans for their diligent gardening.

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This tree symbolizes many things about Japan for me. The effort to work with nature is admirable. As an artist I’ve seen nature sculpted in ways more bizarre than this tree. The tree has a delicate balance within it, accomplished through careful pruning and training of each branch. There is also an insistence of an aesthetic that is subtly un-natural. The tree takes on a human-ness. It grows with this human quality. It is a particular kind of harmony; careful, insistent, demanding. This tree is like Japan within the global community. We are all still figuring out how we want to be in this community. Japan’s deep sense of connection to the earth, as well as its ideas about harmony are important for our contemporary world.

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LotusTemple.500

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My little boat

is bobbing

on the mighty sea.

 

Between here and there;

routine

like a

hollow-core door

 

no strength, all symbol.

 

After travel

all things have a

welcome strangeness.

Even the light

veering towards fall

this early

out of place on the

 

Not sleek,

my boat

goes bobbing.

 

I am not

without

direction;

the little boat

knows this fact.

 

The boat and I look up;

above, clouds keep

admiring the trees,

wishing they could be

more like them.

Their puffy outlines

trying hard

to take the shape of the

oak, elm, maple

these graceful canopies,

down below.

-Karen Fitzgerald 8.29.2014

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