As my last week comes to an end

Tokyo has been a whirlwind of an experience, whether it be at my internship, with my host family, or while exploring by myself. During my short stay, I have been trying to take everything in through the eye of a sociologist. I wanted to learn as much as I could about food insecurity, the people who are affected most by it, and the environment that surrounds the issue in Tokyo. The primary reason I chose this internship at a food bank is that I wanted to experience social work through the lens of another country. I came with a goal of trying to understand the issue of food insecurity, but as my time has extended, other issues have surfaced: gender, homelessness, single mothers, and the notion of omotenashi (and what it means in society). Today, and every day, I continue to grow in my understanding through my immersive internship.

From the first day on the job, I noticed that status and gender played a large role in my identity at Second Harvest. Because I was an intern, the most tedious tasks were handed to me. It was very important for me to recognize where I stood, and to always accept any task graciously, no matter how irritating. Arriving in Japan, one of the first things in my orientation that I learned was the idea of uchi and soto. Uchi means within, and soto means outside or other. Those who are staff are uchi, and interns are soto. This also plays a significant role in why interns are the same status as regular staff members; which is interesting, even amongst interns as well. There are four total interns including myself, and one of them speaks fluent Japanese. Especially on certain days, when there are lots of directions given in only Japanese, I could not help but be painfully aware of how inadequate I was. From these experiences, I am getting the feeling that assimilation from soto to uchi is imperative to one’s survival in the working world. Those who are more similar and have to take fewer steps to blend in will be accepted much more quickly, rather than those who are obviously other. I do have the advantage of looking Japanese, yet I am almost immediately pushed into soto status when I cannot understand or cannot reply.

On site, my main duties include pantry organization, packaging, preparation for food pick up, and preparation of food in the kitchen. All of it is manual labor. Being part of a non-profit that it is heavily dominated by women, I was rather surprised, that other women were surprised that I could lift heavy things. I remember being told “Oh, leave that to _____-san, he will lift it,” very often. Even though that person was busy doing other things, I was told to leave it to him. At first, I thought it was because the staff members were unaware that I was very strong; but as the days went on and people continued to refuse to let me carry heavy boxes, it occurred to me that it was a much deeper issue than that. It was clear that at Second Harvest, women were more in charge of planning and directing, whereas men were more focused on heavy lifting, even though women heavily outnumbered men at the organization. At first, I felt personally offended by this seemingly sexist role that I was placed in. However, everyone seemed to fall into their respective roles immediately, and there was no presence of any discourse. A famous Japanese proverb alludes to this: “ The stake that sticks out gets hammered down.” This makes me reflect on the fact that Japanese culture is a collectivist culture that values the group over the individual; meaning my individual pride being hurt does not truly matter as long as the job still gets done. Retrospectively, I wonder if my insistence on lifting heavy boxes pushed my status further into being soto.

Along with uchi and soto, I also observed the meaning of omotenashi, in many different settings. On a surface level, omotenashi takes the form of extreme hospitality, and always anticipating the needs of others. The main essence of the word is to be incredibly kind and hospitable. But the latent effects of omotenashi can harbor some problematic tendencies. For example, people tend to wait patiently behind someone rather than trying to get their attention. I watched a man on the train (during rush hour) miss his stop because he was too polite to try and push to the door. I also have experienced cars driving slowly behind me for minutes at a time, instead of honking to let me know I’m in the way. The Japanese take omotenashi so seriously sometimes that it actually hinders them from effectively getting to their destination or goal. However, I feel like this may possibly have to do with the collectivist mindset. For example, my host mother mentioned that people don’t use their horns because it is “better to wait for an extra few seconds than to disturb or scare someone while driving.”

A friend that I recently made named Risako told me that omotenashi, to her, feels very fake and surface level. She said that while she studied abroad in London, even though people in London were not inherently nice, she felt like when someone was actually nice to her that it felt more genuine. However, to counteract this observation, I also notice that an American tendency is to call anyone we know even as an acquaintance as a “friend,” (like I did earlier) only to quickly qualify that we barely know them. I also noticed that omotenashi had different connotations attached to gender as well. An example that I remember all too well was a female government official who was berated for a voice recording of her yelling at an employee. She has since been dubbed the “Pink Monster,” however I do not feel as though she would have been given that title if she was a man. From this experience, it seems that omotenashi is heavily scrutinized when a woman is being talked about.

As for food insecurity, the types of people that came to food pickups varied. For some, it was obvious that they needed assistance; others, it was not so easily detectable: some people who came to pick up food wore nice clothing, and some wore tattered clothing. A fair number of non-Japanese immigrants also came to receive assistance and food, which I found surprising in a very homogenous country. A large portion of single mothers also come for food, and one the reasons behind this are because single mothers are often limited to working part time jobs. And from my previous blog posts, it’s known that part time jobs only make up to 30% of their full-time job counterparts. This explains why over 80% of single mothers work (sometimes even multiple jobs), yet over 50% of them live below the poverty line. From my prior experience of working at soup kitchens, I find that there is a similar expectation at times of what “in need” looks like; however, in reality, people from all sorts of backgrounds have different situations and different needs to be met.

I also spoke with Sugiyama-san and Charles, the CEO, about homelessness and food insecurity, and they made some very important points. Homeless youth is a very big problem, yet tracking them is incredibly difficult. This stems from the expectation that parents are automatic care takers for children, and it is also reflected in the almost non-existent governmental assistance for homeless youth. These expectations can be detrimental when it comes to abusive situations, a field that Sugiyama san has told me is rather new in Japan. Another reason why it is hard to track homeless youth is that it is possible many are couch surfing or staying in temporary housing, and some even staying in Manga Cafes (known for charging by the hour for late nights and serving complimentary coffee and tea) for a number of nights or so. Some families are only making enough to be able to afford Manga Cafes for a night, due to the high cost of living in Tokyo. My observations tell me that not only is receiving help from the government uncommon, but also asking for help is very uncommon; this can create a dangerous cycle, but in the opposite way that is reflected many times in the United States.

Not only is homeless youth a huge problem, but the largest portion of people who experience homelessness are the elderly. Charles told me that the number of homeless in Japan has dropped from over 16,000 to under 7,000. But the sad part is that it is because of the elderly homeless population has passed away due to old age or disease. One reason that many of the people experiencing homeless in Japan are because many work as construction or factory workers. But the age limit for those types of trades is 55. After that age, they are no longer allowed to work; people who have been working unskilled labor jobs for their entire lives are suddenly left with no income and no stable housing, rendering them homeless. Another reason that Sugiyama-san cited was the lack of proper mental health care in Japan. Mental illnesses are not taken seriously and those who suffer from it are shunned or ignored. She also cited many issues of suicide and other mental illnesses that make it impossible for people to function properly in society. When examining the public view of people experiencing homelessness and mental illness, it’s clear that the usual reaction is to ignore them. I also find it interesting how a law that originally was meant to protect workers from injury and other complications can actually backfire and worsen the situation by making them homeless.

Despite the public turning a blind eye to those who are in need, there is also a large portion of these populations that refuse to seek help. Charles cited that he has never had one day where he had run out of food. He always has extra, and it ends up being wasted. He noted that it is a possibility that people are just too afraid to ask for help because it is considered weak and the last resort to ask for outside help. Many are afraid of being a burden to others, even when help is being offered. I observed this as a form of omotenashi. Also, the homeless in Japan have a very different approach than Americans who experience homelessness. Instead of panhandling, the Japanese tend to keep to themselves and stay out of the way of big crowds. They may also dig through the few trash cans that exist in Tokyo and recycle for a few hundred yen, along with checking vending machines for loose change.

As a sociologist and a person, I can definitely see that there are some areas in my life that I have grown. I have learned to speak less and listen more. From the first couple days of my homestay, I enjoyed sharing with my host family every single detail that has happened to me. As enjoyable as that was, I found that by taking a step back and observing my host family at dinner in all Japanese was much more comfortable with them, therefore making my experience more immersive. It’s not about me; it’s about letting my host family function as normal while I try and fit in. I found that skill has been very helpful at the workplace as well. By putting aside my convictions and thoughts, I am able to run much more smoothly with people at Second Harvest. Letting them lead, instead of trying to lead.

Something I would like to work on would be to examine Japanese issues without the bias of being an American. I found myself constantly comparing the two, always sizing each aspect of it up and trying to decide what is better. Instead of trying to make it a competition, I want to be able to just take in my surroundings and look at it as is. I know that will be difficult to do, but that would be my goal to work towards for the next portion of my trip. Another goal I had professionally would be to talk to my supervisors more and find out more about food insecurity, homelessness, and single mothers and see what else I can learn. Personally, I would like to eat as much matcha ice cream and spend as much time with my host family as I can before I leave. My host family has been incredible, and make each and every day worth it for me.

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Lost in Tra(i)nsit

Today’s post is a bit different: More pictures, less words. Let’s go!

pictured below: the bane of my existence while in Japan

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One thing’s for sure: I am a complete pleb when it comes to public transit. I miss my car. I abhor walking long distances. The heat and humidity?

it's a no from me

And above it all, I’m one of the most directionally challenged you will ever meet. So here I am, frantically walking from station to station with Google Maps open and a look on my face that says “I’m desperately trying not to panic.”

lost flamingo

This week has been filled to the brim with hilarious, cringe-worthy stories along with cultural experiences. I hope that you will enjoy these more than I did when I was trying to find my way.

Monday: It was my day off, and I thought it would be a nice idea to meet up with my long time friend Rio in Shinjuku for shabu-shabu and drinks.

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So after a very filling dinner, it was getting late (close to 11pm) and I wanted to return home before the last train (which was after midnight). I typically ride the Chuo-Sobu line home to Nishifunabashi, which is towards Chiba. When I sat down in my seat, I automatically assumed that all I had to do was sit on my phone for about an hour. So with a mere 14% of battery on my phone, that’s what I did. Until I heard “Shinjuku” from the intercom, again. How was this possible? I had been sitting on the train for about 20 minutes, yet I’m right where I started again; something was seriously wrong. But in my panicked-ness, I stayed on the train and hoped it would get better. It did not. The train suddenly became an express train to Toyoda, which was even farther away from my home than I was in Shinjuku. And because it was an express train, it skipped stops to drop me off in Nakano, at 12:15 am. Now I’m really starting to panic; if I didn’t find a train home soon then I would be stranded, and taxi rides are essentially an arm and a leg.

12:45 am: After frantically trying to find another platform that was on the same line, I made it to one that took me to Tokyo. But unfortunately, the train stopped there and did not continue past that stop…using my broken Japanese that was worse than a toddler’s, I pleaded a train official to give me advice. He told me my last chance was to transfer to the Yamanote line and get to Akihabara, which was close to where I worked. With 1% left on my battery, I was on my way….to something hopefully.

1:05 am: Arriving at Akihabara, I knew I needed to get in contact with SOMEONE. I ran to the closest 7/11 store to buy a battery charger and withdrew some money (I had maybe 1000 JPY on me, which is the equivalent to $10). I looked up the price of a taxi home: 10,000 JPY ($100). That one was a no. How about walking?

walk home

Ohhhhkay. Maybe not.

1:30 am: Rio told me I could stay with him in Mitaka, which is about a 10-minute taxi ride away.

snap of taxi

2:00 am: Good thing work begins at 9! Had to text another intern to bring me a change of clothing so that last night’s clothing was not what I was wearing to go to work.

Wednesday: Nothing bad happened! But here’s some fun pictures from the Kanda Shrine and other places that I found:

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Ramen: Cheap, delicious, filling.

 

On the left was a shrine of the God Ebisu, one of the Seven Lucky Gods (shichifukujin) in Japan. He is the only one of the seven who is completely from Japanese folklore and without outside influences of China and India.

I also visited a badass weapons shop!
Pictured: Me wearing a budget outfit from a second-hand store (full outfit was less than 1000 JPY!) standing next to a sword that was not for sale.

Thursday: Museum day! I went to Ichikawa to explore their Museum of Science and Industry.

I also found a nice little shopping mall, so of course I got some ice cream. Royal milk tea and matcha were so oishii!

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Friday: Friends canceling plans led me to explore Akihabara area a bit more myself. I discovered the Don Quijote in the area and took a quick look, noting the Maid Cafe that was inside. don quijote

Saturday: Maid Cafe, I have no other words.

Sunday: 

My first traditional matsuri (festival)! In the middle were taiko drummers and music while people circled around and danced. It looked so fun that I had to jump in!

Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you enjoyed this post! Until next Sunday 🙂

Single Mothers and Second Harvest

Work

This week, in particular, I was focused on taking care of pantry duties. This required me to really hone in on my organizational duties. This week many donations came, so one of my main jobs was to weigh the boxes for documentation, open the boxes, and sort the goods into boxes such as these:

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The boxes will be labeled either drinks, snacks, canned goods, noodles, ready made, and close to expiration date. Organizing in the pantry consists of non-perishables that are organized into either red baskets or orange baskets depending on family size, as mentioned earlier. On days with pick-up, we take the goods and arrange them in baskets for those with 3 or fewer in their family, red for 4 or more in their family, and pink for those who cannot have pork/beef. Second Harvest has recently opened up more days for Summer pick-up, and now people can come on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. For those who cannot make the pickup days due to work, travel expenses (public transportation is very expensive in Tokyo), health reasons, and any other reasons, we package non-perishables to be shipped out to them.

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Me and the other interns posing with our baskets that we prepared! In the back, are the boxes we ship out.

I have multiple different supervisors on-site:
1) Nishioka-san, who oversees all of my work
2)Yamazaki-san, who oversees the majority of pantry duties and pick-up duties
3) Sugiyama-san, who is part time pantry
4) Takeda-san, who is head of kitchen duties

On Tuesday, I was chatting with Sugiyama-san about homelessness and single mothers. She told me that over 80% of single mothers are working, yet over 50% of them are under the poverty line in Japan. She also mentioned that because wages are so low for single mothers (due to their inflexible schedules with children), they also must work multiple jobs at a time to support their families. According to Japan Times, the average part-time job salary only comes to 35% of the average full-time job salary. This makes more sense as to why so many single mothers have to work multiple jobs. I asked her why there were single mothers, and she told me she would have to get back to me on that.

Because I worked my internship at PATH Homelessness Services, Sugiyama-san invited me to go to their homeless outreach next Saturday instead of doing pantry work. I am very excited for that because I think this will give me another perspective on homelessness and its “invisibility” here in Japan.

Culture

Omotenashi and Gender-roles:

This week, while watching the news, I saw a woman who seemed as though she was under a lot of criticism. I asked my host mom who she was. Apparently, she is a government official nicknamed the “Pink Monster” because of her history of yelling at her employees. One of her employees recorded her and sent the recording to a news station. As scary as the recording sounded, I felt as though “Pink Monster” was a very sexist name. I get the feeling that if she was a man that there would not be a name at all. The next segment of the news consisted of a panel of men discussing whether having women in Japanese parliament was “even worth it if they were going to be so disrespectful.” My host mother seemed unhappy with the segment, but my host father seemed more approving.

This experience makes me feel as though women are required to be extra careful with the way they present themselves in public, or otherwise be labeled something negatively. I have noticed that women in the service sector, in particular, are the most polite, perform the most bows, and act the “cutest.” It does feel as though that women are expected to be much more versed in their omotenashi, and that image is especially critical of women.

I feel as though gender and kawaii culture are interlaced; in order to be feminine, it must be incredibly reinforced in many ways. In Harajuku especially, everything pink and flowery is inevitably for girls and very kawaii.

 

 

My 5 words of Japanese that I learned:
1) Kyo-wa: today
2) beta-beta: sticky
3) itai: it hurts
4) hayakun: hurry up
5) otskaresamadeshta: thank you for your hard work!

This week, I went to the Yatsuda Rose Garden with my host mom, and ate Monjyayaki (fried cheese) and Yakisoba (fried noodles):

Side note: I would like to appreciate how gracious and kind my host mother has been, she honestly has made this trip so worth it for me and makes it so fun.

Thanks for tuning in!! Next Sunday it is 🙂

Don’t worry, I got this–Gender and the Workplace

Work

This week’s adventures was filled with more food, more cutting, more lifting, more Japanese, and more hands-on experience than I ever thought I would have. My previous scheduling listed me to have an office work day (Tuesdays), but instead, it has been replaced with more pantry work. Now that I had almost 2 weeks of work under my belt, this is what my schedule looks like now:

Tuesday: Pantry work/pickup prep
Wednesday: Pantry work/pickup prep
Friday: Kitchen/Pantry work (switch off by week)
Saturday: Either in Akihabara or Saitama for pickup

The type of people we serve at Second Harvest are those who are typically low-income. My supervisor described homelessness in Japan as “invisible, but still there.” Most who come are single mothers or low-income families. What is interesting to me is that most of the time, you would not be able to tell that the individuals who walk in need the assistance. The first pick-up without paperwork is strictly no questions asked. After the first pick-up, people are asked to go to the government to receive a letter of recommendation in order to receive more assistance.

Pantry duties mostly consist of unboxing food that was delivered to us from companies, grocery stores, private vendors, and other donations, and then to sort them into large boxes that we store in the pantry. These products will be stored until we ship them out for delivery or for the kitchen to use. We sort the food by expiration date and by type; Second Harvest is very careful to never serve or deliver food that is past the expiration date.

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Pantry days are for preparing for people to come and pick up food. Which occurs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. After sorting food, we will take the sorted products and place them into baskets: Orange for families of  3 or smaller, red for families of 4 or more, and pink for families with specific allergies or religious dietary restrictions. Before people come to pick up, we have to count the number of fresh produce (vegetables, fruits, bread, eggs), determine how many each household can have (based on family size), and set up. As mentioned previously, kitchen duties are mostly to cut and prepare vegetables to be made into bento boxes for school children and families in need.

All of this work requires a lot of physical exertion; lifting, sorting, packing, handling refrigerated foods, etc. As mentioned in my previous blog, I am fully capable of picking up heavy boxes and carrying them to a truck. It’s really not that hard for me. Last week, I thought because they were unfamiliar with me that they were afraid I could not lift things. But repeatedly, they took boxes off my hands, refused help with very heavy boxes that clearly needed two people to carry, and said “Daijobun” (I’m fine, I’m okay) when I offered help. I also noticed that in a field that is heavily dominated by women, that men are still the considered the most important component of an operation.

Culture

These specific experiences make me wonder what feminism means in countries that have collectivist cultures. Because the United States is a very individualistic country, I feel as though women are more exposed to the idea of “doing it yourself,” whereas perhaps in Japan, a more collectivist country, women are usually prone to asking for more help. I wonder if feminism in a country such as Japan takes on a different form? I hope that this question can be answered as I spend more time here!

The collectivism here may be correlated with the idea of omotenashi– which I touched on earlier as the art of hospitality and anticipating someone’s needs. Always being aware of what other people are doing, and making sure that you are not in someone’s way. I noticed that cars almost never use their horns. After asking my host mom why that is, she stated: “It is better to wait for an extra few seconds than to disturb or scare someone while driving.” This surprised me, because, with road rage deaths on the rise in the United States, this takes a completely different approach to even menial tasks such as driving.

My cultural experiences this week include eating conveyor belt sushi for the first time. As you sit at your table, food comes around and all you have to do is take it off the conveyor belt! How easy is that?!

conveyor belt sushi

I also visited my very first shrine and festival which featured good food, music and the shrine itself:

I guess you could say that I’m eating pretty good over here.

Top 5 Vocab Words of the Week:
Sugoi- amazing
Oishii- delicious
Tanoshi/Tanoshikata- Fun, That was so fun
Ippai- full
Omoshiroi- how interesting

Until next Sunday!

How to Get Lost in Tokyo

It has been an eventful first week in Japan. First, I learned that I do not actually live in Tokyo. I live in Chiba, specifically Funabashi, which is a city outside of Tokyo. This is important because my commute to my internship is particularly long, with much room for error.

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This route excludes walking from my host family’s apartment to the station and the walk after arriving, making my commute up to an hour at times. 

Public transportation is very important in Tokyo, because few people actually own a car. The trains are also incredibly on time, which is a big change for me from the Metra in Chicago. Rush hour is also real; like your face pressed up against the glass real.

rush hour
Not my photo, but many of my commutes back to my homestay look like this. 

My internship schedule looks like this:
Tuesday: Office Work
Wednesday: Pantry Duties
Friday: Pantry Duties
Saturday: At Saitama site to distribute food
(I’ll talk more about me getting lost later on this post)

Friday was my first real day. With nerves high and very little directions in English, I watched and learned.

In total, I probably peeled, cut, and sliced about 300 onions, daikons, beets, seaweed, eggplants, and so on. The food is donated from grocery stores, private vendors, and other companies when the food may be deformed or close to the expiration date. What Second Harvest does (at least on Wednesdays and Fridays) is prepare the food for middle school children and single parent households, along with anyone else in need.

I found it quite difficult to follow directions, mostly because they were all in Japanese. I had to rely on body language and a lot of pointing to understand what was happening, how to cut, how to peel, which way to put items. But after about 4-5 hours in, I found my rhythm of pointing and saying “nanisore?” (what is that?) or “wakaranai” (I don’t understand), or any other small phrases I knew.

After we finished preparation of food, our next job was to package foods that were close to their expiration dates and load them into a large fridge. The boxes could get quite heavy, as they were close to 50 lbs sometimes. However, that wasn’t an issue for me at all, as I am very strong. The staff had a difficult time understanding that. An older man was extremely concerned about me picking heavy boxes up, and insisted on taking them off my hands even though the way he picked the boxes up made me cringe for his back. Obviously, I understand that the man was worried for me, but he paid no attention to the other man who was helping pack boxes into the fridge.

I think if I had to rank my top five most used phrases during my first week in Japan would be:
1. Tsumimasen (excuse me)
2. Sugoi (amazing, great)
3. Arigato-gozaimasu (thank you very much)
4. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Please take care of me)
5. Hai (yes, I hear you, okay)

Something that I noticed was that even in the most remedial jobs, Japanese workers always do their best, always try their hardest, and always do their job so graciously. This phenomena is called Omotenashi– the Japanese art of hospiality. This often has to do with anticipating the needs of others and fulfilling them to the best of your abilities. This is also being very aware of your surroundings and what other people are doing around you. It is very draining for me, but it also highlights how self-centered Western culture tends to be. I view it as efficient, but I could see how it is often viewed as selfish.

This week I also visited Harajuku (fashion district and birthplace of kawaii) The streets are filled with girls in sky high platform wedges, dyed hair, expensive makeup, and crazy style. I remember seeing a few cosplayers along with cats on people’s shoulders. It was an amazing(ly expensive) experience, as I bought one too many items.

Story time***

On my commute to Saitama for my Saturday duties in the warehouse, I departed at 7am. This was because the schedule said 9am at Saitama. So for my hour and fifteen minute commute, I had a 45 minute buffer in case I got lost. I was supposed to get on the Orange (Musashino) Line, and went the wrong way. I had to get off at the next stop and hop on the train going the correct way. Then I had to transfer lines to get on the Tsukuba express line, only to accidentally get on an express train (which skips stops) that skipped my stop! I had to get off yet again and board the opposite platform to go backwards on a local line (which stops at every stop). I finally reach my stop, and was on my way for a 20 minute walk to the warehouse. I end up walking the complete wrong way for about 15 minutes, had to turn around, and made my walk 35 minutes. I arrive, “late” at 10:00. I rehearsed my apology the entire commute there. Turns out, my supervisor changed the meeting time to 1:00.

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Moral of the story? If you’re directionally challenged like me, going TOO early is never actually a thing. (Also, getting Wi-Fi is essential). Thanks for tuning into my first week’s post, see you next time!