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.