The weather in Tokyo has left a lot to be desired. I deliberately picked July to take this trip because June is known as the rainy season…but it’s been downright dreary since I’ve been here. I officially bought an umbrella today so I do feel like a native Tokyoian (???).
On that note, I was thinking today at how in only 3 short days of being in Japan, I’m starting to figure things out a little. When you first step off the plane, you are assaulted by a barrage of crazy looking symbols and numbers. Once you spend some time around it, you start figuring things out like…
- That’s how much something costs
- Those are the hours something is open
- 4F means “Fourth Floor” of a building
- The yellow textured strips on the sidewalk are evacuation paths for when Godzilla attacks again
I’m pretty sure I’m right on all of those.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still FAR from understanding what the heck’s going on. Whenever you enter a store or approach someone, they start going into this long Japanese phrase. My basic move is to smile and do a slight bow (just a small one, not an “Obama to a Saudi king” bow). The only word that I can usually think of at the moment (and not 5 seconds after the point when it would have been handy is) is Arigatou gozaimasu (the last word sounds like “go-zi-mus” but the way they say sort of leaves off the “go”).
Fortunately, resteraunts have cool picture menus that let you just point to something if you want it. I sort of feel like a fool when I do it, but it’s better than saying the English word for it in a Japanese accent (which I catch myself doing WAY too much!)
Yūshūkan and Yasukuni Shrine
When planning my trip, the Yūshūkan and Yasukuni Shrine was one non-negotiable site to go visit. I thought that it was provide some very interesting information that I could use when putting together some good education information about World War II, the effect it had on the culture (and the effect the culture had on it), and this site certainly delivered.
The Yasukuni Shrine is a shrine to honor the Japanese soldiers who have ever died fighting for Japan. One main controversial aspect of this is that honors ALL of the dead, even the ones that most countries tend to leave off the “honorable” list. There are 1086 soldiers that were convicted of War Crimes after World War II and 14 “Class A” war criminals. The process by which war criminals are chosen and sentenced is a different story for a different time (short thought, can you trust the people that just beat you after a long a bloody war to hand out war criminal labels right after the fighting has stopped?).
It reminded me of the way some American issues as well…parts of history that we aren’t quite proud of and have trouble agreeing on how to deal with.
Yūshūkan is a museum within the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine. It a museum that talks about Japan’s military past, focusing on the past 150 years or so. This museum has also known its own bit of controversy, probably stemming from the group that runs this area, a group which can be a bit nationalistic.
The museum sadly doesn’t allow pictures in most of the exhibits – I would have loved to have taken pictures of some things, instead I took copious notes! There are a few places where photography is allowed, hence a few pictures.
I spent a few hours here and the main thing I found fascinating was the detailed leadup to Japan’s entrance into World War II (which they rarely actually refer to, the more often refer to it as the Great East Asia War – which says a lot about how they frame the war). One of the museum’s main contentions (which is quite controversial, inside and outside of Japan) is that peaceful little Japan was constantly put upon by its neighbors (Russia and China) and overseas meddlers (USA and Europe) and that everything that happened is their fault. Pearl Harbor is described only after a whole wall showing how the Allies made Japan bomb Pearl Harbor.
This nationalistic bent on history is evident in many areas of the museum and many of the notes I took will be good fodder for materials that demonstrate the difference in perspective of World War II.
One unexpected and though-provoking aspect of the museum were the last letters from soldiers who knew they were going die. Men writing to wives or parents all hoped they would be looked on with pride and proclaimed the greatness of the motherland. One of the stranger letters told his wife to mount his sword in the house and think of it as him. He should honor the sword and pass it down to later generations.
Science Museum Tokyo
This one was a little bit of a “mistake”, but one of the most charming sites and one that was very glad I got to visit. I thought I was going to the “National Museum of Nature and Science Tokyo” (I know, what a fool I was…obviously different name, especially in Japanese).
This museum was definitely a children’s museum, as opposed to other more “traditional” (i.e. deathly boring for children) museums. As such, it was full of hyper elementary school students, excited to be on a field trip the day before a three day weekend (I would be too!)
There were several exhibits scattered around. My favorite was a room all about simple machines. They had constructed an impressively large track that students (and teachers on overseas trips) had to use simple machines to guide a bowling ball through a track. It was very well done!
One unexpected “ah-ha” moment from visiting this museum was the notion that my experience with the exhibits (which were in almost all Japanese writing) must be similar to how some of my students feel when looking at things I do. Even though I pretty much knew what all of the exhibits were trying to show, it was still confusing to know exactly what was going on.
Also, I like the fact that they have spelled out some of the Kanji language so kids could understand it (there are multiple Japanese languages, often used in the same sentence – Kanji is the toughest one – each word has its own Kanji character (one if you are lucky that is!) Go here for a funny Kanji joke unless you are easily offended.
After all of that…
I had intentions to go to another area of Tokyo today, but at this point my body was strongly urging me to take a break. I checked my iPhone and it claims that in the past three days I have walked 35 miles. That, combined with the nasty weather, led me to decide (after a delicious meal where my chopsticks skills started to improve…) to lay low for the rest of the day.
I did head out at night to grab a quick bite to eat. As I was walking back, I head quite a commotion behind some buildings and went to take a look. They were having some sort of small festival with guys banging drums and ladies dressed up in kimonos and such. The whole thing was surrounded by food stands. I didn’t really know what was going on – but it was neat!
I’ve got a interesting set of things planned for tomorrow. I’m not sure how many of them I’ll get done since it is a Saturday of a three-day weekend (Monday is “Marine Day” – Japan literally just makes up holidays! In the fireworks museum, there was something to the effect of, “some countries wait for important dates to set off fireworks – WE DON’T! I like that!) but we’ll see.
I’ll leave you with a helpful guide some of you might want to print out and use for reference at home…this might actually be helpful in the high school bathroom stalls…
Step #1 would have saved me from some embarrassment in college!