Friday, February 28, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Thinking About the Trip as a Whole

This was not my first time to Japan--I can't believe it is my fifth trip in five years--but it was my first trip to certain spots, my first trip with guides, and my first trip with students.  So, what did I learn along the way?

Once again, I learned the kids are alright.  Lots of folks complain about the next generation, but I
found them to be sharp, sweet, engaging, fun, dynamic, engaged, and excellent roadtrip partners.  They picked up on the fact that they were essentially tools of an information operations campaign (see below).  They noticed key omissions in the various presentations as well.  I got to hang out with mostly MA students from Carleton, U of Ottawa, and U of Toronto over the course of the week, dragging a bunch of them to the best french toast in the world, and I got to see them become pseudo-family members with rural Japanese families.   Best part of the trip.

Once again, as well, I learned that the Japanese people I spent time with were generous and fun.  I got to hang out with a friend from previous trips as well as with the guides.  These folks were also sweet and fun and, well, tolerant of this westerner.  I learned much from the various conversations.

I learned that I am getting old.  I think I paid a higher price for jet lag, especially upon return to Canada, than previous trips.  I was able to keep up with the kids during the days, but, well, not during the nights.  I was not quite as eager to explore before breakfast or after dinner, although I managed from time to time.

The resilience of the Japanese cannot be underestimated. Our homestays were in Tome, near the part of the country that was devastated in March 2011 by the tsunami.  Little evidence remains besides yellow grass and one (at least as far as I know) memorial/museum.  I didn't get a chance to visit it, but several of the students did.  Their pictures and stories were most moving.

As always, Japan has style.  Everywhere we went, we found beautiful gardens, shrines, restaurants, dishes of food, etc.  I had never gone north before, and the train ride was terrific  I regret, once again, not having time to ski.  I really enjoyed walking around Matsushima, as the locals had built shrines and bridges that complimented nicely the islands and the bay.

The Japanese do public diplomacy very, very well.  The students and host families were handpicked.  The students at Tohoku University were excellent ambassadors.  We had great guides and mostly got to see the key spots (some Canadian-imposed restrictions in the age of plague cut down on some of the stuff we could see as a group--the students found most of that stuff independently).   The students were required to post on social media their experiences, and the groups had to come up with action plans for sharing what they learned.  I will write another day about being a tool of an information operation, but for now, let me just say that it was a pleasure.

One of the key moments during the trip was an early briefing by a Japanese academic about the state of play--politics, history, culture.  It was a lot in a short time, and much was sped through or overlooked, but as hinted above, the students noticed some key elements.  The aging of Japanese society is a major challenge, and the policy tools being applied are, well, limited.  More day care and other benefits to encourage more babies, but that seems to be as ineffective here as elsewhere.  And, no, no mention of immigration as a solution.  The students picked up on that.

I learned that the 1940 Olympic games were supposed to be in Tokyo but were cancelled.  The other games in Japan, especially 1964, meant a great deal for Japan's sense of self.  So, I worry about what the coronavirus might do to this summer's games.

Yeah, it was strange to be called sensei, but, yes, I loved it.  Almost as good as the french toast at Hoshinos (next time, I will watch the Shibuya scramble intersection from their well-placed location).  Not sure they really needed a chaperone, except to fill out a bit of time at the Canadian embassy and to keep Air Canada from shutting the gate on the way home in Toronto.

It is hard to believe that I had no Japan experience until 2016, and this was my fifth trip sense then.  The place is very addictive, and I can't wait to come back and see more of the country.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Day 8: History and then Home

Since we had an evening flight, we had time to do some last minute tourism.  We toured the Edo Museum which documents the history of Tokyo and then went to the Akasaka guest palace before going to the airport.  I had been to both before, but could not see much of the latter at the time since it was closed due to visiting dignitary.

Semi-Sensei, Day 7: Penultimate Day--Gardens, Olympics, an Accidental Shrine Visit, and a Dash of Tourism

I have been slow to post as our last days were busy and then I have been jetlagged while I catch up on my day job.  Still, our last few days were fun and interesting, so I thought I would have four last posts--day7, day 8, some reflections, and then some thoughts on being a tool of info operation campaign.  They should dribble out over the week as I travel to Calgary and then ski in the Banff area.  Yeah, it is a tough job, but someone has got to do it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Day 6: Goodbye Sendai, Hello Final Tokyo Lap

We said goodbye to Kato-san (centre),
who did a great job of organizing the
Sendai/Tome parts of the trip
Yesterday was a day for transitions, adaptation, and reporting.  We left Sendai by shinkasen (bullet train) and had great views along the way (ski hills!).  On arrival, we navigated the Tokyo train station and grabbed a buffet lunch.  The next stop was ... the Canadian embassy.  This was a change to the itinerary, where there had been a blank spot.  It kind of remained a blank spot since the Embassy was consumed with handling the Canadian coronavirus patients on the Love Boat (the Princess ship that had been offshore for weeks). 

The Embassy is prettier than I thought because they showed us the garden on the main floor (I had walked by it in my previous visits, not through it).  They needed someone to talk for ten minutes ... and so their investment in my trip finally paid off since I am a professional talker.  I spoke about my research on Japan's defense politics.  They didn't fall asleep and I got good questions (the students from all three schools--Toronto, Carleton, Ottawa) are all super sharp.   So, it was a strange moment, but it worked out.

The embassy overlooks a secondary imperial palace/gardens

We then went back to our original hotel for reports.  Each group had to report:
  1. What had they expected before they got here?
  2. What did they learn?
  3. What is their plan for sharing what they have learned when they get back home.
Each group did an excellent job as they all had time yesterday (pre-French Toast expedition) to figure out what they were going to say and start drafting slides:

The East Asia Studies folks from UoT

Toronto's Munk school

U of Ottawa's presentation

Carleton's presentaiton

The CU folks really got the Japanese

Each group has a dissemination plan

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs rep
is a NPSIA grad!

I realized in Tome that the Kakehashi folks do a great job of selecting host families as each student reported their interactions with the very kind, generous, sweet, and engaging families.  Well, the Kakehashi folks in Canada did their jobs so very well, too, as the students on this trip are simply terrific.  I have not gotten to interact with as many of the Toronto students because they have been on a separate bus and have often been elsewhere, but I really enjoyed chatting with them.  I have spent far more time with the CU and UoO students, and the chats have been all over the place, including, last night, marriage as a guy asked me when/how did I know Girlfriend Spew would be Mrs. Spew. 

These are smart people with lots of curiosity and big hearts.  People keep trashing the next generation (every generation does it), but I have to say the future is mighty bright. 

The winners for the best social media stuff (non-prof edition)
Anyhow, after the reporting, there was some awarding of certificates and recognition of the best social media coverage of the trip (no, I didn't qualify apparent!). I did mention to the students that they are clearly a tool in Japan's information operations campaign, given the requirements for them to disseminate what they have learned.  The students were way ahead of me on this... yes, they got it. 

Dinner was at a buffet in a mall restaurant overlooking the bay.  I got my shopping done quickly (kit-kats of various flavors and something for the aforementioned Mrs.).  The students went off to Shinjuku and Shibuya since this was one of their last chances to do that and to experience the bar/club/etc scene.  From this morning's instagrams, they clearly made it and didn't have to deal with huge crowds.  I am pretty sure the Japanese are avoiding crowds in this time of cholera corona virus.

Today, we have a variety of tours and tourism including gardens and then one last night here.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Day 5: Moving On From Home Stays to Shrines and French Toast

Yesterday started with goodbyes, moved onto sites, then the best tastes, and finally some really bad singing (with an exception or two).  The homestays ended with a ceremony and with many great stories and some terrific newly forged connections.  I was most jealous as the students had great experiences.  Some got to do an onsen, and others got to see the museum/memorial dedicated to the victims of the 3/11 tsunami.  All got much food, a fair amount of sake, and memories of super-sweet Japanese families.  Oh and the two groups sang Canadian songs to share their feelings (this was assigned by the organizers, the groups chose the songs).

A home stay parent can compete with
Stephanie Carvin!

Last interactions between host and hosted

Hosted and hosted, bridges built indeed (Kakehashi=bridges)

I am a big fan of our guides who have had great spirit as
well as being informative.

Better singing at the ceremony than later at the karaoke bar.  U of Ottawa went first and then Carleton.  And by the way, I went from knowing clearly which students went to which school to having no idea--a good thing, I think, as other bridges have been built.  The U of Toronto students who went in a different direction on homestays are less familiar to me (separate bus and some different activities), but I have enjoyed chatting with as many of them as I can.  I can say for sure that Kakehashi folks did a great job on both sides of the Pacific, choosing participants--the hosted and the hosts.

From there, we took a bus to Matsushima, which not only had a spectacular shrine complex (one of the most striking of all that I have seen in my visits to Japan) but a setting by the sea that is terrific.  Started with a good lunch in a great delivery system:

Three layers!

A guide for the shrine with our two guides:
Yuki and Kato
Now this is a zen garden

gate to shrine

A shrine on an island close to land displays
its exhibits every thirty three years.

The area

Rainbow bridge to another island
Map of the Rainbow bridge island

View from the island

Some perspective sauce here.
Then onto Sendai for working on their report to the government and then finally getting the golden ... french toast---best in my experience.

Team Uof O to the left, Team Carleton to the right, and
I am stuck in the middle (after I took the pic)

If I knew how to do it, I would put worshipful music right here.
The best French Toast ever--every time I come to Japan.
Fluffy, sweet goodness.

Three of the thirteen students I dragged here (well, I paid).
My table was suitably impressed.

Nadia was most happy to receive this dish of greatness.

Dinner later involved many, many dishes at an izakaya. 
I have had much fun hanging with these folks.

Even if they make me sing.
Our plans for the next few days are changing--to avoid crowds to reduce the risk of catching corona.  This is unfortunate as many of the cool places in Tokyo happen to be crowded.  I am hoping they get some free time to see some of this stuff. 

Anyhow, this has been a great experience, and these folks have hardly needed a chaperone.  But, yes, I do like being called Sensei. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Day 4: Home stays and Tome

I had been wondering what I would be doing when the students were doing home stays.  Today, I found out: a bit of police patrol and also some fire alarm.  Huh?  That I was involved in some oversight efforts and served as a semi-quick reaction force if needed.  This morning, our guides (Yuki and Kato) and I went to three homes to see how the three families and three sets of students were doing. I was also available (and remain so) if anyone needs help (which is a bit frustrating since the ski mountains nearby are calling to me).  After the homestays, we had lunch (where we bumped into two sets of students/hosts and saw a third combo) and then walked around Tome, a small town amid the farms, and saw another set of students.  We only missed one set in purposeful and accidental oversight.  So, below are pics and captions explaining what I saw.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Semi-Sensei, Day 3: Sendai and Tome

Most of today was spent exchanging with the students of Tohoku University.  It was a very enjoyable day as the Ottawa/Carleton/Toronto students got to hang out with Tohoku students who are headed to Canada next month. 

First, we got briefed about Tohoku University, and then each group of Canadian students briefed the Japanese students about their schools.  I was most impressed by all of the presentations--their students were sharp, and so were ours.
Notice the typo?
Toronto undergrads

Our guides and a tea house in the international student centre
Each group was split into seven, so that seven new groups were formed with two Tohoku tour guides and a couple of students from each Canadian university.  I was assigned to hang out with group one.  We got a tour of campus and we peppered our guides with questions and... it snowed.  Sorry, we brought winter with us.

Group 1 rocked mightily
 After the tour and lunch, the seven groups went through five of seven stations, each presenting a different element of Japanese culture:  origami, castles, festivals/dialects, convenience goods, toilets (yep!), tea/flower arranging,  and food.  The guys teaching origami were so good, I was able to make this:
Twas a minor miracle, given how bad I am at all artistic endeavors.

My fave was the personal convenience table, as we learned about some cool pens, smarter ringed binders, and more.  These two students were terrific at presenting all these smart things that should exist in North America.  However, my enthusiasm wanted when they demonstrated a paper stapler--that essentially rips the paper and folds it back to staple a few pages.  Better than the way students do it by hand but inferior to other fastening technologies.

The toilet table was a bit hit.  This graph shows the expansion of spray seats (bidet-ish devices built into the toilet seats) in Japan, now at 80% or so.

We then had a closing ceremony where I had to speechify as the, um, sensei.  After that, we had an hour drive to Tome, a rural town where the kids would be staying in the homes of Japanese families. Nervous at first, the smiles grew quickly as the students met their hosts.  

For me and the guides, we went off to a nearby hotel.  We grabbed dinner which included this really cool carafe of sake.  Yum.

And yeah, I couldn't resist taking a pic of sunset.

 Another great today in Japan.  Great food, many insights were exchanged, and, some tasty sake.