Japan. The home of sushi, weird game shows, anime, cosplay, samurai, gacha machines, pop idol groups, and really good public transportation. At least, as someone who has never been there, that is what comes to mind first when thinking of "Japan." Despite the fact that it's on the opposite side of the world, it seems like Japanese pop culture has had a huge influence over here in America.
As an American myself, I think we often take for granted the amount of influence—both good and bad—that American pop culture has on the rest of the world. We subconsciously expect foreigners who visit the country to be able to speak some English, or to be familiar with some of Hollywood's most famous movies or shows, or to have listened to some of our most popular music. But in terms of current worldwide influence on pop culture, I would argue that Japan could make a good case for second place.
A new emotion
Sometimes, as I watch an anime depicting a charming romance, or a memorable day at a summer festival or school event, with characters enjoying their youthful high-school lives to the fullest, it makes me wish my high school days had something similar. It makes me feel a new emotion, nostalgia for something that never happened, regret over a choice that I had never had the option to make. It would not surprise me if many non-Americans feel something similar when watching Hollywood flicks depicting the idyllic American Dream.
I understand on a conscious level that these shows are no more accurate to real Japanese society than a Hollywood blockbuster would be to my own American life. And yet, I am still drawn to that concept they portray. Not out of obsession, but out of a nagging curiosity to see what it really is like over there. What I would feel like over there.
However, there is a fundamental difference between me and almost everyone who lives in Japan, and even with almost everyone who visits the place.
Alone in a supercity
With a population of over 37 million, Tokyo is considered to be, depending on your metrics, the biggest city in the world. It's a bustling urban area stretching as far as the eye can see, with everything you could possibly need just a subway ride away. And yet, as a Jew who observes Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and keeps kosher (Jewish ritual dietary restrictions), Tokyo is in many ways one of the most remote places I will ever visit.
Judaism is a very community-focused religion, and living a traditional Jewish lifestyle requires a great deal of infrastructure. Prayer is done in a quorum. There needs to be a supply of kosher foods, either from kosher butcheries, or from the dozens of kashrut agencies in the U.S. which certify a large fraction of supermarket products. Since vehicles are prohibited on Shabbat, Jews who observe Shabbat in this way are usually reliant on tight-knit communities that are all within walking distance. Jewish children rely on Jewish schools to receive a Jewish education.
Tokyo has none of these things.
Kosher food products will be difficult to find, except for in special international supermarkets at a high price. I will need to make most meals from scratch myself. There are a grand total of three Jewish prayer spaces in the entire city, each of which is a 4-hour walk away from my apartment. I will likely need to pray alone the vast majority of the time.
In other words, when it comes to my religious lifestyle, there are times where the most remote small town in America would better support me. In the world's largest metropolis, I would sometimes need to behave as if I were in the middle of nowhere.
So, what's the point?
The point is, as I get closer and closer to the program's start date, I feel a wide range of emotions. I feel giddy at the thought of exploring a new dream-like place, meeting my Japanese online friends, and meeting new people on the program. I feel scared of the time when my illusion of this country will shatter, and the times I will feel all alone. But all of these emotions do nothing but excite me.
The thought of a new place excites me. The thought of new emotions excites me. The thought of being myself in a place where it will be hard to do so excites me. There is only one way for sure I'll know what it's like for me to be there—and that's to just go there and figure it out for myself.
For this summer alone, break can't end fast enough.
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Hey, my name is Zev. I'm a current senior at Brandeis University from Oakland, California. This fall, I'll be spending a semester in Japan! I love drawing, playing games, web development, skiing, singing, and learning languages.