Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mamatomos Unite!

Just yesterday in the Japan Times I read yet another article on the perceived “low relational mobility” of the Japanese, or their limited willingness to develop new, authentic friendships, especially with foreigners. Truthfully, prior to my departure I didn’t have any preconceived notions about creating meaningful relationships in Japan. I didn’t concentrate on the idea of forming close friendships with Japanese people. At 41, why would I even need new friends?

Based on my experiences in Tokyo, low relational mobility couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, I am cognizant that I am a foreigner and as a result, I am the “other,” but through my academic work and my children, I have developed some deep and rewarding friendships that will last a lifetime. Perhaps it’s the trials of toddlerhood that bring vulnerable mothers together regardless of race or ethnicity, or it could be the bond some of us share as working mothers trying to find the elusive “balance.” Whatever it is that brought us together, I value the authentic friendships that I have formed with women in Tokyo. My mamatomos (a hybrid for Mother-Tomodachi) have hosted dinner parties on my behalf, researched and guided my family’s in-country travel destinations, had coffee and tea with my mother, and even assessed my kimono and obi (heaven forbid I didn’t have the socially acceptable kimono fit for a professor). Overall, I cherish the gift of friendship that these women have given me over the last 8 months and I will be heartbroken to leave them when we return to the US.    

Sakura season is breathtaking but painfully short, as it lasts only 7 to 10 days.

In this blog post, I want to acknowledge Fulbright Scholar Dr. Seth Feinberg, who offered invaluable survival strategies leading up to my family’s departure for Tokyo. From residency cards to national parks to lesson plans, Seth was instrumental in helping me navigate this experience. His wife Kelly’s customized pin drop map was genius, and likely saved me many hours of exasperation looking for a grocery store!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tsuda College Rituals Bring Meaning to Entrance Exams

As a higher education researcher, my eyes are always peeled for ways in which institutional culture supports student growth and development. Tsuda College rituals and mores are giving me great insight into these practices in Japan. Over the last six months, I’ve noticed time-honored educational activities that embody collegiate life. For example, in Japan class schedules are organized by “periods,” much like the way United States secondary schools design their student schedules. Traditionally, students in Japan live with their parents while pursuing a full-time roster of courses leading to the baccalaureate. They often commute to campus by metro, whether they live 30 minutes or 2 hours away. Thus, most four-year institutes do not offer robust residential life programs for students in on-campus dormitories, and in fact, provide very limited housing options.

What has piqued my interest of late is my recent observation of nyūgaku shiken, or the standardized university entrance exam for incoming freshmen. In January I received official notification that Tsuda’s exam dates were slated for the first weekend in February. During this period, I was told the college campus was open only to test-takers and faculty. Furthermore, I was asked to remain completely silent while on school grounds. On the first day of exams, women queued up along the administration building to register for their chance to prove their intelligence and strength to Tsuda College. It was a compelling and inspirational site, as the severe weather presented another challenge for these anxious test-takers, who had one opportunity to pass this exam. I wanted to exclaim Gambatte! but held my tongue. Uneventfully, the weekend progressed, and I witnessed women come and go with beautifully wrapped bento boxes in hand (presumably for their lunch break). Then, on the final day of testing, as I ambled across the lawn, I saw parents arranged in a semi-circle near the main entrance to campus. Mothers and fathers smiled cheerfully and took photos as their daughters exited the various buildings. Test-takers, many of whom were crying, received warm embraces at the conclusion of this significant milestone. The whole scene gave me (and still gives me) chills. Had I not been walking at that hour, I would have missed this meaningful exchange, which captured years of hard work, commitment, and dedication on the part of students and their families. 

Tsuda College Undergraduates

In this post I would like to express my deep gratitude for the exceptional Tsuda College chefs, who work faithfully to please students, faculty, staff, and guests. Tanaka-san and Takiino-san lovingly prepare and present dozens of four-course meals daily. My sincerest thanks to these culinary experts who make life a little easier for those of us who enjoy dining on campus.

Celebrating Daruma, a Buddhist tradition bringing good luck to the Japanese

Friday, November 14, 2014

Women in Higher Education in Japan

Research on Women in Higher Education

Regardless of academic pedigree and professional desires in Japan, many women leave the workforce after marriage or the birth of their first child, a trend that piqued my interest in: (1) the factors underlying women’s drop in labor participation and (2) the role of higher education in ameliorating this gender gap in the workforce.

To examine these issues, I am pursuing a qualitative research project that explores female students’ educational experiences juxtaposed against their personal and professional aspirations – essentially, I am trying to get at what institutions of higher education in Japan can do to bolster women’s advancement in the workforce. As the voices of women are critical to my understanding, I’m conducting 15 two-hour, face-to-face interview sessions with Japanese female college students this fall in Tokyo (in cafes, libraries, dining halls, etc.).
Kichijoji Flower Stand

What I have learned from my first set of interviewees has been nothing short of enlightening, as they are acutely aware of what it takes for women to thrive in Japan. For example, one suggestion – which maps to a larger goal of increasing the enrollment rate of women in prestigious institutions – is to arm parents of daughters with information that de-stigmatizes empowerment. The idea is to improve tuition-paying parents’ understanding that attending world class institutions does not lower their daughters' marriage marketability, or potential for a successful and committed romantic partnership. This single recommendation was like an academic spider-web, leading me to explore issues of family identity in Japan and an underlying parental fear of daughters becoming “too educated” and “too intelligent” for the societal competition to date and mate. Another suggestion included extending the senpai/kohai college relationship (that is of upper and lower class students) into the workforce, specifically encouraging female senpais to mentor younger women in the workplace. In this context, female protégés who are newly hired employees have a sounding board when they face on-the-job issues related to sex and gender. This was yet another insightful interview, after which I promptly researched the significance of senpai/kohai relationships in Japan.

It goes without saying that all of my conversations with students are changing how I act in the classroom. Japanese students have influenced my strategies, icebreakers, rapport, feedback, and overall demeanor. Moreover, my Fulbright faculty liaisons on each campus are playing a meaningful role in how I interpret and adapt to my surroundings. 

Fulbright Faculty Liaison: Dr. Yujin Yaguchi

My classes at the University of Tokyo (Todai) began in mid-October and it was no surprise that, like Professor Orui, my Todai Fulbright faculty liaison Dr. Yujin Yaguchi is kind and generous. Dr. Yaguchi is the department chair for global studies, the director of international admission, a prolific scholar, and an important advisory member on several university wide committees, yet on numerous occasions he has invited me to lunch to introduce me to my departmental colleagues and other foreign instructors and researchers. He also attended the Japan US Education Commission reception, and introduced me to several of his contemporaries. Dr. Yaguchi is a beloved adviser to Todai graduate students, and has commissioned several of them to help me acclimate. I am enjoying learning the customs and habits of my new work environment and Japanese society in general. 

Yaguchi Sensei, University of Tokyo

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Settling in to life in Tokyo

-->March 11, 2014 was an extraordinary day. This is the day that I received notice of my Fulbright award in Japan. I could not (and cannot) imagine a more significant professional triumph. Now, eight months later, the Fulbright has dramatically influenced my perspective and daily life. Here, I describe my family's early adventures settling in and my Tsuda College Fulbright faculty liaison, Professor Hisae Orui.
Popular shopping destination near Kichijoji Station.

Greeted by a friendly Japanese graduate student, my husband, children, and I arrived bright-eyed at the Tsuda College campus on August 5. Our restless bambinos – Julian and Coletta – had their fair share of disruption and transition, traveling from their grandparents’ seaside house in Los Angeles to airport accommodations in bustling Tokyo, all within 24 hours. From there, our family was transferred to temporary housing and then finally, permanent housing in Japan. But the struggle was worth the effort. We are now living about one hour from downtown Tokyo in a quaint pedestrian-friendly neighborhood equipped with everything we need as a family, including playgrounds and parks, grocery stores, restaurants, a post office, banks, and several stops along the Japan Railway. In an effort to learn more about the greater Tokyo metropolitan area - the largest city in the world - we have also explored Harajuku, Inokashira Zoo Park, Meiji Jingu, Port of Tokyo, Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo Tower, and Ueno Park.

Orui Sensei

--> Prior to our departure much of my initial contact was with my primary Fulbright faculty liaison, Professor Hisae Orui, a member of the English Department at Tsuda College. Gracious and smart, Orui-san has since served as our translator and go-to guru of settling in. Among many other things, Orui-san stocked our refrigerator with groceries, accompanied us to city hall, communicated with FedEx regarding our delayed shipment, and assisted me in enrolling my daughter Coletta in hoikuen (nursery school). She even commissioned a graduate student - Yuria - to help my family and me adjust to domestic life. Yuria visited our home before our arrival, photographed and examined all of our appliances, and then on tiny flash cards, typed in English how to use each Japanese contraption. She then returned to our house and taped the flashcards to the corresponding appliance, so we would not be confused. Undoubtedly these are duties well beyond those of any graduate student in Japan or the United States! Finally, Orui-san organized a one-hour meeting for me with Tsuda President Mari Kunieda, a scholar of women’s advancement in education. I was delighted and honored to have had valuable time with the president to discuss politics, research, and teaching at Tsuda College.
Initially, the move to Japan was all so overwhelming and my brain was in constant overdrive – the sounds, smells, and scenery of Tokyo amaze me. But my family and I are settling in now and enjoying our new day-to-day experiences, even ones as simple as greeting the bus driver every morning. For this, I feel a deep sense of peacefulness. I am so incredibly grateful for this experience, and look forward to all the stimulating adventures ahead.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Support Network of Family

The Fulbright award in Japan is a dream come true, and I am indebted to my grandparents and parents for consistently supporting my academic endeavors. In this photo, my grandparents join me in celebrating my Ph.D. in international education from the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. I keep this photo with me always as a reminder of who I am and who I strive to be for my own children. I am fortunate to have superb role models.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fulbright in Japan

Delighted and honored to have been selected for a Fulbright award in Japan, where I will teach at the University of Tokyo and Tsuda College. My Japanese colleagues have already proven themselves to be incredibly warm and generous, making my family's transition process as easy as possible. In fact, since receiving the award letter, we've been able to secure housing in Tokyo. This is all starting to feel very real - - and exciting!

Off to pack some more boxes!