Learning Culture

Living in Kurume is a dynamic experience. My thoughts are constantly changing; what I write soon betrays my feelings. I want to share that with you.

At least my love for giant cats will never betray me.

It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to write a coherent post, so I have written this in two parts.


Part one- Anthropology and me

When I was an undergraduate, I studied anthropology. For those that are unfamiliar I’m going to give a quick breakdown of what anthropology is.

It’s about to get a little involved, so please feel free to skip down past the picture of Kurume if you just want my thoughts.


Anthropology is the study of human beings. That is a pretty broad scope considering that we humans do so many different things. What distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines that study humans (there are so many) is the holistic perspective it employs. That means that anthropologists study human phenomena considering everything about humans through a timescale that extends into both past and future.

This approach results in methods that focus on thoughtful interaction with others because thoughtful interaction, while laborious, is the best way to get the whole picture.

For example, an anthropologist who studies the spread of HIV in injection drug users will hang out with the users, watch them, and (in some cases, probably not this one) participate. These repeated shared experiences sum to a method called participant observation.

Additionally, s/he might also study the history of injection drug use in the region. This context is used to inform future methods of study like interviews and further participant observation.

All this comes together into a holistic picture of why and how people use injection drugs. This can aid in effective treatment and policy application.

This kind of applied and specific anthropology is newer. Historically, an anthropologist might write an ethnography, which is a study of the way that a group of people (often an ethnic group) lives. They do this by integrating into a group and sharing in everyday life.

The discipline is so much more than that, but that is a topic for another day.

That is the background I come from. Thus, I take a certain perspective coming to Kurume as an ALT in a public high school.

Kurume from the top! Went for a hike and found this.

One of my primary goals in Japan is to learn about Japanese culture. That is a very vague goal, but I want to achieve it through actively living in a Japanese community. It is not hard to agree that this is the best way.

It feels so hard to break into a group of people, to get to know them. I look on at the Japanese people commuting, shopping, and working, as a spectator. While so much here is familiar, while so many people here assume I can speak Japanese, it certainly feels foreign. The feeling of being a tourist remains as I trek around Kurume, making stops at cultural spots.

Narita-san, 62 meters tall!

I realize that I experienced the same thing in America. Whenever I go somewhere new and find new people, a certain barrier presents itself. Only through continued presence and interaction does this wall slowly break down.

Do anthropologists feel the same way when they go to a new site? Is time really all it takes to break down these barriers? Will I soon find myself wrapped up in life here, without time to ponder about what it means just to live?

These are questions I can’t avoid right now.

Will I be taken in with open arms?

I am uncomfortable characterizing entire peoples. This was, strangely, beat into me in my undergraduate studies. Anthropology, a discipline that seeks to characterize people, is incredibly afraid of misrepresenting people. That is paralyzing.

Can I learn about Japanese culture without misrepresenting real people, people that think and feel as much as me?

If I hold expectations that Japanese people are a certain way, what I do and do not notice about them will change. It is, however, impossible to rid myself of bias.

I refuse to be bamboozled.

I feel like I am asking more questions than I am getting answers. I’ve felt this way for a long time. Perhaps it has to do with how I understand what it means to know something.

I can tell you that in 2015, 305,552 people lived in Kurume. It says so on Wikipedia. That’s a nice way to think about it. But if you get deep into it, things become more vague. For starters, anyone can publish figures on Wikipedia, whether the figures are correct or not (to an extent).

Furthermore, these figures are not just known facts, they are more like estimates, based on assumptions about good ways to count people. A census, for example, is a way of getting to that 305,552 figure. I don’t, however, think we have to worry too much when we say that 305,552 people lived in Kurume in 2015.

What I find a little harder to accept are statements like “Japanese people are punctual”. It sure seems like the bus here is on time more often than COTA was (oh god COTA). At the same time, my train was late the other day and one of my coworkers was about an hour late last week. What am I noticing and what am I not?

This is why I am afraid to share thoughts, abstract things. Concrete things, however, are different. What is palpable, is what I see. What I hear, taste, feel. These things I can grasp. These things I can share.

What I see. At least when I’m at the park.

Part two- What I learn at school

I am beginning to think that I will be able to characterize Japanese culture. Culture changes, but it follows a thread. It is what is passed from generation to generation informing the future members of that culture how to live. Schools are a hub of cultural learning.

Recently, the students at my school have begun preparations for the upcoming Undoukai, which is a school-wide sports and activity festival. It celebrates the body. The students work incredibly hard to perform physical feats for their teachers, parents, and ultimately themselves.

The intensity of it is what throws me off. Every day for at least two hours each student practices. The practice often continues after school hours. Even during summer vacation.

In fact, I first heard these practice sessions from my desk. I was enlightened by recitation (it wasn’t quite singing) of an anthem clearly heard in the teacher’s room from the gymnasium a few hundred meters away.

That one thousand high school students orchestrate this themselves amazes me.

The teachers, who only serve as mentors and spotters (some of the human pyramids get pretty high), watch practice every day to support the students. Standing in the gymnasium and watching practice really gives me a feeling of understanding. It justifies anthropology and participant observation in my mind.

Students, not mine, stacked. My students (a little bigger) do this too.*

And club activities!

Even though I’ve only attended a few volleyball practices so far, the way these kids play amazes me. If anyone has watched or read Haikyuu!!, believe me when I say that the attitude and investment of the nine members of the boy’s volleyball club is not misrepresented.

I get the impression that many Japanese teens are wholly invested in what they do. This seems true for the adults too. I’m still trying to figure out if I should just say “osaki ni sitsureishimasu” and leave at (an hour past) my ending time, even when everyone else is still in the office.

These flowers outside school surely don’t look as good once the sun has set, hours after school.

I’m grateful for the position afforded me by the JET Program. I find that it allows me a quicker entrance into an authentic part of Kurume’s community. I can readily say that I am a teacher at a Japanese school. A Japanese teacher, not so much.

I’m looking forward to what I will learn.


This post was a long time coming. I’ve learned that through life in Kurume, at Meizen high school, I can learn culture. Whether what I learn is transferable or not remains undecided. I’ll leave you with something that I can say for certain.

I’m eating like a King!

Yes, that is ice cream inside melon-pan.

*Image source: http://www.shibatabread.com/2010/10/yes-shibatabread-is-japanese-podcast-13.html