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Traveling to the Country of Rising Sun: An Alien Planet on Earth!

By Lailufar Yasmin
Professor & Chairperson of University of Dhaka
June 29, 2023
The Black Swan event of the pandemic changed our lives forever. As a tertiary level educator and a researcher from Bangladesh, since virtual interactions became a new normal for our community, who would have thought that there would be a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to make a physical trip to a country of the Rising Sun? The desire to travel, against all odds, won over! Japan holds a special place in the heart of Bangladeshis, not only because of the uncanny similarities of our flags, our outlook to being peace-loving countries but also lesser known historical connections established during the Tokyo Trials by international jurist Radhabinod Pal. Born in Kushtia district of Bangladesh, and later moving to India, he made the case for Japan to the international community, for which he won the hearts and minds of Japanese and till this day, is revered in Japan. Widely known as an Indian jurist, my nationalist mind cannot but take pride and identify Justice Pal as a Bangladeshi too! Seldom I thought that I would ever have a chance to pay my respect to his bust located inside the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

It all happened one afternoon! My presentation on Afghanistan in a local seminar in Dhaka caught the attention of two representatives of the Japanese Embassy, who later identified me as a potential visitor under the Program of Building a Multi-layered Network of Japan Experts, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan. To say I was over the moon, would be an understatement. I must give it to the representatives of the Japan Embassy that they warned me that I might not be able to go to Japan in person if Covid cases rise, in the case of which, I will have to travel through the eyes of a 3D Viewer. Fortunately that was not the case and I have got to experience some of the best that the country has to offer. I must start with a disclaimer at this point. Writing a travelogue has its own challenges as it is a subjective narrative from the eyes of a specific person whose views are determined by his or her own positionality and location. I, therefore, cannot claim this travelogue as a narrative from a Bangladeshi female traveler only, rather these are predisposed ideas interspersed with my own trainings in international relations, juxtaposed with my experiences of visiting other countries and above all, a comparison with my everyday encounters living in the ninth largest city of the world. Mind it, Tokyo and Dhaka both are within the top ten largest cities in the world albeit there’s a minor matter of geographic expanse between the two cities!

I started for Tokyo on September 12th from Dhaka in Singapore Airlines and reached Tokyo the next day around 6 pm in the evening. First, a train from Narita airport and then, a taxi to my hotel. I was given a pocket wi-fi upon reaching Tokyo, which helped me to connect with the world immediately. Since this was my very first visit to Japan, I looked around like a curious child who wanted to learn about a new country by being there, and specially about Japan. The story of Japan seen in movies and specially growing up with Oshin, I had a resolve in my mind to go to Japan one day. Thanks to the Program, this was my time! The Program was organized for me to meet experts and policymakers in Japan, to visit places and see Japan from the eyes of a tourist and an academic. In this travelogue, I shall not delve into the academic issues rather narrate Japan from the eyes of a traveler—a first time traveler.

Japanese exceptionalisms in various sectors made me truly believe why Japan is a unique country. The taxi ride in the evening that I landed in Tokyo to my hotel was my first experience with Japanese exceptionalism. The taxi driver had the switch to a mechanical door, which he could operate while seated. More importantly, he would ask in the beginning if the temperature and the atmosphere inside altogether was okay. All the taxis that I rode had a small box inside that showed the air quality index. This leads to the growing awareness of Japanese society about concerns for the environment. Japan, being the home to some of the finest automobile industries, is quickly realizing the pitfalls of climate change and is encouraging public transport, specially through its massive subway system. This trend is most visible among the youth who are in for more sustainable living and promoting authentic Japanese culture. It took me years back in my childhood when I found the small coin purses made of silk materials and closed with a snap. These are some of the souvenirs that I received as gifts when I was young. I found a shop in Kyoto which has been open for business since 17th Century and here I am in the year 2022 buying souvenirs from the same shop. I saw and felt that the Japanese are increasingly proud of their culture, heritage and for promoting their cultural products over Western brands. As I walked in the areas near the Imperial Palace, in the Tokyo subway station and in the shinkansen, I saw more local brands than foreign brands. As I asked around, I was told that this trend is more visible among the young generation than the relatively older generation. This gave me hope for a new future where local culture is increasingly making its way in different countries, where Japan was one of them. As I wore attires made in Bangladesh, I drew attention wherever I went and was appreciated. People in shops and restaurants were nice with me and I would be able to communicate with them despite linguistic differences. Japan being one of the most homogeneous nations in the world, I stood out for unique cultural representation of my country.

We learnt from different instances how the Japanese have a culture of cleanliness, which is part of their school curriculum. I myself witnessed this whenever I passed through Narita airport on previous occasions. This time, I was an eyewitness to this impressive and exceptional quality of the Japanese. As a curious observer, I went to see the nightlife in Kabukicho and Shinjuku area of Tokyo on a Friday night. In an open yard, where a group of young adults were interacting, there were a few who were picking up the trash around them and cleaning the spot without being bothered about it. This was a reflection of a mature and individualistic growth of the population which did not bar the expression of free will as long as it did not have any direct detrimental effect. I could relate this in restaurants as well where the number of single diners was more than couples and nobody raised an eyebrow on the other. I also saw their affectionate treatment to elderly people, a recognition of their contribution to society. The visit to the National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty was also an eye-opener where they represented their history for the young generation in a manner which would make learning about history fun and enjoyable for children. The use of anime characters, life-size toys and replicas of birds such as an albatross—all of these provide a welcoming and an inviting learning experience for the next generation.

As part of the program, I visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka, and in this particular order. The shinkansen took us to Hiroshima from Tokyo that crossed more than 800 kilometers in just four hours and twenty minutes. For a Dhakaite, this was quite unbelievable and gave me an anachronistic experience of how living in the same timeline, some of the parts of the world have advanced so far! The visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, consisting of the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome, the Victims Memorial Cenotaph and the Museum itself stood as a testament of time and of human cruelty and irrationality. While it was emotionally moving to walk outside around the Dome and the Cenotaph, the inside of the Museum was draining. I could not take my eyes off the 3D projection of the incident on the fateful morning and before I knew it, tears were silently pouring out…it takes a strong heart to finish the entire tour inside the Museum, which I could not do. I saw, however, the Japanese brought their children who quietly were reading all the descriptions and watching all the photos.

The next destination was Kyoto, one of the most beautiful cities, full with tradition and culture. A city, almost encircled by mountains, does not permit high-rise buildings, which would affect the uniqueness and the surrounding natural beauty. The plan was to visit a number of places in the city, although fate had something else planned. Due to the Nanmadol typhoon warning, I could not make the scheduled visits to the spots that I identified before. The typhoon warning declared all the offices and business to be closed by 2pm, which was rigorously followed by people. The next morning, however, I was able to make a visit to the University of Kyoto. From Kyoto, there was a visit to Osaka, which was not far off. Osaka Castle was an amazing destination as well as the viewing of the sunset from the highest building of Japan, Harukas 300. This was as amazing as the other tourist destinations in Tokyo such as the Tokyo Tower itself and the Imperial Garden, among others.

Food in Japan was fabulous. Not only Sushi or Sashimi which are known worldwide but food in izakaya restaurants was of different nature and taste such as edamame, yakitori, hokke and tamagoyaki, among others. Similarly, okonomiyaki, sukiyaki, nishin soba (a Kyoto specialty), both the Kobe and Wagyu beef steaks, beef tsukudani (a Kyoto specialty)—all of these were very delicious and was a vital part of my Japan experience. Half of my suitcase was full with different types of Mochi brought specially for my niece, who is a huge fan.

I could write on and on about my special experience as a teacher, we seldom know how to stop talking about our favorite subjects. However, for this time, I shall end this travelogue by highlighting my observations about the Japanese people. The hospitality and the warmth of the people, whoever I met, be that a policymaker, an expert, a scholar, a shopkeeper or a taxi driver, was exceptionally courteous, humble and delightful. At one point of my trip when my suitcase was to be sent to Kyoto, while I would take a detour to Hiroshima, I was told not to lock my suitcase. I thought I heard it wrong. Then, a number of people rather surprisingly asked me back: why would anyone open someone else’s suitcase? Not only I was utterly surprised, I asked them back: have you people not read Thomas Hobbes? That it is in human nature to be ‘nasty, short, brutish and self-interested’? I am not saying that there is no crime in Japan, but the kind of general social contract that has developed in the country delivers a different kind of message for the world—respecting each other’s privacy as well as live and let live. In other words, peaceful co-existence is only possible when the members of a community agree to a common understanding. This was one of the biggest learnings for me from Japan where people believed in common good, respect and individual free will—and how all of these can coexist and create harmony of interests. It truly felt like an alien planet, somehow thrust on earth.
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