Wednesday, October 27

Life At Sea: Japan is #Woke


By Chanel Watson


Kobe seems like a beautiful place, but I will never actually know. As soon as the ship docked in Japan, I was on my flight to Tokyo. After taking a 12 day trip from Hawaii, I was ready to experience the New York City of Asia.

As I got off my plane and hopped in the cab, you could easily feel the tension between them and me, the Black students and Asian locals. As we walked through the terminal to the taxis, I could feel the stares at my brown skin and jet black braids. I appreciate that Japanese people try to be discreet about their stares, but I knew that the last thing they expected to see during the day was a group of 7 Black students.

When we got out of the airport, Tokyo was everything I had seen in the movies. Bright lights, Japanese characters, anime marketing, and a high respect for fashion and individuality which is evident in every person’s hair color or outfit choice. They make it known that they are unique and will take any advantage they can to show their personality through a buzzed haircut, or platform shoes and pink cheeks.

After spending 2 hours trying to find our AirBNB because we had the wrong address, we finally settled and ate their local version of McDonald’s (not sure if you would want to try a teriyaki burger.) Our room ended up being a living room with 4 queen size beds for 8 people, a couch and a shower that was outside on the porch. Yes, I had to go outside to take a shower in 30 degree weather. Luckily, my Airborne kept my immune system powerful enough to combat getting sick.

Our first day, we decided to take the bus to Shibuya, a popular shopping area. I know it seems very risky to take the bus in foreign countries, but in metropolitan areas like Tokyo, it’s definitely a fun and cheap alternative to catching a taxi. On a trip like Semester at Sea, every decision you make is spontaneous. Luckily, we took the right one to the area as we pulled up in front of a Zara and Disney Store.

Throughout the day, we realized how much the Japanese love hip hop culture, from the clothes to the music. There wasn’t one store I went to that didn’t have hip hop music playing. I heard Gucci Mane’s mixtape on rotation more times than on my own local radio station in Washington D.C.

A trip to Harajuku would introduce me to the vibrant, teen, pop culture that has been referenced heavily by celebrities Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj. Takeshita Street provides the main visuals of colorful restaurants, thrift shops, fashion boutiques and some larger retailers such as Ralph Lauren and BAPE. Japanese girls walked around with over-blushed, red cheeks and plaid school skirts.

Even though the locals would stare at us, the people were very helpful when they could be. Per usual, they would think I was from some country in Africa, but when they found out I spoke English and was from the United States they would look at me in amazement. They were never rude to me but the unspoken question lingered amid our conversation, “why am I in Japan?”

During, my friends and I search for sushi we ventured into the wrong restaurant. Luckily, a woman was willing to help us and walked us halfway to the nearest sushi restaurant. After telling her we were studying abroad, she was so happy that we came to Japan because she could imagine how different the culture was. Telling different locals we were studying abroad made them feel honored that we would even consider choosing somewhere besides Europe. I found comfort knowing I was accepted by at least 1 local.

It seems pretty ironic that my next “woke” moment would come from a Black man who owns a soul food restaurant in Tokyo. After eating a familiar meal of chicken and waffles, we sat around with him and his friends as he was telling us a story of when he first felt accepted in Japan.

A man came to him and respected the fact that he decided to stay and start a business in Tokyo. The Japanese man respected Black people, especially those from America, because he knew we already faced challenges in our own country, let alone trying to adjust in a foreign one. It was a similar struggle that Japanese face when they try to fit in to American culture, a respect that I just received earlier that day.

Japan was the perfect place to start out because it is a fast-growing metropolitan area. African Americans shouldn’t feel scared to explore outside of the states, and shouldn’t just choose Africa because they think it is a safer and comfortable choice. Europe is beautiful, but you will rely heavily on the similar western atmosphere and shopping. Asia will be uncomfortable, foreign and unpredictable.

All of your senses will be awoke and put to the ultimate test; and it will be the best adventure of your life.

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