Mannequins dressed in traditional Japanese garb, top, are on display at the Edo Museum in Tokyo

Mannequins dressed in traditional Japanese garb, top, are on display at the Edo Museum in Tokyo

If there’s one universal truth, it’s that kids do not like to go to bed.

Aric Lange, adjunct instructor of English at Lamar University, discovered this during a two-week study abroad trip in Japan over the summer, during which LU students tried sushi, wore the traditional Japanese yukata, attended the Hiroshima memorial and ate fish-shaped taiyaki pastries at the Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto.

Throughout all of this, Lange said, what kept him grounded was the father of his host family, Fumi, a professor at Yasuda Women’s University. Fumi would make time each night to play with his kids, not only to bond with them, but to also to tire them before bed.

“I nicknamed him ‘Mount Fumi’ because they would try to climb over him, or he would throw them into the air a little bit, and then by the time he exhausted them, he would be really exhausted himself,” Lange said. “One time, he fell asleep right there on the living room floor after they went to go take a shower.”

Lange said the study abroad program worked hard to pair him with a host family that shared his interests — in this case, Fumi and his wife Yuko, also loved tennis.

“I filled out a form of what my interests were, and they sent something back saying that they were both into tennis,” Lange said. “I could tell Fumi definitely was. Every night I would catch him practicing his swing in the very cramped living room. I know Yuko probably did like it as well, but I think he was the more enthusiastic about it.”

Lange was especially fond of Shunnosuke, Fumi’s one-year-old son, who Fumi nicknamed ‘The Gorilla’ because of his destructive tendencies.

Aric Lange, above, poses with Yuki and Shunnosuke Kira, during his study abroad trip to Japan. Courtesy photos by Aric Lange

“This kid would just wreck things left and right,” he said. “He would intentionally look at you, and then wreck it, and scream out loud — basically like Godzilla.”

Although Lange initially would have preferred to rush around in a mad dash to see all that Hiroshima had to offer, the daily routine of the Kira family grounded him in ways that, as a stranger in a strange land, he said he needed.

“I thought we should be pushing our boundaries, but I was really appreciative of the stability, especially for that first week,” he said. “I was exhausted, I was homesick and a little jet lag had been kicking in. I think I really loved that family because you got a sense of the home life of the Japanese.”

The closeness of the family surprised him, Lange said, as Americans tend to see the Japanese as standoffish.

“Nowadays, we see everybody working their butts off, and home life has been kind of sacrificed,” he said. “That’s how it was for me in Southeast Texas. You might watch some TV together, maybe have a talk over dinner, and I think that’s gone by the wayside. I think watching other families — watching my own family — it was slowly being eroded. But here it was in your face. TV was not that big of a thing. It was a lot of conversation. A lot of playing with each other, especially the kids. Japan has a huge communal spirit and mentality.”

Aside from bonding with his host family, Lange found the Edo Museum in Tokyo most interesting. The museum was holding a special exhibit on the Japanese ghost or demon — the “yōkai.”

The yōkai began as trickster spirits, a way to explain phenomena that, during the Edo period, could only be attributed to the supernatural, Lange said, such as why chipping a plate could be unlucky, or why a river may be difficult to find. Over the years, however, the place for yōkai in Japanese society changed.

“As you progressed through the exhibit, you saw the original environmental and cultural yōkai transitioning into more useful purposes, such as boogeymen, saying, ‘OK, be careful!’” Lange said. “There’s a particular yōkai that likes to lick filth, so clean your toilets, or you’ll get scared late at night when you walk in there. And then, of course, the exhibit wraps up with anime, because there’s ‘Yokai Watch.’”

The study abroad trip was a joint effort between Lamar University’s Amy Smith, assistant professor of English, and Yasuko Sato, of Yasuda Women’s University in Hiroshima. Smith said that she plans to return to Yasuda next year for a longer trip, and that study abroad programs such as this one are a good way for students to broaden their horizons.

“Reading about something is different from experiencing it, from talking to people and from seeing things, and that’s why I think President (Kenneth) Evans is so much in favor of study abroad, why he’s advocating it so much,” Smith said. “I think (the program) can give students the opportunity to think about things that they never have been exposed to before, and to think about our place in the world.”

Amy Smith, associate professor of English, and Richard Saucedo, instructor of philosophy, wear traditional Japanese clothing. Courtesy photo by Aric Lange

Lange said one of the most powerful moments of the trip was when he and the other students visited the Peace Park Memorial and the Atomic Bombing Dome in Hiroshima.

“We visited the Children’s Peace Monument, where thousands upon thousands of paper origami cranes honor Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who survived the bombing only to succumb later on because of her exposure to radiation,” he said. “Sadako’s story is equally saddening and inspiring because she followed the traditional belief that making one thousand cranes would grant a wish. Sadako wished for an end to nuclear weapons.”

After visiting the memorial, the students went home and talked to their host families about their experience, Smith said.

“The question that a lot of the students asked was, ‘How could you forgive us for that? We couldn’t forgive you if you did that,’” she said. “There are different cultural attitudes about forgiveness and vengeance and anger. What you think of as natural reactions or inevitable perspectives are culturally bound. They’re not universal. There are different ways of relating to things that happen to you in life, and I think that being able to have conversations about that issue in particular, which is so sensitive and painful, I think it opens you to think about other people’s experiences.”

Smith said she hopes the students who attended Japan study abroad take it as an opportunity for independence.

“Having to navigate public transportation in a language you don’t understand — ‘My luggage broke,’ or, ‘I got sick’ — it forces you into adulthood,” she said. “When you’re (home) and your parents are so easily accessible to take care of you, it can be hard to develop that independence, that confidence that you’re capable, that the world is not a frightening place. (Abroad) you can go out and try new things. I think that’s wonderful.”

Though he bonded with his host family and got to see many different exciting exhibitions and taste exotic foods, one thing that Lange said he missed during his stay in Japan was public seating.

“We would sit in front of a store and, oh wow, they’d get mad at us,” he said. “There was a police officer that came by while we were sitting on the steps. This was like a wide-ranging set of steps that wrapped around, so you’d think there was no way to cover all those steps or you’d get a bottleneck at the top. It was more for looks than to serve a real purpose. We were so tired. Just lazy Americans, I guess.”

Lange said the hardest part of the trip was saying goodbye.

“I cherished every second of playtime before dinner, the car rides to the university and especially the late night talks with Fumi and Yuko,” he said. “I only regret not having more time to say goodbye to everyone that last day. I waved goodbye all of three seconds as I ran with Fumi to catch a train to meet the Lamar group on time. I became uncharacteristically emotional and quiet with Fumi when we had to part ways.”

Lange said that the trip was the adventure of a lifetime, and that visiting Japan, was something he’d wanted to do for 32 years.

“While there were hardships before and during the trip, I gained more than I imagined and can express,” he said. “I made many new friends not only from Yasuda, but also from Lamar, and my connection to the Kira family is a treasure I will always keep.”

Tim Collins

UP Managing Editor

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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