Japan: Konichiwa* at 200 Kilometers an Hour

My Toyota City Homestay Family and I at the neighborhood coffee shop.

Matt Seubert is an economics and political science major entering his senior year at the U of A. Matt recently participated in the Walton College Study Abroad program in Japan, where he met with top executives of multinational corporations and learned first-hand about businesses ranging from Shoyeido Incense to Seiyu (Walmart Japan).

*English trans.: Hello

Hi, my name is Matt Seubert! I am entering my senior year of studying economics and political science. I cannot seriously say that when I began my time at the University I would have seen myself traversing the streets of Tokyo or holding a meeting with the CEO of Walmart Japan, but what I can say is my time in Japan flew by at a speed that seemed to rival even the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. Over the course of the first half of the summer I visited, explored, and if not to be overly confident, conquered half a dozen Japanese cities and three times that many businesses as a part of the Walton College Japan Study Abroad Program. The program offered me the opportunity to spend time studying the second largest economy in the world in a hands-on fashion, meet with the executives who make the daily decisions that push that economy forward, and fully enmesh myself in the culture that undergirds it all.

Stepping off the plane, I felt as though I had endured the longest day of my life; in actuality it had been some odd combination of a Tuesday, a Wednesday, and it was nearly Thursday. In retrospect, I might have become unstuck in time somewhere across the dateline. Regardless, bleary eyed I stepped into a world both somewhat alike and entirely different from my home. That world was also held together by a vast network of trains, an experience that would follow me from the time I got off the plane to the time I left the country.  The very first night, nearly Thursday, I did not see much beyond train stations and night lights blurring past the train window. By what was actually Thursday, I woke up just before dawn, much thanks to jetlag, in a small Japanese town named Kameoka. The town itself is cornered by hills rising up into mountains and rice fields, with the city streets jammed in between. That first morning, unfamiliar with the area, I decided the best idea was to continue my home habit of running. I would continue this pattern across Japan, and despite the confusing moments when I was turned around in some corner of a city I did not know, it was one of the best decisions I could have made. Thanks to my running shoes and a less-than-exact sense of direction I would explore the rice fields of Kameoka, run high above Hiroshima to the Peace Pagoda, dodge costume-clad performers at the Sapporo Yosakai Soran dance festival, and even pass between commuters outside the Imperial residence in Tokyo.

The Yosakai Soran dance festival.

Meeting with businesses would prove to be one of the most rewarding parts of my trip. Company leaders would take time out of their schedules to show us around their expansive factories and present the details of their operations as if they were meeting with new clients. We were treated as full partners in conversations and allowed to question freely. These meetings were particularly interesting when they would highlight the differences between the Japanese model of business and the American. Our first business, Shoyeido Incense, would do just that as its CEO spent time describing the essence of Koh, Japanese traditional incense, and its counterpart product incense. He took time to show the divergence between incense in a more utilitarian sense and Koh in a metaphysical one that reaches back into Japanese history and faith. Meetings like this one would stand in contrast to others like Seiyu (Walmart Japan), which displayed many of the more aggressive tendencies of American business. The meeting highlighted how even in what many Americans envision as the highly technological, highly efficient Japanese economy there are vast, even purposeful, inefficiencies. To see these two models within the same economy was an amazing window into the Japanese marketplace.

A worker at the Shoyeido factory.

Along with the Japanese marketplace, I was permitted to experience the Japanese home front, participating in two homestays – one in Tamano City and a second in Toyota City. In Tamano, I stayed with a young family, spending the nights playing with the young kids, Noki and Sake, and the days visiting Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding as well as Hibi Elementary. This small Japanese town built around the shipbuilding operation was a foray into the day-to-day of Japanese life. It was awesome. During my second homestay in Toyota City, I lived with an older couple who worked as “cram-school” teachers. Cram-schools are an after-school system where Japanese students go to receive additional advanced instruction in order to get ahead for secondary school and then college. My homestay family could only, once again, be described as awesome.  Above the kitchen table was a 1960s picture of my homestay dad playing in what looked like a Japanese version of the Beatles. At night, after I got home from touring the Toyota production facilities, we would meet the neighbors at a coffeehouse until around midnight.

The A-Bomb Dome.

There was no part of the trip more memorable than my time spent in Hiroshima. Our first day there we visited the A-bomb Dome, one of the few buildings to survive the atomic bombing. This building, along with the museum that accompanied it, was a haunting experience. Yet even within this jarring experience of seeing pictures of a city wiped off the map, I would find a hopeful memory. Later in the evening, several of us from our group had found a mall just a few blocks from the main train station, and on the eleventh floor we all sat down for dinner at the food court. Five of us sat at a table, splitting McDonalds and sushi between us. Even the table reflected this same mix as four students were Americans and the fifth student, Hiromi, a Japanese student studying here at Arkansas. All of this was in the midst of a cafeteria in the center of a city torn apart by conflict just seventy years ago. Following the atomic bombing, then-President Harry S Truman told the nation that the bomb “is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” I think this day, and the trip as a whole, did a great deal to make me hope to harness a much greater basic power of the universe, a capacity to explore, to understand, and  to move beyond ourselves.

I was exceptionally grateful to be a part of the Japan Study Abroad Program and to be generously supported by the Honors College. An Honors College study abroad grant made possible my participation.

This entry was posted in Economics, Honors College Study Abroad Grant, Japan, Political science, Sam M. Walton College of Business, Study Abroad. Bookmark the permalink.

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