Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.5 , December 1997
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From the Director
Foreign Visiting Fellows
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Exchange Programs with Overseas Institutions
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The Library
A day under the colorfol autumn trees in Takino Park ,Sapporo.
Essays by Foreign Fellows
Mordechai Altshuler
Boris N. Mironov
Volodymr A. Potulnytskyj
Vilmos Agoston
Oleg T. Bogomolov
Alfred F. Majewicz

Distant and Mysterious: My Four month acquaintance with Japan

by Volodymr A. Potulnytskyj (Institute of Ukrainian Archaeography, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Kiev, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1997-98)
Time has flown by rapidly since my family and I arrived in Japan four months ago. One should spend a great amount of time learning essential but important and substantial things for living in a new place, especially in Japan which is an unknown country for us. In fact, one has many things to learn here " not only because in the realm of technical achievements Japan long arrived in the 21st century (from our perspective), but also because in every aspect one faces many things and phenomena which one is not accustomed to, but which often have a meaning or function completely opposite to the European mentality. For instance, while crossing the road I still automatically check traffic from my left side first, and only then " from the right. From the safety point of view, this is quite dangerous because all Japanese cars have their steering-wheels on the right and drive in the opposite direction to ours. Walking on the sidewalk, I mechanically slip into a right-handed mode, frequently walking against the flow of Japanese pedestrians. One encounters such details in every aspect. To avoid calamity in this new world, I looked through a prominent number of books, and one of them gave hope to me. A 19th century English traveler expressed his impressions of Japan as follows: "If you have been here for less than six weeks, you understand everything. After six weeks you begin to doubt. After six years you are sure about nothing." It reminds me Socrates": "Acquiring more knowledge, I am only learning that I know nothing." Now I am exactly at the stage of the optimistic dilettante searching for knowledge, who does not realize and does not believe that he will leave the place without comprehension of it.
The majority of the authors claim that Japan is an organic whole of conservatism (in the best understanding of the term) and modern technical progress. All we have to do is to verify this fact at every step. However, most foreigners can only observe the relations and life of Japanese people at the surface. But this exterior plane can also reveal their strong adherence to their traditions. For example, kimono, sunshades, fans in the hands of men and women " all of these symbols of Japanese culture still naturally "live" in the streets of Sapporo (while this city is one of the youngest, modern and international cities of Japan). Traditionalism exposes itself not only in clothes (because in everyday life the majority of people prefer to wear Western clothes), but also in the way of walking, raising children, bowing on meeting and parting, smiling, etc. More deeply one feels the presence and vitality of traditions at various festivals and holidays, since, in my impression, participation in them is not merely an idle diversion, but rather, an inner sense of involvement of the event celebrated. For example, for several days in August the O-Bon festival took place. During the festival nights, dances were performed with the accompaniment of sounds produced by the monotonous blows of taiko drums and by a chanter. All this continued for four or five hours without a break, and anyone who wished could join the dance - of course, nearly everybody participated. The dancers continuously repeated only six movements with fans in their hands while moving in one direction at a continuous pace, following one after another around a circle while the drummer and leader were standing in the center at the top of a tower. I saw old people, 80 years old, almost feeble and bent, young fellows in leather clothes adorned with metal, butterfly-like girls in summer yukata, mothers with their infants in special knapsacks on their chests or on their backs, a beautiful Japanese lady in a modern elegant dress and hat, men and women in kimono with traditional decoration and wooden Japanese sandals on their feet, and a respectable gentleman - a civil officer at first glance. An old man dressed in traditional Japanese clothes, performed the elements of the dance so clearly and at the same time so smoothly and elegantly (accompanying them with the guttural cries and kendo-like hand-motions), that I, who had studied fencing with sabres during my student days, subconsciously felt the desire to stand next to him.
The whole picture - traditional Japanese lamps, the relative silence of a considerable number of children, solitary cries of men following the rhythm of the drums, the expression of vigorous determination was seen in many faces. Repetition, monotony and, seemingly, infinity - all of this created a feeling of something distant and eternal. It recreates not only the world of the samurai and the shogun, but something more distant and deep. I, along with my wife, decided to join this fascinating action, and our son Georgii took part in the festival for three nights. On one of them he was surrounded by Japanese and danced very close to the musicians and was very happy.
Still in general, this festival evoked some sad thoughts. Old traditional songs, music, instruments, costumes, theater, the festivals of the shrines, etc. ム all this is a normal, stable phenomenon, an organic part of the life of Japanese people who keep and preserve their traditions. Just then I realized and regretted the fact that I could not memorize and transcribe all of the traditional and modern Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Soviet songs that my father and grandfather liked to sing so much during their lives. It is true that something which is definitely clever and rational comes to us too late. Of course, the majority of the things which strike and surprise us, are not mechanical products, since in this case, we are the ungrateful part of the consumers because of the humanitarian nature of our profession and of our almost absolute technical ignorance. That is why we are not able to fully appreciate and take full advantage of Japanユs brilliant technical industry. There are other things that surprise and delight us. Firstly, there are Japanese women ム pretty, graceful, effeminate, yet fashionably but romantically dressed with great taste, and their moves, smiles, the way they carry their handbags and, hats. I have never before encountered such femininity in Europe and America. And, in spite of the fact that they have lower incomes, one can often see them carrying heavy bags in their hands plus children on their chests or backs.
The conservatism of Japanese society also reveals itself in the basic features of the Japanese language, and this has its own rationale. Before our trip to Japan we were absolutely sure that it would be enough for us to have just a knowledge of English. We were deluded to have thought so. Of course, the university and academic staff speaks English and, sometimes, other European languages, and in the Slavic Research Center they speak Russian and other Slavic languages. Can you imagine how surprised we were when we arrived in Sapporo, entered the airport and suddenly heard Professor Matsuzato greet us in Ukrainian: "How do you do! Are you the Potulnytskyjs? Welcome to Japan!モ After a 2-day trip from Ukraine, for me it created a strong impression. In our everyday life here, no Japanese person close to us speaks Ukrainian - we just have kanji around us. And one has no idea what one is buying in the store - salt or sugar, vegetable oil or vinegar. Other significant problems exist ム how to ride the subway, where something is situated, how to buy a ticket, what kind of envelope and stamp you must buy to send a letter to Ukraine, etc., etc. Every day our son brings home some information printed in Japanese which describe upcoming school events and what our son must bring with him, etc. Besides that, we have to communicate with his school teachers and judo coach.
This is the third month I have studied Japanese. I never thought before that this language could be so interesting and unique - its three different writing systems and its sentence structure as well. Of course, it goes without saying how difficult it is as a whole. Now I can understand what the Russian expression "Chinese gramotaモ [double-dutch] means - it really means something very complicated and mysterious, which can rarely be mastered. I am a realist, and my outlook at the possibility of becoming fluent in Japanese is pessimistic, taking into account my limited linguistic abilities and the short term of my stay in Japan. But my acquaintance with this language even for such a short period reveals to me many important things which are very helpful in understanding Japanese culture and people. One can imagine how much patience and calm Japanese people need to master their native language. These are precisely the specific features of the Japanese. Without them the Japanese Miracle would not have been possible, especially taking into consideration their lack of natural resources, limited space and catastrophic natural disasters. Quite often I think that these are the features which modern Ukrainian politicians and Ukrainian people lack very much in general. Along with their ability to work, their ability to make use of the benefits of their job, their desire and ability to achieve their goals, constantly improving their skills, is vitally necessary for them, just as it was for Japanese and Germans after World War II to realize that they must tighten their belts and start saving everything, since crisis, disaster, collapse were common for everybody. To write a kanji a thousand times, to master one move or technique in sports or arts, the ability to bring each detail, each process or knowledge to perfection and automation combined with discipline - all of this is embodied in modern Japan.
In general, here we are surrounded with great attention on the part of Japanese people - in the small everyday life questions and in more serious problems as well. Although, I think, my family is not the only one in such a position. There are many pleasant visitors here ム scholars from different countries around the world. We are acquainted with the family of Professor Majewicz from Poland. He speaks many languages, including Japanese and Chinese, has traveled many places around the world, and is a very interesting person in general. We became very close with the Hungarian journalist and writer Dr. Agoston, and with Professor Altshuler and his wife from Israel. Professor Altshuler speaks Russian, and his wife speaks Polish, so we use both languages while communicating. We frequently visit festivals, stroll in the parks, go to the museums together, and take pictures of each other. These citizens of Japan are volunteers, members of an organization for international communication. They lavished great attention on us during traditional Japanese festivals. Our son and Professor Altshuler became very close.
Georgii has attended a Japanese school since we arrived in Japan. His classmates call him Gosha-kun - this is the easiest way for them to call him. There are many unusual and unaccustomed things for our son at school, but what is most important is the atmosphere of kindness and joy there. We were very touched when Georgii was introduced to the class, the other children surrounded him and led him to the classroom. He studies hiragana, katakana, and kanji with interest, and already he has tried using his Japanese. When he must write an essay, he still writes in Ukrainian or in German. He always tries to understand, sometimes with the help of logic, sometimes intuitively. When he is not understood, he starts speaking all the languages he can speak - Ukrainian, Russian, German and a little English.
At school, completing his summer homework, Georgii collected samples of the plants growing in Hokkaido and at the same time in Ukraine. We picked and dried plantains, clovers, lilacs, mints, willows and other plants. Georgii's herbarium was chosen and exhibited by his school to show other Japanese children. Also, in Japan, Georgia got his first award - a swimming certificate. Thank to our family visits to the university pool during our stay, he learned how to swim and now he is not afraid of diving. A long time ago my school teacher claimed that a man must firmly stand on his feet, speak one foreign language and swim. Our son learned how to walk in Ukraine, learned German in Germany, and swimming in Japan. Since September 1, we have been tutoring Georgia. My wife teaches him mathematics, Ukrainian, German, and Japanese, and I teach him German and Russian conversation, history, reading and chess. In addition, he attends judo, continuing the course he started back in Germany. Europe, and especially Ukraine, are concepts very distant and often very unclear for Japanese, except for scholars and specialists, of course. Usually, we are asked if we are American, then, if we are Russian, and when we tell people that we are from Ukraine, we observe an indifferent expression on their faces. Only when we mention Chernobyl do Japanese people understand where we are from.
In general there is a relatively small number of Europeans here, although Russian scholars and musicians visit Sapporo regularly. For example, not long ago we visited a classical music concert performed by a pianist and violinist from Moscow. Both of them, in cooperation with their Japanese partners, intended to establish their own music school here. They have already started giving private lessons. Finally, one of Georgii's classmates has drawn a map of the world and marked Ukraine on it, since she studies with a Ukrainian boy. This is very important.

(translated from Russian by Edward Vlassov)

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