Women in the Japanese Workplace

By Bryson Torgovitsky

Given the current scandals surrounding women’s treatment in the American workplace, I was refreshed to hear that Shinzō Abe had plans to institute a greater number of women in Japanese jobs. Unfortunately, such a transition could never be instantaneous, and there has yet to be major headway. Although some women, like Yukiko Koyama, are finding work in traditionally male environments (she works as a lumberjack in Nagano prefecture), women still face challenges, especially when motherhood begins. Yuko Ogata, who is a member of the Kumamoto City Assembly in Kumamoto prefecture, was removed from a meeting after bringing her infant son on the grounds that “guests” were not permitted entry. The interesting part of this story is that Ogata-san’s son was nondisruptive to the meeting. I do support Shinzō Abe’s idea of women becoming a greater part of the Japanese workforce, but nothing is so simple that it can be accomplished by words alone. Individuals must adjust their (potentially long-held) views so progress can be made.



Bryson’s Photo: Hope for the Future through Students

I took this photo of Chidera Obiwuma and Ui Onomi during the Blue Star of Life event at the Kennedy Center on October 31st. They were the MCs of the presentation, and worked together fantastically.

To me, this photo represents hope for the United States and Japan. Here, we see two students of these two nations – who had never met previously – working towards stronger bonds between their home countries. Each of them used the knowledge that they gained from their studies at school so they could cooperate effectively. As an attendee of the Blue Star of Life event, I could clearly see how their compiled energy and understanding of each other contributed to the success of the program.

As an American student who is studying Japanese, Chidera and Ui’s cooperation embodies my hope for Japan and the United States. I want to see the bonds between these two countries grow as I age, and I would love to contribute to that increase. I worked behind the scenes for this program, planning the activities with a Japanese university student named Matsuki Koh, and it was excellent practice for the future I plan to have with Japanese environmentalists. Every student shone at the Blue Star of Life, and I look forward to future opportunities for collaboration with Japanese citizens, be it through Globalize D.C. or opportunities later in life.

Bryson Torgovitsky

Prepping for the Blue Star of Life

By Bryson Torgovitsky

On November 5th, the day before the Blue Star of Life event at the Kennedy Center, I attended a meeting with the Japanese students who would be working with our DC group at the event. Before the meeting, I had been in contact with Matsuki Koh, a student at the Kwansei Gakuin University School of Economics, about the details of the event. We had been emailing in English, but I planned to speak in Japanese when I met him and the other university students in person. At the start of the meeting, a brief introduction session was held. The Japanese students introduced themselves in English, and I followed suit out of nervousness.

As the day progressed, our discussion became more detailed but we continued speaking English. It became apparent to me that this was difficult for some of the students, and I felt guilty for my need for English conversation. I told the students that I could follow their conversation if they spoke in Japanese, but I would not be able to respond in kind. They kindly asked if I was sure, and agreed when I assured them that I was. At that point, the conversation was about the number of people in each student discussion group. I was able to follow them through my lessons from Japanese Plus, but I was still provided summaries at the ends of key lines of dialogue by the Japanese students. I tried to assure them that I had understood fine on my own, but they were insistent so I relented. I could tell that it was difficult to summarize a Japanese conversation in English, but I admired the language skills of the university students as they did just that.

I hope to outgrow the training wheels by continuing studying on my own time and in Japanese Plus, but I am thankful to our university partners for their politeness during our planning phase. I think that we managed to conduct our plans perfectly at the Kennedy Center and our programs at the Embassy of Japan afterwards!

Japan meets Europe: Koto

By Bryson Torgovitsky

Yumi Kurosawa’s koto performance was not at all what I had anticipated. Then again, I did expect it to be unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before, so I suppose my expectation was to be surprised! Kurosawa-san’s skills are undeniable. Not only could she play classic Japanese songs on her koto, she added her own unique spin to the art by meshing it with classic European music.

In what I believe was Kurosawa-san’s third piece, she played a tune that I recognized, but I could not remember its name for the life of me! Afterwards, she informed the audience that she had played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” If Kurosawa-san had not told us the original composer, I would have thought that she had played a Japanese piece. She was that adept at transferring a European piece into her style! That meshing of cultures reminds me of what we are doing in Japanese Plus, and it was amazing to see on stage.

At the end of her performance, Kurosawa-san played an original piece of hers. It felt simultaneously calm and energetic; something that I have found in much of my favorite Japanese music. She added that this piece, as well as several other of her original compositions, would be available for purchase next month. I hope that I can buy them, even though I am in the US!

Heisei Boom

By Bryson Torgovitsky

In the late 1980s, the Japanese economy experienced a period of rapid growth known as the Heisei Boom. Japan’s economy soared to incredible heights, and their income per capita became the highest in the world in 1990. Exports were one of the major factors in this growth, especially of cars and electronics. Those who were adults living in Tokyo during the Heisei Boom attest that they did not see any panhandlers in the city, though this could be attributed to the rising prices of real estate in the city. According to Héctor García’s guide to Japan, Geek in Japan, “the price of 900-square-foot apartments in Tokyo rose to several million dollars at today’s value” (61). The increased prices coincided with the construction of new apartment buildings and skyscrapers, and this is likely because those new living spaces were marketed as the latest and greatest place to live.

What had interested me about the Heisei Boom section of Geek in Japan was the title given to Toho Studios’ Godzilla movies that were released at that time: the Heisei series. Godzilla saw his return to the silver screen after a nine year hiatus in what came to be known as Return of Godzilla after being titled simply Gojira, and the cityscapes of the film reflected the Heisei Boom’s impact on building construction because the building sets, which have been consistently accurate models of the cities depicted, dwarf Godzilla in Return while in the most recent of its predecessor films, Terror of Mechagodzilla, Godzilla was either of an equal or greater height than the buildings around him. Below are two photos, one of Godzilla facing a man-made flying machine in Return of Godzilla, and the other of Godzilla facing the monster Titanosaurus in Terror of Mechagodzilla. From these photos, the change in building size from pre-Heisei era to post-Heisei era Japan can be seen.

君の名は (Your Name)

By Bryson Torgovitsky

About one week ago, I went to the E Street Cinema in downtown D.C. and saw the hit animated film 君の名は (Your Name) with two friends. I learned about Your Name through its interesting history with my personal favorite, Gojira. When a live-action drama bearing the title Your Name hit Japanese theaters as a live-action drama, it was the November of 1954, only a short time after Gojira’s premiere which earned over $14 million (in terms of today’s Japanese Yen to USD conversion) at the Japanese box office. It was blown out of the water by the original Your Name, which amassed a staggering $29.6 million (again, with current conversion rates) in Japan’s box office. Although the drama and the animated films have different plots, a strange coincidence occurred between the Your Name of the past and the contemporary Your Name.

The most recent Godzilla film from the studio responsible from the original film’s producers, Toho Studios, Shin Gojira, premiered in Japan last year on October 11th Unlike its own predecessor, Your Name’s animated film premiered just over one month before its kaiju rival. The head-start for income is irrelevant when the total earnings of Your Name are compared to Shin Gojira: $281 million and $76 million in worldwide sales. The new incarnation of Your Name has also become Japan’s new highest grossing animated film of all time by surpassing the famous Miyazaki film Spirited Away’s $275 million international earnings.

Personally, I still prefer Toho Studios’ Godzilla films over any of the films titled Your Name, although I must admit that the newest Your Name has become my favorite stand-alone animated film. I would highly recommend it, and Shin Gojira, to anyone interested in films of any variety, but especially to those interested in Japanese films.

In-Class Karuta

By Bryson Torgovitsky

This past Saturday, Ms. Matsumi Stone visited our class with two members of her Karuta-playing group, the D.C. Inishie Karuta Club. I had previously attended a Karuta competition that was sponsored by Ms. Stone, but I could not participate because I did not know any hiragana at that point (for more on the Karuta competition, please view my previous blog post “Priest”). However, I have since learned hiragana over the past few weeks along with my classmates, so now it was time to put those skills to the test.

Karuta is, at its core, a test of simultaneous reading and listening comprehension. A speaker reads one of the hundred set poems and it is the job of the two players (or teams, as was the case on Saturday) to identify and slap the card which has the hiragana of the poem’s second half. Since there are one-hundred poems, Ms. Stone demonstrated a few mnemonics to us so that the game would be easier. Personally, I was confused and stuck to listening to the words and connecting them to the cards. In the end, my team won the game (and a box of Matcha KitKats, which we shared with everyone at our table). After we had played Karuta, I got to revisit Pick-Up Priest! Unfortunately, the Grand Priest Dakharai was not in my group this time, but I got more than enough priests to make up for his absence. I still won a round though, and Ms. Stone gifted me with a beautiful fan with a picture of a dragon on it!

Ms. Stone also described to us how European card games, collectively named as “trump,” are popular in Japan. While I do enjoy a game of War or Mao, I would much rather play Karuta or Pick-Up Priest!

Japan and Work Ethic

By Bryson Torgovitsky

In my most recent post, I reviewed the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and the work ethic exhibited by Yoshikazu Ono, the son of renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono. I expressed how impressed I was by Yoshikazu’s tenacity when learning how to make tamagoyaki and how that tenacity was explained in the documentary as a shining example of Japanese work ethic. When I discussed the documentary with my teacher, she recommended that I read a section of A Geek in Japan by Héctor García about the apprenticeship system in Japan. After hearing from the (Japanese) food critic in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” that Yoshikazu Ono was a prime example of how the Japanese operate in their jobs, I was impressed but skeptical that such tenacity was such a widespread phenomenon. Once I read Geek in Japan and learned about the three-step Tao-Zen philosophy, I was assured that the food critic was speaking honestly and not from a patriotic bias.

The steps of the Tao-Zen philosophy are fairly simple.

  1. A set of ideals, patterns, or behaviors (culminating into a lifestyle called kata) has been set prior to the beginning of an apprenticeship.
  2. That kata is practiced by the apprentice for many years, with each part being practiced via daily repetition.
  3. The beauty of the kata is found through the perfection of its multiple parts over time, then fit into its continued practice, thus leading to personal enlightenment.

While García exemplified the practice of Tao-Zen through references to Buddhism (from which the philosophy originated) and martial arts, it is also apparent in how Jiro taught his son how to make tamagoyaki. As I wrote previously, Jiro had Yoshikazu practice by making over 200 practice tamagoyaki dishes and found faults in all of them before finally deeming his son’s cooking acceptable enough to be sold to their customers. That amount of daily repetition is part of the second step of the Tao-Zen philosophy. Jiro’s application of Tao-Zen to the teaching of his son is made more evident by his visit, with his son, to a Buddhist temple during a trip to his childhood home.

While the Tao-Zen philosophy being prevalent in how Jiro Ano taught his son is clearly evidenced by Jiro having Yoshikazu repeatedly make tamagoyaki as practice, and his Buddhist roots, I want to avoid making a generalization that all Japanese people follow Tao-Zen. Jiro Ono himself complained that people are doing less disciplined work in his documentary, citing parents who allowed their children to return home if their job did not go as planned or young people not establishing a lifelong career until their 20s or 30s (he began his apprenticeship in sushi-making at the age of 10 and was told by his father to leave home for work in the first grade). Thus, I am still uncertain about the true extent of Tao-Zen in contemporary Japan despite what the food critic claimed. When I finally get to see Japan for myself, I plan to pay close attention to working people and ask how they were prepared for their jobs so I can obtain a firmer comprehension of Japanese lifestyle.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

By Bryson Torgovitsky

I took the SAT multiple choice test (and essay) on March 1st, and my AP Language and Composition teacher kindly decided to let my class and me watch a documentary rather than write our weekly practice essay when we came to her class the next morning. After some debate about which documentary we could watch on Netflix (our teacher wanted us to choose one from which we could identify what the film was asking of the audience), we chose the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” This hour-and-then-some film catalogues the daily life of Jiro Ono, an 85 year-old Japanese man who is renowned as the greatest sushi chef in the world. Being in a Japanese class, this film naturally intrigued me.

A large portion of the documentary followed the day-to-day chores of Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro Ono’s restaurant with only 10 seats and a ¥30,000 month-in-advance reservation fee (which does not include the price of a meal). Seeing all the different types of sushi and the careful preparation made me, a person who is not a huge fan of seafood, hungry for sushi!

tamagoyakiA small section of the film was dedicated to Jiro’s eldest son and future successor, Yoshikazu, describing his experience with learning how to make tamagoyaki, a dish made from pan-fried egg. I have had tamago sushi rolls at the Wasabi sushi shop in Tysons Corner Mall, and they are my favorite kind since I don’t like seafood very much, but still want to eat sushi with my friends! Yoshikazu’s tamagoyaki looked so good that I plan to learn how to make it, and the discipline that he put into his work made me appreciate what a food critic, who frequents Sukiyabashi Jiro, calls the Japanese work ethic.

Yoshikazu explained that he had ten years of training with other types of sushi prior to being allowed to attempt making tamagoyaki for the customers. He had assumed that tamagoyaki would be easy to make compared to other sushi types, but as his father tasted over 200 of his practice dishes and had disapproved of each one, he recognized the difficulty of making tamagoyaki. Regardless, he persisted and came to make tamagoyaki that his gourmet father approved for sale. Not once did he consider quitting his efforts or arguing to his father that his dish was good despite what he said. He absorbed each criticism and kept working and improving. This kind of trait is one I wish to learn more about, since I can be argumentative when my work is criticized. If it truly is a staple characteristic of the Japanese workforce, then I believe that I could learn how to take criticism better by studying or working in Japan, so I will keep working and improving my Japanese!


Yoshikazu in the workplace says, “I have been practicing
making the egg sushi (tamagoyaki) for a long time.”

ā Latinā, ad Nihongam

by Bryson Torgovitsky

For the past three years, I have attended Washington Latin DC Public Charter School. In those three years, I have taken four levels of Latin class – one of which was a complete level done over summer vacation – and scored a perfect score on the National Latin Exam in my Sophomore Year. However, the techniques which allowed me to excel in Latin are less applicable in Japanese Plus.

Modern English takes multiple morphemes from Latin, which are used to form English words. For example, the word commiserate takes a prefix, root, and suffix from the Latin language. “Com” which means “with,” “misera” which means sadness, and “te” which signifies a group action. As a whole, “commiserate” means to express sympathy or sadness with others. Being able to reverse-engineer English into Latin made memorization of Latin words easier.

On the other hand, Japan is formed from Chinese so Japanese words come from different morphemes than English words. I have no background in Chinese, and over the course of centuries Chinese and Japanese have diverged so greatly that I am not sure if a Chinese language background would even be useful. Since I cannot use my “reverse-engineering” methods as I did with Latin, I have had to develop new strategies. Luckily, my uncle Steve has begun teaching me the methods that he used when he was first learning Japanese. His method involves taking an English phrase and blending the sounds of the words until it becomes the Japanese phrase you want! They do not have to be phrases with the same meanings, for example the English words “Thinking desk” can become the Japanese “Genki desu” (I am well) after some blending. I am hopeful that my uncle’s blending method will help me to excel as much in Japanese Plus as my reverse-engineering method did in my Latin class.