On the Ups and Downs of her Life in Tokyo, Japan
By Marilù Ciabattoni / Staff Writer
In Japanese, 七転び八起き literally means “seven falls, eight get-ups” and it is more broadly used to express the positive and negative sides of existence. Its abbreviated form is 七転八起, which translates into “seven tumbles, eight stand ups.” Seven tumbles commonly infers to “a lot of troubles” while standing up eight times is congruent to “bearing up and to keep trying.”
No other proverb could be timelier than this one.
As a matter of fact, 2020 wasn’t the best year for exchange students all over the world, most of them forced to go back to their hometowns after less than two months of their experience abroad. However, this wasn’t the case for senior student Giordana Nicoletti.
Born in Rome and raised in Lecce, Giordana started her Bachelor’s in Marketing with a minor in Entrepreneurship at JCU in the Fall of 2018 and is expected to graduate in Spring 2021. Board Member at the Asian Culture Club since the Spring of 2019 and passionate about Japan from a very young age, she made her childhood dream come true in 2019, when she became the first JCU student to participate in a year-round exchange program with Rikkyo University (in Japanese 立教大学, Rikkyō daigaku), located in the Ikebukuro neighborhood in Tokyo. During her experience, Giordana frequently documented her adventures on her social platforms: from Yamaguchi to the Miyazaki prefectures, from Magome and Tsumago located in the Gifo prefecture to the city of Ueda.
Eager to share her experience, Giordana very kindly accepted to do a last-minute interview through WhatsApp messages for our Student Spotlight section.
What is your earliest memory that relates to your passion for Japan? Why are you so keen on Japanese culture?
I have a theory: my theory is that my passion for Japan started when I was really young— around 6 or 7 years old—because I used to watch a lot of anime (Japanese cartoons), especially Doraemon or Dragon Ball, which deeply interested me because they were showing a completely different world, like a dream world. Then in high school, a friend showed me manga (Japanese comics or graphic novels) and of course I started reading the comic book version of the anime I was passionate about. The more I read the more I was involved into the culture.
So, my theories for why I love Japan so much are two: first of all, I have a lot of memories of me as a child dreaming about living in a place like that because, in my imagination, it was just a dream place that didn’t exist… until I slowly understood that place existed, and that place was Japan; secondly, a lot of aspects of Japanese culture, like politeness, kindness and precision, are very similar to the way I like to behave.
How did your experience as a Board Member at the Asian Culture Club added to your passion?
My experience at the Asian Culture Club clearly extended my vision and expectancies about all Asian cultures, which is interesting because the Japanese one is really influenced by the Chinese and vice versa. It confronted me to what Asia actually is and not only to what Japan is because I like the culture a lot. Of course, it also gave me the possibility to share my passion about Japan and my experience to go one day or just to share some thoughts about it. Last but not least, I had the pleasure to meet many people interested in Asia as much as I am, with many of whom I’m still collaborating with at the Club.
Before leaving for the exchange program, had you already been to Japan? Or has it always been a dream of yours?
Before my exchange experience, I had already been three times to Japan. The first time was in high school because, due to my passion for manga, it had always been my dream to visit Japan but I couldn’t because of some health issue I had. When those were not a problem anymore, I visited Japan for my 18th birthday with my mom and my sister. The trip lasted two weeks and everything was organized. At that time, it was really hard expressing myself in conversations because I was just approaching the language. The second time I went was for my high school graduation—my viaggio di maturità—and I spent one month and a half there to improve my language skills. So before staring university, I went there for one month in the summer, plus two weeks with my father, which we spent traveling around Japan. The third time was for New Year’s in 2019, when I went for almost two weeks with a friend. And then the fourth and latest time was from September 2019 to September 2020.
Tell me about your first days in Japan the very first time you traveled there.
My first day was like living in a dream. I couldn’t even sleep. I was so excited that, when I arrived, I was… I cannot even describe it. I felt like I was living in my childhood, because the first time I arrived I was in Kyoto, considered the most typical city in Japan. Kyoto was so beautiful, and it reminded me of all the times I spent in front of the television watching anime like Doraemon and pretending that place existed until I went there, and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m living in a cartoon!” For the rest for my holiday, I was so excited about what I had to see that I couldn’t sleep. I remember traveling in the train and my mom was falling asleep because of the jet lag, but I was so excited I couldn’t stop looking outside and staring outside of the window. So that was my first day in Japan. The second time I felt almost the same, but I had more experience. I went to Kyoto three times, to Osaka two times and Tokyo four times and I lived there for a while.
How was your experience with the university and the professors?
The university and the professors were really nice and organized most of the time. We had two weeks for the orientation and every time we went, there was the printed material of what they would be saying. I knew that Japanese people are well-organized, but once you arrive and you see them giving you so many papers of course you are surprised. After one year I understood the university was one of the most international universities all over Japan: firstly, because it’s in Tokyo; secondly because it’s a Catholic, private university. There are few universities like that in Japan, but that one had highest rate of international students in the entire.
They also have an amazing library, so it was easy for me to find the books that I needed for my assignments. The professors were either Japanese speaking English, or English as mother tongue, so communicating was not a problem. We also had an initiative called “global lounge,” a place to go to share international experiences. The good thing is that we had a big gym with a pool and a free language tutor. I had two tutors: one was part of a club of old ladies and the other was a student like me providing tutoring to other students. And it was all offered by the university! So, it was a good chance for me to practice my Japanese and to better study this language. The only problem was that, in most clubs, if you don’t speak the language it is hard to participate fully.
Which classes did you take during the exchange?
I took a lot of classes because I was their first exchange student from JCU to do the direct exchange in that university. So, they had to transfer the credits and check that I was taking the classes. They told me I had to take 10 courses each semester to have the same credits as a semester at JCU. Basically, if at JCU we do 75 minutes of class each time twice a week for a total of 150 minutes per week, in Japan I had to take 10 courses instead of 5 because each class was once a week. The problem was that each class was 100 minutes, so I was taking extra hours of classes which were not exchanged back in credits. It was really tough because I didn’t know which classes I was going to take until I was there. They didn’t tell me what the structure for language courses would be, so I ended up taking double classes plus two more: 12 classes of 100 minutes each in a semester for a total of 1200 minutes of lessons each week instead of 750.
What happened when the pandemic started taking over everyday life? How did life in Tokyo start to change?
While the pandemic became big in China and people started worrying about it in January, I was concluding my studies for the semester and it was also my birthday, so I wasn’t worrying too much because I was just taking lessons at university and I wasn’t moving a lot. In Japan, it wasn’t a big issue until in February a cruise of people came from China. There were rumors that COVID was spreading over the cruise and, in that moment, Japan understood the danger. The cruise stayed still with everyone locked inside for two months. In the meantime, the virus started spreading through Italy, but I didn’t understand how dangerous the situation was until April-May. Although I heard what was happening in Italy, no one was concerned in Japan since people believed that the cruise had been isolated from the rest of the country and that we were all safe. So, in Japan nothing was happening: it was just everyday life and everyday people until the end of April. However, I stopped using public transportation for almost three months because I was feeling the pressure hearing news from Italy and the responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus.
Which measures did the Japanese government take to prevent the spread of COVID-19? What about universities and, in particular, the university you were attending?
The moment people realized how dangerous the virus could be and how easily it spreads was when an actor died. People started worrying but the good thing about Japan was that everyone was wearing a mask already. There was no lockdown in Japan, so we were free until May, when the government announced the state of emergency because there were too many people in the hospital. It was then extended until June. However, the government was not imposing people to stay home, it was just a suggestion. So, we all had the feeling that the situation was under control, and the government reinforced this idea because they wanted to host the Olympics. So, people stayed home because most jobs moved online, and the semester moved online too. They closed entertainment places like museums and theaters. Only parks and temples stayed open. The government also provided every citizen and permanent resident with some money depending on your situation. I received 10,000 yen (which roughly correspond to 900 euros) because I matched all the requirements even though I was an exchange student. Some shops started putting some stickers that indicated that the place was “corona-free,” that they were highly ventilated, and you had to sanitize your hands as soon as you arrived. These stickers followed the requirements of safety approved by the government.
Any interesting anecdotes you would like to share?
I remember toilet paper started disappearing from grocery stores because of the rumors that toilet paper was no longer being made in China or that China was not exporting it to Japan. Due to this news, everyone started buying it. People also started storing things from the supermarket for fear of the lockdown.
Did your experience change your perception of Japanese people and culture?
I guess now I’m more conscious and practical about what it means to interact with Japanese people, what it means to have Japanese friends, what it means to live in a place like that, where there are seasons when you live in a certain way. For instance, when I arrived in September, it was a period of typhoons, and we experienced one of the most devastating typhoons since last century. The danger was rated 4 on a scale of 5, with an average of 250 km per hour of wind power. But the problem was when the wind was taking when walking in the street and, even if you were home, you were not safe. People were stuck inside for two days because rivers were flooding. As you can imagine, in this instance I was really scared. So now I can understand some behaviors that I used to consider weird, like their habit of apologizing too much. Apart from that, I don’t think my perception about Japan has changed much. Since I travel a lot, now I know why people behave in a certain way and I’m responsible to empathize with them and accept our differences. I’m more culturally conscious about Japanese identity, I’d say.
What do you miss the most about Tokyo now that you are back in Italy?
Sometimes Western countries perceive Japan as being slow and non-practical. Instead, I learned to be more patient, especially about introspection. I felt I had something to learn from them, that I was lacking patience because I was doing things too fast. So, it helped me for my introspective analysis.
What I miss the most is the feeling of safety, people’s politeness, customer service—which here in Italy is very bad sometimes. Customer service in Japan is the best ever: wherever you go, you enjoy the facilities offered, the safety that you feel in the street of the city even at midnight or at 4 a.m., the manners of the people in general. Sometimes they lie to be polite and won’t tell you the truth, while in Italy people are used to tell you the truth no matter what. What Japan taught me was this harmony and patience that people have and that you need to have in everything you do. Sometimes I feel people are rushing too much and not balancing because we tend to over-do, while in reality we need patience. It’s this way of life that I miss.
Giordana is currently serving as Social Media Coordinator for Asian Culture Club at JCU and she will be the president starting from next semester. The Club recently organized a Movie Club Night, hosting an online discussion of the award-winning South-Korean movie Parasite (기생충 in Korean), written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, becoming the first film in a foreign language to win the Oscar for Best Picture earlier this year.
For the Spring 2021 semester, the Asian Culture Club is planning to have an event about the Japanese animation film studio, Studio Ghibli, inviting a special guest for the occasion.