OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
Rudyard Kipling – The Ballad of East and West (fragment)

Perhaps it’s the moral values, a clearly defined ethnic group -a strong identity-, and the fact that they are both islands: Japan literally, Finland surrounded by Russia and Scandinavia, but there seems to be a peculiar affinity between the two. Here’s how a “western” girl went exploring that affinity, and found herself in the process.

Hello, Liisa. What part of Finland are you from?
I come from a coastal town between Vaasa and Oulu (mid-Finland). I lived there all my life until I was 19, when I came to Helsinki to continue my studies.

Did your family support the move, or were they reluctant to let you go?
It’s a small town, not many options for young people, so I had to move somewhere anyway. Helsinki was convenient because it had all the schools I was interested in. And my sister was already there, I was familiar with the city, had some friends already. It was an easy decision.

What was your interest back then?
Graphic design. I wanted to study at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. It was appealing to me because they had international exchange programs and a business-oriented approach to design. But I didn’t manage to get in on the first try, so I went to another school (vocational) for a year, then re-applied to Metropolia and got in. The first year the content was very similar to what I had already seen, but eventually it smoothed out.

So before entering college you already knew you wanted to go abroad.
Yeah, the idea had been in my mind since elementary school. I happened to visit Japan once when I was in high-school, with the Lions’ Club (they had an youth exchange program). I was already interested in Japan, so I went. But it was only for a short summer and everything was pre-organized for me, like a vacation. So later on I felt like going back for a more realistic experience.

Why do you think you picked Japan in particular?
As a teen I used to read a lot, and I would also meet online like-minded people who were into computers, fantasy and sci-fi books, nerdy stuff in general. As Japanese media (books, manga, anime, movies) features these themes often, many people interested in fantasy or sci-fi eventually get hooked on Japan.

Also my sister happened to study some Japanese when she was at the uni, so I got interested in the language because… I looked up to my sister. And I wanted to see what actual life was like there. I guess it’s difficult to explain today because it was a long time ago. I was young and a bit of a nerd, and at that age, when you get interested in something, you DO get interested in something…

The Finnish way of life is so well organized that sometimes it can feel a bit constrictive, especially for creative people, and living abroad can get the creative juices flowing. Did you feel this way?
Japan doesn’t really help with that. It was inspirational on so many levels, of course, but their culture is very similar to the Finnish in terms of order and precision.

So what were you hoping for?
At that time I was most interested in editorial design and illustration, I wanted to learn about those skills in Japan. I hoped to be able to get a job there one day if I wanted to. It is really difficult for foreigners, so I thought that after studying their methods at a quite well-known local school and learning the language I might have better chances. I still hope to work there someday.

How was the trip arranged?
Metropolia had an exchange program with a university in Tokyo. I knew this when I applied, I was already looking forward to the exchange. But the program was not yet in place when I entered; Japanese students would come for a month only. It began when the person before me went for six months (I wanted to go for a year).

And your family supported you again?
Um, yeah. I had already been for one month. My mother was worried about earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons… But I wanted to go, so they supported me.

Was it difficult to arrange your life in Finland around this trip?
I had just broken-up from a long relationship, so there was not much to lose about a year abroad.

Was the trip the break-up reason, or the relationship was not working?
It hadn’t been working out for a while at that time, though I hadn’t realized it back then. But now that I think of it, of course the trip might have had something to do; I was leaving for a whole year after all! That’s a long time for any kind of relationship, working or not.

So, free of everything you jumped on a plane and away you went?
Not exactly; I planned the trip in detail. I also thought it would make my life easier if I researched for a while first, learn certain things beforehand. I mean, there are exchange students who just land in another country with zero knowledge, then everything happens to them. They get by, I guess, but I’m not that kind of person. I get easily stressed out if I don’t plan things ahead or have some idea about what’s happening around me.

How much Japanese did you speak before you left?
Not a lot. I had studied for two years, I could understand a little. Not read kanji, not even. I could speak about Finland and myself, because every day I told the same story, so my skills at introducing myself and my country got better every day (laughs). And I could talk about everyday life, the weather, and that sort of really easy stuff, in the beginning.

The Japanese society is built upon incredibly elaborated, very subtle social rituals, and it’s impossible to know them all unless you grow up there internalizing them. How much were you aware of these forms, and how much did the locals tolerate your faux-pas?
Foreigners are not expected to know everything, so they’re forgiven many things, but that was definitely one of the areas I wanted to get acquainted with before the trip. I read a lot of books and articles to learn as much as possible how to behave, what codes not to break, etc. In some situations it felt like I was probably doing something wrong, but since they are so polite they never verbalize it, which limits your learning.

I think it’s easier to get accustomed and adapted to the Japanese culture for a Finn than for people from other western countries, because there are lots of similarities between the cultures, in this case the behavior around strangers or people not yet very well known. For example, some American exchange students had it more difficult there because they are way more outspoken and quite easy-going. And the Japanese, at least at first, are not like that at all.

So you landed in Japan. Was there anybody waiting for you?
The school personnel wanted us all to arrive together on a specific day so that they could pick everybody up at once, but the plane tickets were really expensive for that date. So I contacted this girl who had previously been at my school in Finland for one month as exchange, and arranged for her to come pick me up at the airport a few days earlier. I stayed with them for a couple of nights before going to school. That was nice, because I wasn’t alone upon arrival.

Where were you staying? Did you have a dorm?
Even though many Japanese universities offer dorm rooms for exchange students, for some reason we were not allowed to get one in mine. So the university’s foreign affairs officer had made the arrangements to get me an apartment.

Was it far from the university?
About six kilometers, in an area known as Kanagawa, in the outskirts of Tokyo. I bought me a bicycle and commuted every day, because the bus was really expensive, and the trip took the same time as the bike ride.

And you could enjoy the scenery too.
Yeah. Tokyo is not bike-friendly like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, with fully dedicated lanes, you have to share the road with cars and trucks. But I was really lucky because the route from my apartment to the school was really peaceful, and could be covered mostly using bike roads, which is very rare.

What was the environment like?
The area I was staying at was very lively, with a big train station, shopping mall, and restaurants (I went again this year and there’s been more development there). But my every day route to school was more rural, with farms and factories. I passed corn fields and coops with chickens and pigs, some old temples. In the horizon I could see the mountains. Often these cute grandmothers would be selling their own produce. I bought their potatoes on my way back many times, very good stuff.

And if you suddenly found yourself in the middle of nowhere, could you read signs, did you know how to orient yourself?
In Tokyo it’s easier, as in streets and shops the signs use romaji letters that can be read even if you don’t understand kanji. But outside the city area I couldn’t read, no.

What school were you attending to?
Joshi Bijutsu Daigaku (Women’s University of Art and Design).

Was it easy for you to mingle?
At the time I was the only foreign girl who wasn’t Chinese or Korean, so I kind of stood out in the crowd. Most people seemed interested in talking to me. They would sometimes see me eating lunch by myself at the start of the semester and sat down with me to talk, and after that we would hang out often. Really nice friendships began that way.

Did you share similar interests with the girls?
When I was there I was 22 or 23, and most of my classmates were around 19, so sometimes the gap could be felt. They were quite young, just entering university, in their first or second course. And many still lived with their parents, as it’s customary there (some still had their moms preparing their lunch every day!). I, on the other hand, had left home years ago, lived with my boyfriend in the city… So it was difficult sometimes to relate to the topics they were talking about (some would giggle about girly stuff like who’s had a boyfriend and so on). The talk was naive at times, but in a good way. We all shared a passion for design and many were interested in Finland or foreign countries in general, so there was a lot to discuss. And eventually, when you get to know people better, the topics also get deeper.

How was your first day? Did you understand the teachers?
The first day was difficult, because in the first class where they put me nobody could speak any English, not even the teachers. So the staff had to ask around the department “is there anybody who can speak English in this class?” and then they moved me into that classroom. At the beginning I didn’t really understand much of what was being said so this very nice tutor they found made me notes with emojis and little drawings.

Were you happy then, or anxious?
I was super-happy, yeah. I was excited and that continued for a while. But then the frustration of not understanding anything won (laughs). Until I learned to speak better after about four months.

And you were supposed to pass the tests, get grades.
Well, not exactly like the other students. I was with the second and third graders, because first graders studied general design studies in that school, no specialization, and fourth graders worked on their thesis, so there was nothing I could study with them. So while they went through theoretic courses and examinations (history, languages, and so on) I attended only to the more practical courses, and the grades would be based on work we had to submit to the teachers. It was cool.

Perhaps the most difficult assignment I had was one in which I had to conduct a design research on the theme ‘HAND’. We had to create a mini-book on the subject, with a four-thousand-word limit and lots of drawings and graphic elements. The research was easy, but how could I write so much in a language I barely understood? At that time it was a lot.

And did you manage?
Yeah. The teacher was super-pleased. Before that assignment I had felt that he sort of felt me as a burden, because I didn’t understand and everybody had to explain everything, maybe he thought he was wasting his time. But after I submitted my work… He talked differently to me, he took me more seriously.

So you finally adjusted to school life?
In the beginning I had full days of studies and I really tried to cope, but it was very difficult because of the language barrier on top of the amount of work. So after a couple of months I talked to the person that was orienting us exchange students and asked whether I could take only half of the courses, because I was really tired at that point. So the first semester I took full days, and after that I decided that even if I don’t get so many grades it didn’t really matter, because I wanted also to enjoy my being there, and have time for experiencing things other than just schoolwork.

During the week you had lunch at the canteen, but when you got home what did you cook for yourself? How did you survive on the weekends?
Hmmm, I ate out a lot (laughs). My “kitchen” was only one tiny stove and a sink, so the space for cooking was minimal (most small apartments are like that). Since all you have is an electric rice cooker and the one stove, you can make meals that have rice and something else.

At first I attempted to cook what I usually ate in Finland (pasta and sauce, or mashed potatoes). But soon I realized that cooking something that needed more than one kettle was going to be impossible, so I just switched to “rice and something” like the locals do. And experiments with the rice cooker were fun. I even made cakes with it, and Finnish Christmas porridge in December! Japanese curry (karee raisu) was one of my favorites. I had lots of it, ’cause you can buy these instant cubes that you just drop in the kettle with the chopped vegetables and there you go, quite simple food. I think I even gained weight there because… food there is so delicious, and you eat in a different way than when you’re home, it was strange. And then I ate a lot of bread, this white and fluffy croissant-like bread… I probably didn’t eat very healthily…

So what else did you do when you had free time? Where did you go and how did you choose what to explore?
I went often to Tokyo, alone or with my friends from school. Then in the last half of my studies I met other Finnish exchange students and we also spent time together. Then family and friends came to visit and I played tourist guide for them.

But I didn’t mind going alone as well. Nowadays if I visit Japan with my boyfriend, for example, I have to decide with him where do we go. At that time I could go anywhere and it was my decision. I enjoyed that kind of freedom.

They usually have lots of clubs and activities at school. Did you join any?
No, I didn’t. There were lots of sport clubs at Joshibi, but I was cycling twelve kilometers every day, that was enough sport for me.

Were you okay with the university being girls-only? Did you long for contact with boys?
I didn’t mind. It was both fun and weird, because in Finland everyone is bunched together. In Japan the distinction is more marked. Most of the girls in my school had attended a girls-only high school, and maybe even girls-only junior high-school. But I personally didn’t miss boys much.

Did you ever get approached by males there?
Not so much, and I had a boyfriend for a while. But I didn’t go out much so I can’t really say how interaction is in bars or clubs. A few approached me, but they were really shy. They seemed to think “she only speaks English, we won’t be able to communicate…” and they would back off.

How did you experience similarities between cultures?
Maybe I was just feeling the “I can do whatever I want” rush one gets when abroad, but there must be similarities, because often I actually felt more at home than in Finland. Group behavior is really alike (with many differences too, of course). I could also relate to their level of reserve and personal boundaries. Their sense of modesty is also comparable. If you compliment a Japanese, they definitely react like Finns; they would never go “yeah, that’s true! I am so awesome!”. It’s more like “oh, it was nothing, just luck…” I found it easy to talk with them, and understand them. They also value nature very much, even though in huge cities like Tokyo not everybody thinks of nature or the outdoors. Still, in only one hour from the middle of Tokyo you can find yourself surrounded by forests and mountains.

Did you ever get attacked by those monster hornets?
No. I saw one once in our classroom, but a janitor came in and dealt with it.

Did you ever get squeezed in by the helpers on train stations?
If it was needed. Since I lived in the outskirts of Tokyo, on my way in there were always seats available. But on the way back, getting on in Shinjuku I could never get a seat. At first I wouldn’t use trains in rush hours, because it really is packed. But then you get used to it, after a while you don’t think about it anymore. You think more in strategic terms: how can I get to that seat from this position? Which is the best place to stand until it’s free..?

In Finland population density is very small. How did you experience the dramatic change of Tokyo?
Apartments and houses are really tiny, and that is definitely something totally different from Finland. When I told people we have sauna in our home, and a garden with apple trees, some of them thought I was super-rich. Compared to Japan, land costs nothing in Finland, especially in the countryside.

My apartment consisted of the bed, then behind the bed a door to the balcony (which was just for the air conditioning, I never went there). By the way, the Japanese never stay in balconies; they hang their laundry there or have washing machines, but never spend time there. In Finland you can have coffee in the balcony, read a book. So anyway (she turns a few degrees) here was my sofa, (keeps rotating a few degrees for each item) here was the table on which I had my laptop, here was the TV, here my cupboard with dishes and the rice cooker, and then the door to the corridor that held the sink and the kitchen stove. And the toilet and bathroom. Very tiny, and expensive. 800 euros for about 19 square meters, monthly. And I was a student on a loan.

Did you experience any natural disasters? Typhoons, earthquakes?
They have typhoon season every year, but usually they are just big storms. Perhaps at sea (or on a small island), the coast or in mountainous areas the situation is different, but on the mainland in a big city it was not that bad. Around September we had strong winds and warnings not to go outside, because debris was flying around. I stayed in then, because I did not want any airborne branches or electricity cables on my head. But the next morning, when the wind had calmed down, I decided to go out and take a look. Apparently I was a little too late, as there was almost no signs of yesterday’s storm! Some people were still cleaning their section of the sidewalk so everything would be tidy again. They fix and clean everything so fast.

There were also some earthquakes, but nothing dramatic, at least for me. Some of my friends would sometimes ask “did you feel the quake last night?” But I used to sleep so soundly I wouldn’t feel a thing. One time the cereal bag on top of my fridge began to vibrate, and the apples rolled on their own… That was the strongest shake I experienced (6 Richter, I think). But it was at sea, luckily not too close to Tokyo.

Did you get any previous instruction on how to react?
I got some instructions. You are supposed to stay under a sturdy table and keep away from anything that can fall on top of you, but my table was just a low coffee table, I couldn’t possibly hide under it. I also opened the door as advised.

So you could die outside.
He, he. No. If your door is closed and gets jammed, you’re trapped inside. I think I was also supposed to cut the main gas valve, but I didn’t know where it was or how to do it, so I didn’t (giggles). But I opened the door to watch how everybody else was reacting, and saw nobody. Quakes are common there, they happen all the time. I guess they are used to that.

And then the tsunami happened. But this was after you left.
Yeah, it was a year after I was back in Finland.

How far was it from the place you were living in?
Fukushima is near Sendai, about 300 km north of Tokyo. Not far.

Do you have friends from that area?
Yes, I have friends in Sendai. Nobody died or lost family, but it was really harsh for them, as they had of course lots of friends who lost loved ones, or homes. Some couldn’t go to school, and others had to stay at their university, because at the very moment they were doing some research, and had to remain there for many days, it was dangerous to leave. Gas and electricity were out, and there was no traffic. Water had to be brought from somewhere else. Daily life was completely upside-down. One of my friends had a picture of a massive crack in the wall of their house. They might have to rebuild the house, or the next quake may bring the whole thing down.

And how is it right now? Because the reactor is still melting and emitting deadly radiation…
Last time I saw my friends in January, I noticed they buy their food from safe zones. They thoroughly check the packages, and people are obviously not buying products from that area, which must be terrible for the local industry. I also learned some of my friends volunteered to go there and give a hand. Even though now it has calmed down, there’s still lots to do.

Back to your Japanese experience, how do you think it has influenced you? On the professional side?
It would be difficult to measure exactly how much, but I am quite certain their design philosophy has definitely influenced my style. I might not see it consciously, but I think it can be noticed by external observers. My efforts to learn the language and to understand the culture have also given me both personal and professional rewards. Last summer I traveled there for a book expo, to assist and guide a representative of the publishing company I worked for. That was interesting, because we wanted to see how advanced they were in terms of digital content (they are usually several steps ahead) but we found out we are more or less at the same level.

And a major milestone for me was the publishing of my first book. Even before I departed and all throughout the trip I was maintaining a blog, documenting my experiences as a personal diary, to let my family and friends have an idea of what my life was like over there, and maybe to help others in a similar situation. When I got approached by a Finnish publisher who read it and suggested the possibility of offering all that knowledge in book form I said YES, because publishing a book had been one of my dreams.

Is it selling well?
It came out three years ago and the first edition is almost sold out. Even though it’s meant for a very specific target audience -exchange students and people willing to live or travel in Japan for a longer period- many people read it, which makes me happy.

Have you thought of offering a version in English?
It would be very difficult. It’s written with Finns in mind, comparing many local customs and codes with that of the Japanese. It also gives specific advice to Finnish students on scholarships, things like that. And it would require extensive rewrites and edition (which I should be doing even now with the original version) because everything changes: train schedules, prices, locations, so many things… Something I’ve been considering is to release a more touristic version, maybe. I have been to so many great places, and many of them are not covered in the original book, so there is definitely material for another one.

Besides your everyday work, are you developing any personal projects?
Yes, I work on a mobile game project with a group of friends on our free time. I’m also working on a children’s book. I have the story (which I rewrite all the time), I sketch and draw a lot, and I have the characters and the scenes in my mind. It’s definitely on the way.

We’ll do an article about it when it comes out.
Incidentally, I just booked tickets to spend a whole month in Japan for my summer vacation! I will work on my book while enjoying being in my other home again. Hot days in the city parks and coffee shops, sipping iced green-tea, and writing my children’s story… Can’t wait!

And how do you think the trip has influenced you personally?
The whole experience was empowering. It gave me the certainty that I can accomplish anything I set myself to do. That I can manage, even in the face of big complications and barriers (like the language, for example) and that I can be happy even if I don’t understand everything. And I wasn’t sure I could accomplish all that, because it was really complex, from the planning it to the living it. But I did make it, and that has led me to believe in my dreams.

Liisa’s book is available in Akateeminen Kirjajauppa, Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, and bookstores that carry Finnish books. Also online at Adlibris. This is her blog and her Facebook page.

All images of Japan © 2014 Liisa Stenberg.