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Culture within a culture: a big manga fan visits Japan

By Staff | Jun 23, 2017

Samantha Bell loves manga. She loved it even more when she could witness so much of its culture while visiting her brother, James, in Japan this last March.

I made the jump,” says 26-year-old Blue Earth resident, Samantha Bell. “If you have the chance, do it. Don’t second guess yourself, just do it.”

Though Bell’s jump was not literal, but rather advice on traveling if anyone is given the opportunity, the jump Bell made to visit her brother James in Japan is just as big of a jump as any other.

Earlier this year, Bell traveled to Sukugawa, a city located in Fukushima Prefecture in northern Honshu, Japan. Though the city is considered to be a suburb of sorts to Tokyo, the city still holds 76,976 people in its city limits. That’s 275 people per square kilometer, or every .62 miles. A vast difference from Blue Earth’s 2014 population of 3,269.

Bell shares that her brother moved to Japan approximately eight months ago to become a middle school teacher’s assistant.

James Bell, 24, decided to make his own jump to move to the island overseas after dedicating more than five years to learning Japanese.

One of the action figures Bell collected from her trip to Japan.

“The minute he decides he wants to do something, he does it,” says his sister.

James took four years of Japanese in college and studied one year abroad, but his interest in the Japanese language and culture started in Blue Earth. His sister says he has always had a passion for it and he wanted to see his passion through.

“He was very inspiring,” says Samantha. “Once he was over there, I decided I wanted to go visit. I second-guessed myself a few times but knew it was important to just do it. If you have the chance, do it. The experience of traveling abroad is far greater a value than just dollars sitting in your pocket.”

Among the highlights of Samantha’s two-week trip to see her brother were, of course, visiting the school where he taught and meeting the students; visiting the Zao fox village where guests could go up to wild foxes to pet, feed, and play with them; the Abukuma caves, a system of caves that stretch far under a tall mountain, which Samantha and her brother explored both above and below; as well as the Meiji shrine temple, located in Shibuya, Tokyo and has the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken who loved flowers and gardening. It now houses a river of irises in honor of the Empress.

The other highlight for Samantha on this trip was being able to see where her favorite form of illustration and storytelling comes from.

Bell sorts through her thousands of photos she took on her trip to Japan.

Samantha is a big fan of anime and manga. Both anime and manga are forms of Japanese storytelling that are very similar, yet still different, from America’s cartoons and comic books.

“Anime are like animated movies or television shows, much like our American cartoons while manga is the written form of anime like comic books or cartoon magazines,” explains Bell.

She says the anime and manga culture is huge in Japan while other Asian cultures don’t dive into the anime and manga world like Japan.

What is most interesting about Bell’s admiration for this art form is that she has been a fan of the art since she was a student at Blue Earth Area High School.

“When I was young, I really loved anime, there were a few shows I watched, like Inuyasha, that I really enjoyed, then a few years ago, I really got into manga thanks to a friend,” says Bell. “I am a total otaku (Japanese for ‘nerd’) when it comes to manga and being in the culture where it is fully embraced was so incredible.”

She says she felt like a bit of a loner when it came to her passion for the Japanese sub-culture in America, but when visiting Japan, Bell felt a little less isolated when sharing her passion with others.

“It’s something with the way the characters speak to your spirit,” says Bell on reading manga. “It’s a far deeper connection to the building of the main character in the stories compared to America’s comic books. It’s almost an emotional connection, the kind you get from reading a good novel, but with pictures and story telling interwoven in the stories. It’s fun talking about it when you meet fans who also enjoy it.”

  • Bell was able to share her passion with the students at her brother’s school. Though the context was minimal due to language barriers, Bell and her brother’s students still shared a giggle or two over the subject.

“We spent two days at the middle school, and it was very interesting to see how Japanese classrooms were run compared to our own,” says Bell. “Some of the main differences were that only the classrooms were heated. Not the hallways or offices, just the classrooms, and the students stayed in their classrooms pretty much all day.”

Bell says the students’ meals were also in the classrooms, which was different for her to experience.

“The meals are made just for them, with the utmost emphasis on health and proper portions, as well as etiquette and clean up and recycling,” says Bell. “The students would finish their eating and clean up their dishes right there in the classroom. And the recycling in Japan is very extensive. There are different recycling bins for different types of plastic and paper. It’s amazing to see.”

As she followed her brother and the students on a bus tour, Samantha learned more about the culture of Japan from the perspective of middle-schoolers whom Bell describes as giggly, shy, and excited to learn about Samantha.

“In the Japanese culture, there is something called a jikoshokai, or a self-introduction at gatherings, like a classroom,” she says. As Bell spoke Japanese, she also interpreted as she went along. “It means nice to meet you, I am Samantha. I am 26 years old. I recited it a million times.”

Every time her brother introduced her, Samantha says he had to explain they were brother and sister, and James was Samantha’s “ototo,” or ‘little brother.”

“I also called him ‘shibi’ a few times, which means shorty or shrimp in Japanese,” laughed Bell. “The language over there is so vast and unique. There are three types of alphabets. There’s letters, or hiragana, whole phrases or word meanings, or kanji, and katakana, which is kind of a way to figure out words that do not exist in the Japanese language.”

Bell explains the Japanese students spend their entire lives learning English, and says she’s sad to see America not making as great of an effort to learn other languages.

“In Japan, students are very cautious about speaking English because they don’t want to seem disrespectful to us. They work so hard to learn English and are very brave to embrace American culture like we do,” says Bell. “But in our own culture, we don’t seem to respect other cultures like they do ours. It’s something I am definitely going to try harder to do embrace and learn other cultures besides my own.”

And it seems Bell has found a new passion amidst her Japanese adventure traveling.

“I’ve been bitten by the bug, and I cannot wait to plan my next trip. It’s so amazing to connect with people who don’t speak the same language as you but you share a mutual respect with them. It was an amazing trip.”

Bell says she now wants to explore Thailand, France, Australia, Russia, the Amazon, and many other places.

One thing is for sure, Bell is glad she took the leap to fly overseas, to be with her brother, and to learn and embrace the Japanese culture.