By Cheong Kakit, Satveer Kaur, Derrick Ng and Naomi Tan, CNM Graduate Students
Student exchange between JENESYS 2.0 participants and Nagoya Institute of Technology
Japan is arguably one of the most popular tourist destinations among Singaporeans, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who has something negative to say about their experience there. This July, the four of us were given the opportunity to visit Japan as part of the JENESYS 2.0 Programme organized by Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE). Established in 1977, JICE is mainly involved in developing and coordinating international cooperation activities, and has been running the JENESYS 2.0 programme for about seven years now. The programme was kindly sponsored by the Japanese Government. Our group of 25 made up the 21st Batch of students from local universities in Singapore, including NUS, NTU, and SUTD, who would be visiting Japan from 30 June to 8 July 2014. Our journey began and ended in Tokyo, but much of our time was spent in Aichi Prefecture, known not only for their rich history, but also as a technological hub.
This immersion programme was aimed at exposing Southeast Asian youths to the Japanese way of life and business, specifically in the science and technology and digital media sectors. Our Japanese hosts not only facilitated the trip meticulously and in a very well organized manner, they also did it with warmth, always ensuring all our needs were well taken care of. Their kind hospitality towards us was mirrored in our everyday interactions with the Japanese as well. Aptly summed up by Satveer:
“Japan is a place with soul. The soul of the people. The Japanese’s respect for society and for themselves must be valued and reinterpreted in our own spaces. We have so much to learn from a culture of people that pride on harmony with a focus on their society before themselves.”
The JENESYS 2.0 Programme
The JENESYS 2.0 programme included highly informative and educational components which were designed to give us insight into the Japanese industries, their history and philosophy, and also some of the exciting new ventures in the field of science and technology. For instance, we visited the Sony ExploraScience Museum in Tokyo to see and feel first-hand some of the new technologies in light, sound, and entertainment. We were also invited to the Brother Communication Space, an impressive and modern exhibition space which included a museum documenting Brother’s manufacturing history and also the future of Brother’s product offerings.
Sony ExploraScience Museum and Brother Communication Space (Nagoya)
Visualising technology: “The better to see you, my dear”
Besides learning more about the industries in Japan, we were also exposed to the history and culture of Japan. The programme was successful in keeping a balance between displaying Japanese modernity without neglecting the cultural roots. We spent a wonderful afternoon at the Inuyama Castle in Nagoya, learning about the history of this distinctive landmark (often claimed to be the oldest castle in Japan), making our way through the beautiful gardens and past Shinto shrines, climbing up a treacherous four steep flights of steps, to be rewarded with breathtaking views of the Kiso River.
Even so, most of us agreed that one of the most memorable segments of the programme was the homestay. Thanks to the JENESYS 2.0 programme, all of us spent two days living with a Japanese family. The homes we stayed in were beautifully crafted with a perfect balance of contemporary architecture on the outside and yet, keeping to the premise of the traditional Japanese home on the inside. Most homes had a living room constructed with bamboo and/or the earthen straw with quaint touches of Japanese motifs and features such as the suikinkitsu (water harp) placed in the gardens of Japanese homes. If you were lucky, you might have the opportunity of spotting the age old koto (stringed musical instrument) in the living room of these homes.
Although we were no doubt well fed at every single meal, there was really nothing better than a delicious home-cooked meal prepared with love by our homestay mothers, eaten at the dinner table with the rest of the family. From crispy tempura to hand rolled sushi, everything was made to perfection in the Japanese home. Sometimes, dinner would be washed down with warm sake, as in the experience of Naomi, who lived with a family of sake brewers!
Interestingly, while we often assume that technology results in the weakening of local traditions, we found that most Japanese people were able to embrace new technologies while preserving their cultural identity. For example, during Kakit’s homestay, his host father utilized his smartphone to plan and organize a visit to a sumo training session. Upon arrival, the family was quick to capture beautiful images with their mobile phones and digital cameras.
As much as were in awe of the beautiful homes amidst the green hilly terrains in Nagoya, we were charmed by hospitable and warm families we had adopted. It was a teary consensus that this was the best part of the trip for many of us, particularly evident when we had to say goodbye after our short but treasured two days with them.
The JENESYS 2.0 programme allowed us to gain a holistic perspective on the Japanese way of life, both at work, at play, and in the very homes of the Japanese people. The well-planned programme exposed us to the business culture of Japan, the university life of Japanese students, and finally back to the roots of how the Japanese live. By immersing into the culture of the people, one can truly understand and reflect on the way of the Japanese as oppose to naval gazing from the outside or just as a tourist.
Japanese Technology and Infrastructure
It is well known that Japan is a producer of innovative technologies and products. One needs only to look around their home to notice that we are surrounded with Japanese appliances. From smart-televisions to washing machines, Japanese products are often known to be cutting-edge and of superior quality.
From the moment we touched down at Haneda Airport, the convergence of technology and everyday life was apparent. For example, some vending machines allowed for people to simply tap their mobile phones against a sensor to pay for their drink. In another case, a group of us were able to customize our ramen orders entirely through a vending machine. Virtually in all places we travelled to, washroom seats were equipped with electronic controls for specifics tasks, and some even had heated toilet seats.
Another highlight of our trip was taking the public trains. We had the opportunity to not only take the Shinkansen, the famed Japanese high-speed bullet train, but also the chance to navigate the complex web of the local train network. We were told that the Japanese trains were never late and on one of our stops on the bullet train, the 20 odd contingent of us, along with other passengers, had only three minutes to get off the train! The local train network might look like an indecipherable maze of lines at the beginning, but once you understand how it works, travelling to any part of the city will be a breeze. Luckily for us, we had Derrick, a seasoned train traveler who also had a good grasp of Japanese!
JICE was also kind enough to include a student information exchange session with the Nagoya Institute of Technology (NIT) where we able to interact with not only the technologies, but also with the bright minds that were responsible for building such applications. Here, we met Dr. Takahiro Uchiya, the professor in charge of the research lab. Dr. Uchiya’s research interests are in artificial intelligence, knowledge engineering, and spoken dialogue systems. He and his team of students acquainted us with his latest project, a user-generated smart dialogue system named Mei-chan. Mei-chan is a digital signage system that is not only physically available on the grounds of NIT, as a digital signage board, but also available as an application download on any smartphone. As Professor Uchiya puts it, the objective of the project is to develop a new spoken dialogue system framework based on user-generated content, and to advance speech recognition and synthesis technologies.
Mei-chan is not merely an interactive system that gives you directions. She is actually a virtual reality character that one can talk to, flirt with, ask around for directions, weather, horoscope, and so on. Unlike previous systems, Mei-chan was able to express a range of emotions, including shyness, anger, happiness and disappointment. She even exhibits physical attributes such as blushing, smiling, and unhappiness. Hence, Mei-chan is not only able to recognize your questions based on specific keywords, but also respond like she understands you. Needless to say, most of us had fun trying to elicit these responses from the system.
A participant experiencing the technology at Nagoya Institute of Technology (Photo Credit: Eugene Chiong)
To sum up, the JENESYS 2.0 programme presents an excellent opportunity for anyone planning to work or study in Japan. The programme allows you access to industries and communities that you would not get as a tourist, giving you deeper insights into the Japanese way of life and their culture. We would definitely encourage undergraduate and graduate students to participate, as it is a more authentic and localized way of experiencing Japan. As reflected by Derrick:
“Having previously travelled as a tourist to Japan, the JENESYS 2.0 programme gave me an entirely new lens to experience this amazing country. Through this, I was able to live and fully participate in the rich diversity of Japanese culture. This made my experience all the more unforgettable.