Karl Trautman

While I was teaching, I was learning.

As a Fulbright Visiting Lecturer in Japan this past fall, my assignment was to teach at Otaru University of Commerce in Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan’s main islands. In February, I arrived back in Maine after five months abroad, intrigued by the Japanese culture that I experienced.

My strongest impression was how the interests of the group outweigh the individual. I sensed that the default position was to always think about how your actions might affect a group, whether it is your coworkers, people next to you on a street, bus or train, or even society.

Masks epitomized this feeling. When I arrived in September, nearly everyone was wearing them, both inside and outside. When I left in February, nothing had really changed. All this mask wearing occurred even though the government had issued targeted guidelines as to when they should be worn.

Another example is how people are expected to line up to board trains. On some platforms, there are markings that designate where you should stand. One time I was waiting for a train and got in a line that had formed to the side. When a worker started furiously waving his hands, I was confused because it didn’t seem anyone was cutting. Instead, the problem was the line was blocking part of the space in front of the stairway. So we reassembled and formed a straight one.

Often, acting in the best interests of the group translated into not wanting to stand out. I noticed that in the clothes. They were usually all very conservative, solid dark colors or white. Expressions of individuality was the exception. Yet, most everyone looked sharp.


I did my best not to stand out and wore plain dark clothes. However, I did bring a garment from Maine that gave me away: my L.L. Bean red rain jacket. Although donning it put an exclamation point on my status as a foreigner.

Continuing on L.L. Bean, I realized its global awareness shortly after arriving in Otaru. One day I was exploring and went into a small shop to buy ice cream. The person serving me spoke English and asked where I was from. After I said Maine, he immediately said: “L.L. Bean.” His quick and positive response startled me, but in a good way.

How technology is used amazed me. The back doors of taxis open and close automatically. There are vending machines on residential streets. The coffee machine at my university was wonderful; not only did a countdown begin after making my selection, but when it ended, a door opened automatically allowing me to grab my coffee with one easy move.

Restaurants use technology in ways that surprised me. There was a machine near the entrance of my favorite Ramen place which made my dining experience simple. After inserting money and choosing a dish, a ticket spit out which I gave to the host as that person found a place for me to sit.

Within minutes, a hot delicious bowl of Ramen was before me. I enjoyed my meal without the distractions of a menu or money. With no tipping in Japan, I walked out after finishing and bowed gratefully.

Unfortunately, I did not learn to speak Japanese. I had every intention to try and learn a little of the language, but the ubiquitous wearing of masks quickly jettisoned that plan. Through hand gestures, the Google Translate app, a sense of humor and a lot of patience, both for the person with whom I was talking and with myself, I was able to make out OK.


The attentiveness of the service sector was something I will never forget. If people couldn’t help me with my request or question, they quickly got someone who could.

In October, I was at a train station asking for information on the best way to get to an area north of there where I wanted to visit. The train I wanted was leaving soon, and I was told what track to go to. I started to walk, not totally confident that I was going to find it in time.

My apprehension must have been sensed by the young lady who had given me the information, because before I knew it she was speed walking in front of me, directing me to the track. After we arrived, she made sure I knew which way to go before leaving. I made my connection, amazed that someone would make that much effort to help me.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to experience some of what Japan has to offer. It’s peacefulness, kindness and orderliness was an experience of learning — for this teacher.

Karl Trautman of Rockport is an instructor in the Public Service and Social Sciences Department at Central Maine Community College.

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