Understanding others starts with understanding yourself: What I learned on the other side of the world

Paula Airi Kobayashi Third-year student, Department of Economics, Faculty of EconomicsMs. Kobayashi fell in love with Meiji Gakuin University upon attending an open campus in her second year of high school, after which she entered the Department of Economics, Faculty of Economics. During the 2020 spring semester, she attended online classes from Peru, despite the fourteen-hour time difference. She is currently studying in Keigo Inukai’s seminar (Department of Economics, Faculty of Economics), and currently spends her days deep in research activities under the theme “behavioral analysis of human decision-making processes.” Her interests include painting with pastels and playing the alto saxophone, which she played for six years in band since her first year of junior high school and has competed in national competitions.

I almost gave up on Meiji Gakuin

When in high school I told everyone I was determined to attend Meiji Gakuin, I usually got a cool response. “Are you sure about that?” and “Maybe you should be a little more realistic” are typical comments I heard. My grades were in the top half of my class…if you ordered them worst-to-best. Nowhere near good enough to get into Meiji Gakuin, in other words. But after attending an open campus event in the summer of my second year, my mind was set. I fell in love with the fashionable campus, the students and their vision for the future, and the many people I saw engaged in volunteer activities. It was all so exciting to me, someone who was unsure what to do with her future, spending every day in classes and club activities in a designated uniform. I also loved the many unique enrolled students I saw.

Being the child of a Peruvian father and a Japanese mother, for better or worse I’d always been treated as something “special,” which sometimes left me feeling lonely. Maybe that’s another reason I was so attracted to Meiji Gakuin. I thought, “This is the place that will accept me for who I am!” So at first I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted to major in, it was more like I was just in love with the school itself. So in May of my third year of high school, I withdrew from club activities and studied as hard as I could, up to fifteen hours per day. Thanks to my efforts, I somehow managed to get accepted. Even today, I nearly cry when I remember opening my acceptance letter.

The fascination of economics

I first realized how interesting economics can be in spring semester of my first year in college.

This realization came during an Introduction to Microeconomics class, where we were asked to consider why some students don’t do homework. Not only was this a theme I could empathize with, I couldn’t wait to learn how it had anything to do with economics. How wasteful would it be to put off doing my homework? Conversely, what were the benefits of doing my homework? It was all about opportunity cost and utility, I learned. This connected familiar examples with the technical jargon of economics, completely changing my understanding of what the field is all about. In particular, I learned that economics is related to human psychology. Realizing this is why I joined the Keigo Inukai seminar, which specializes in experimental and behavioral economics. It is a very popular seminar, so when I was accepted in November 2019 I was nearly as happy as when I was accepted to Meiji Gakuin itself. Looking back, I can’t believe I had no interest in economics when I first entered school. I was totally captivated.

What I learned on the other side of the world

In the spring of my second year, I was overjoyed that the seminar would soon be starting. Using money I’d saved up working a part-time job, I travelled to Tarapoto, the small town in Peru’s Amazon basin where my elderly grandfather lives. My plans were to stay there for around six weeks, staring in February 2020, but on March 16, just before I’d planned to return home, the Peruvian government announced a state of emergency. At 11:59 PM on the 16th, all Peruvian land, sea, and sky borders were closed, and everyone was prohibited from travel. At first this was only to last for fifteen days until March 30, so honestly I was thrilled to be able to stay a little longer, but the situation grew only worse, with a curfew issued on the 18th and an extension of the state of emergency. The roads are not maintained in many areas of Peru, so traveling long distances normally involves air travel. I was staying in a jungle region of the Amazon basin where charter flights for evacuation of Japanese nationals weren’t available, so the halt on all air travel left me stranded. Realizing I had no way back to Japan left me anxious and stressed out.

Understanding others starts with understanding yourself

I’d never done anything like spending nearly seven months in the Amazon. Something that really surprised me was how stressful it was to live with my grandfather. For example, if you get hurt in Japan you generally take medicine, but people in Peru rely on natural healing. When I got hurt, they rubbed lemons on my injury. We had to be self-sufficient for the food we ate, which included things like guinea pigs and insects. I’d gotten used to such differences in daily life during the first half of my stay, but the biggest obstacle I encountered was fundamental differences regarding communication. Sensing others’ feelings and thoughts without using words is a part of Japanese culture, but in Peru it was all about language. I’d never been particularly good at expressing myself, which led to arguments even with the grandfather I had such a good relationship with, and even everyday interactions with others became somewhat stressful.

The month of June was particularly bad. Dozens of locals living nearby died of COVID-19, and in addition I learned that my pet dog, a beloved member of our family, had died too. Thanks to the cooperation of the University, particularly the staff in the Academic Affairs Department, I was able to join the online classes that had started in April, but I spent the month of June feeling really down. What got me through that time was Bible verses I learned from my Peruvian aunt, a Christian.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. (Ephesians 4:28, 29)

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

These two verses in particular kept me going, allowing me to reconsider my situation in a more positive way. Reflecting on these words, I decided to work toward passing on Japanese culture, so I would be better understood by those around me. I taught the children some simple Japanese and origami, and used what ingredients I could locally obtain to make Japanese dishes. I explained what kind of music was popular in Japan, the kinds of things I did with my friends, and so on. In other words, I did my best to show them what kind of person I was. This got them interested, asking about differences between their culture and my own. They asked questions to get to know me better, and in turn told me how they do things differently in Peru as compared to Japan.

So my biggest mistake was thinking that language ability was sufficient for communications, that being able to speak and understand Spanish would be enough.

I realized that the most important thing for communication is understanding yourself, then passing that on so that others understand you. The kind of country you come from, and what you do there. Your national culture and how people in your country think. What I learned about communicating with others and the strong interest in them that I discovered in the Amazon are now the driving force behind my research activities, namely learning about human decision-making processes.

I want to know more about people

Today, most of my energy is directed toward my research, where I analyze human decision-making processes. I investigate how our bodies and brains function when making judgments and decisions, and I study habits in human behavior. My fellow seminar students and I are engaged in research with Professor Keigo Inukai, mainly in his laboratory in the Takanawa campus, one of the largest experimental economics facilities in Japan. Our seminar is currently meeting in a hybrid fashion, both face-to-face and online. I decided to attend face-to-face meetings, because meeting my classmates each week and having casual conversations about job hunting and such is something I really look forward to. One of our important seminar activities is increasing the number of persons registered in the subject pools we use to collect data for analysis. More registrations lead to increased precision in our analyses, so in the future we plan to recruit not only Meiji Gakuin students, but also students at universities, junior colleges, trade schools, and graduate schools across the Kanto region. Recently we’ve also become very interested in eye-tracking, a tool for measuring eye movements when people look at things like advertisements. We hope to apply trends in human behavior we discover through our research to future marketing techniques, and to help people make better choices.

The time I spent in the Amazon increased my interest in human beings themselves. We must not just subjectively, but also quantitatively analyze and demonstrate the themes and hypotheses that we come up with. Before entering Meiji Gakuin I had no idea I would become so hooked on economics, but one thing I can say for sure: through it I am steadily growing. I am currently looking for a job to follow graduation, particularly in the IT industry, but also with an eye toward consumer goods manufacturers, because I would like to apply digital technologies to reducing resource waste and to help protect the earth’s environment, including the Amazon. I want to do something for other people. This is also related to Meiji Gakuin’s educational philosophy of “Do for Others,” but I hope my work will bring a smile to many faces as I dedicate my thoughts to the analytical skills I have developed through economics.

To that end, I will continue to focus on economics and deepen my learning of it, treating each day as precious as I do so.