Anabel Hirano '13: Anabel’s Exquisite Experience in Japan Corpse

Anabel Hirano was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, Japan. This is her second year narrative.

Actually, I wouldn’t say my experience in Japan has been “exquisite.” “Fulfilling,” “challenging,” “eye-opening,” maybe. But, Exquisite Corpse is an incredible game. You can play it with any number of people, but the magic number is 3. All you need is paper and a pen or pencil. Folding the paper so that you cannot look at one another’s drawings, each person sketches one third of a body. One person will draw a head, one person will draw a torso, and the third person will draw some feet. Of course, each portion can take any shape the person desires – the head can be multiple, the torso can have wings, the legs can be not legs but a fish tail. Once every portion is finished, the masterpiece is unfolded and displayed for everyone’s enjoyment. Here are some examples of exquisite corpses:

In some ways, my Shansi Fellowship began with Exquisite Corpse. Xenna(Taigu), Karl (Banda Aceh) and I amused each other during our orientation at Shansi House during the winter of 2013 by drawing exquisite corpses together. Little did we know that we would draw many an exquisite corpse during our two years abroad, in many delightful combinations of country and Shansi fellow. This became our official pastime, as we waited for buses, sat on trains, ate at restaurants, rode boats, had slumber parties. Sometimes we would branch off and play other paper and pen games, but we always returned to the corpses.

Exquisite Corpse has been a constant during these two years that have seen a lot of change. I’ve seen a lot of places, I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve gone through many changes of opinion and feeling. But Exquisite Corpse was always something we could return to – some guaranteed, simple fun. At times it has represented all of the different feelings, many different people that have come into my life, how we connect and don’t connect, how well we know and don’t know each other and how much we still surprise each other.

I don’t think we ever acknowledged this, and I can only speak for myself, but maybe playing Exquisite Corpse also provided us with an alternative way to be with each other. Whenever Shansi fellows meet, we have a lot to share and say to each other. In any gathering, some part of the group is traveling, and therefore spending a lot of energy trying to absorb their new surroundings. The people who are hosting are also spending a lot of energy, anxious to make their guests comfortable in their temporary home, hoping to give their guests as full an impression of their country as possible. All the processing can be overwhelming, and the chance to escape into our shared doodles is very welcome. We could never forget where we are, of course (corpses have often been embedded with references to something we witnessed that day), but I suppose you could call it a coping mechanism, as well as a very fun and relaxing pastime.

To honor the Exquisite Corpse, I decided to play the game with myself. The product is “Anabel’s Exquisite Experience in Japan Corpse.” It contains three versions of myself in Japan, right now, as I am this June. I tried not to think too hard about what the three portions would be – I just wanted to pick three of the most overwhelming feelings and thoughts that have been spinning through my head every time someone says “Japan” these days. What I came up with feels at once completely specific to my experience, and absolutely not specific to my experience at the same time.

Excuse me, but my top third is barfing. Tokyo offers a lot of stimulation that sometimes inspires me to feel alive and love the city, but most of the time gives me a headache. I feel the need to go to a quiet, green space with no people and expel all of the overwhelming sights sounds and smells that have been thrown at me without my consent during my time here. I am barfing at the same intensity at which all the stimulation comes at me. There are beer ads, hair removal ads, happy wedding ads, Disney Sea Resort ads, university ads, Glamour Sale ads; announcements about the escalator, the next stop, the current stop, the sale, the ambulance, be careful, you can cross now; pictures of every single dish at the restaurant; vertical signs that are lights, have lights, the lights are moving, blinking, changing color. Amid all this, the people come marching at a steady stream – where do they come from, where are they going, at all hours of every day?

My torso carries its trash home (there are no trash cans anyway), it bows frequently, it takes up as little space as it can, its waste sorts itself out before being collected. I do wish my drawing skills were better to convey my experience of the considerate ways of Japan. Sure, anyone who visits here will notice pretty soon the excellent customer service and the general “niceness” of people around them. But here is the image (in words) that comes to my mind when I think of considerate Japan:

One day I asked my students to all switch seats and get into new groups. It was the middle of class, and they had been writing first drafts of a short essay. I watched as a girl moved and started to settle into the desk right in front of the teacher’s desk. She put her things down, but paused before sitting – her eyes focused on a part of the desk. I followed her gaze and saw that she was staring at some eraser droppings scattered over the top half of the desk.

What would Anabel do? She would most certainly do one of two things: unceremoniously brush the eraser droppings off the desk, or gather the droppings and make a fun squishy ball to play with for the remainder of the class.

My student looked up for a moment, presumably to figure out which of her classmates had so rudely left their droppings. However, she did not have to search for more than a second, for the guilty boy was suddenly at her side, bowing his head and apologizing as he deftly swished the eraser droppings into his hand and took them away. I watched as he went to his new seat and put the eraser droppings into his pencil case, presumably to dispose of later. Whenever he came across a trash can, which probably wouldn’t happen until he got home.

My bottom third worships food. My love and appreciation for food has come to a new level, it has “level up”-ed as they say. “Food” can be a synonym for “Japan.” Thanks to my family of food snobs over here, I have had the very lucky chance to try some of the most delectable raw fish, raw horse, hand made fresh udon, newly harvested and grated wasabi. Whenever I come back from visiting another country, my family eagerly asks about the food, and ends with, “Well, that all sounds nice, but nothing beats Japanese food, don’t you think?” Perhaps the highlight of my food adventures was during a trip to Azumino with some of the women of my family. We stayed at a ryokan famous for its meals. I swear, each course of the eleven course meal was like its own sculpture. But, as many have discovered before me, the reverence for food here is not reserved for the expensive restaurants. Incredible food is everywhere! Machida has delicious and affordable fish, hamburgers, soup dumplings, okonomiyaki, a whole cafe dedicated to green tea dessert. And don’t get me started on the combinis, with their seductive aisles of individually packaged snacks and prepared meals that pass for good food. The other day, the three Japan fellows plus Ruby from Jogja went to a museum entirely dedicated to Cup Noodles. If you turn on the TV, you will very likely see some famous people eating and exclaiming how delicious everything is. No food, no life.


I have no doubt that “busy,” “considerateness,” and “good food” are common images that come to mind when foreigners speak of Japan, but I hold my own experience of each dear. As for Exquisite Corpse, I am sure that I will continue to play for the rest of my life with many different people. But I hope to keep finding opportunities to play with my fellow fellows, even if it must be through the mail.