For a whirlwind of nine days this past July, I traveled around Japan with four other nikkei from all over America. As a yonsei Japanese-Chinese-American girl, born and raised in both the West and East coasts of America, Japan has always been an alluringly beautiful yet distant and almost impossibly inscrutable country. To travel to Tokyo, Yokosuka, Kyoto, and Kamakura with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Friendship Organization was a dream come true—the best first introduction to Japan I could ever wish for. Walking around the Buddhist temples in the misty Kamakura mountains, I felt as if I was rediscovering a long-lost friend.
I met four other nikkei in the Narita Airport, hailing from Utah (Boone, a quiet and thoughtful Mormon and hapa with a distinct passion for Asian-America), Huntington Beach (Chris, the quintessential Model UN-er Southern-Californian), Sacramento (Grace, an adorable and talkative thespian who was on her 3rd scholarship trip to Japan!), and the suburbs of Chicago (Jaclyn, the bouncy and cheerful junior with an endless number of activities).
We started out in Tokyo, on “official business”, meeting with Cody Walsh (we called him Cody-san), a charismatic and inspiring US State Department officer as well as a kind and friendly member of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The rest of the trip, however, was jam-packed with sightseeing and cultural exchange. We spent a day-in-the-life at Yokosuka High School, followed by two idyllic days in Kyoto, two nights on a homestay, followed by two last days in Tokyo.
All of our host families were great matches—thank you, IFA! I felt right at home in Kamakura despite the language barrier. I stayed in the misty and beautiful suburbs of Kamakura with the Hata family—the father is a gentle and kind architect, the mother is a warm-hearted piano teacher, and their two daughters are right around my age and big Disney fans. I brought my flute along with me, hoping to play with my host mother, and it turns out that one of my host sisters attends music school two hours away. Together, my host mother on piano, my host sister on alto sax, and I on flute played “The Old Folks at Home”. Reflecting back on it now, almost two months afterward, that may be the highlight of the whole trip for me.
After our homestay experiences, we regrouped in Tokyo for the last two days of our time in Japan. Before departing for Narita, we spent the morning in the Edo Museum. As I walked through the museum, it was as though I was walking through a physical display of a few of the units from the Reischauer Scholars Program (which completely deserves its own post—that’s to come!). It was the bow on top of the present that the IFA and the whole program had given to me—a deeper and nuanced appreciation for Japan, a foundation for what hopefully will be a lifetime of contact and connection with this country.
Of course, I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of Japan. Despite the studying and reading I’ve done on Japan so far, culture shock hit me hard. Towards the end of the trip, I started to really miss three things about America: couches, open fields, and diversity. Laughing loudly on the subways, sitting sprawled out at ramen bars, and not finishing every last grain of rice in my bowl made me feel the most American I had ever felt in my life. On the other hand, the other nikkei inspired me to connect with the Japanese-American community wherever I am in America or the world, giving me a new dimension to my own ever-changing examinations and reflections on my identity.
I am so grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Friendship Organization, our tour guide Sugimoto-san, Yokosuka Soga High School, Mrs. Funahashi, my dear RSP instructor, for introducing me to the program, and to Chris (good luck this fall!), Grace (you’re going to rock Newsies), Boone (keep the memes coming please), and Jaclyn (you’re gonna crush junior year) for the best nine days of my life. Thank you to all who were involved in the 2019 Japanese-American Invitational Program, I will never forget this trip and all the ways you all have opened up my connection with Japan.
If you are in high school and are of Japanese or Japanese mixed heritage, be on the lookout for the application for the 2020 Program in the Spring. You can find more information at your local Japanese Consulate or the Embassy of Japan website.