Do you remember the first time you came to Japan? If you were like most of us, your eyes were sparkling with delight and wonder, your body possessed by an itch to explore every nook and cranny, and you were hooked from the instant you stepped outside. Have you ever wondered what that you might have looked like at that moment of discovery? I recently got the chance to witness this eureka euphoria firsthand as I got involved with the inaugural group from the Kizuna Project.
The Kizuna Project was created by the Japanese Government as a way of re-igniting the passion for Japanese tourism that had been somewhat diluted by the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. The plan is to invite an estimated 9000 students from schools all over Asia and North America to come visit Japan for short or long term, and send another 2300 or so Japanese students abroad to some of those same schools as an exchange. While the students are in Japan they are given a tour of some of the most famous attractions, including, of course, Tokyo and its myriad facets, Kyoto, and Osaka. During that period they also spend some time with a Japanese family as part of homestay, and visit one of the prefectures struck by last year’s earthquake disaster so they can get an idea of the full impact of the tragedy and its lasting effects on the area. The ultimate goal of the project is to have these students return to their home countries and spread the word about their experiences in Japan, about the safety of tourism in Japan, and about the resilience and spirit of the Japanese people.
To that end, the first group spent 4 days in Ibaraki as soon as they arrived in Japan. Around 50 Students from Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh and Meridian High School in Idaho were united upon arrival and brought wide-eyed and jetlagged to meet the Prefectural Governor. All students were originally taking Japanese classes in their hometowns, and had already had some kind of introduction to Japanese culture through their studies, but it was fascinating to see them confronting it in person for the first time. Those who were chosen to meet the governor asked well-though-out questions about attracting industry to the area and making use of the entertainment industry to re-start tourism. But having seen very little so far it was too soon for the real excitement to set in.
However, by the third day there was no stopping them. They were brought to Hitachi Ni-ko High School to experience Japanese school life and meet students their own age, and from the instant their buses pulled into the parking lot the powder keg was lit. Though both groups of students were initially quite nervous and kept to themselves, it was clear they very much wanted to meet the other; it wasn’t until they were forced to play a game where they found a student from the other group and got them to teach them a new word in their language that things got interesting. Soon the room was filled with excited chatter as both groups realized that, despite the ever-present language barrier, they could communicate. The fascination with the ‘other’ took over and the room was overflowing with energy within seconds. When I asked the Japanese students what they thought it was interesting to hear their responses: ‘They speak Japanese so well!’ after the Idaho group sang a self-written song in mixed Japanese and English; ‘I saw someone who looks like Winnie the Pooh!’; ‘The girls are all so pretty!’. The Americans were equally enthusiastic, exclaiming over the cuteness of the girls (it was an all-girl school) and exchanging facebook contacts. In fact, many of the Americans told me that this interaction period had been the best part of the trip so far, and their euphoria was practically tangible.
Soon after the Americans were split into two-person groups and sent off to participate in regular Japanese classes. As I visited some of the groups it was interesting to see what they thought of school. Some students pointed out the different definition of ‘home economics’ they used here, others felt that the biology classes were much more hands-on. However, most students I talked to felt less surprise than wonder; almost universally they told me that they already knew what to expect when they got here and that this experience was exactly what they’d expected. Whether through anime or other forms of visual culture they had already come to know Japan, and were rather thrilled to find it exactly as they’d hoped; in fact, it seemed to me that they were overjoyed to actually be inside this world they had viewed externally for so long.
Later the students split into their high school groupings to make posters of encouragement for the local residents, after having viewed the damaged areas the previous day. Many felt that talking with a local fisherman in Kita-Ibaraki about the tsunami and its impact on his livelihood had been extremely meaningful, and actually seeing Otsu Port and the remaining damage there had helped them get an idea of the scope of the disaster. When I asked what his favorite part of Ibaraki had been one student mentioned Rokkakudo and its exquisite beauty; when I told him that it had been completely swept away last year and entirely rebuilt since he was amazed at the speed and craftsmanship. Others cited the architecture of the homes, or the traditional sleeping style with tatami and futon, or the kindness and generosity of the Japanese people they had met here. And every single student I asked immediately said they wanted to come back to Japan.
So, it seems the Kizuna Project’s first group is already fulfilling the aims of the project. Watching their excitement build with each experience and hearing their passion for a future connected with Japan reminded me of myself not so many years ago. Seeing things through their eyes helped me recall the wonder I held myself at that time, and it was exciting to hear their plans for the future. Hopefully these new spokesman will return to their country with tales that will inspire others to visit these shores, and hopefully someday they themselves will be able to return and continue the cycle of discovery and experience that is the beginning of new bonds between both individuals and nations.