This week Ibaraki welcomed another group of young ambassadors, from a country with the same color flag as Japan. Two groups of students, one from the Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal and the other from Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, paid a visit to the small city of Hokota as part of the Kizuna Project, the first such visitors from Canada. As I entered the community center where they were taking part in a cultural exchange with the local citizens I was once again greeted with the bright eyes and excited smiles that connoted the curiosity and fascination they held for their new cultural vector.
Inside the hall they were divided into smaller, blended groups that got to participate in two activities each from among the traditional arts of calligraphy, ikebana, kimono, chirimen handicrafts, and the famous tea ceremony. It was obvious just how much the local community had been looking forward to their visit; each section was carefully arranged, with local experts doing the instruction in traditional dress, and most involved gifts that the students could take home with them such as calligraphy sets. With the exception of the handicraft group, each area had its own interpreters on hand to explain the procedures, and before long the Canadian students were wandering around in ornate graduation kimono, sipping bitter matcha, spearing tulips and lilies on water-soaked spikes, hand-drawing their original versions of Chinese characters, and sewing up adorable little owl-shaped good luck charms. In fact, despite (rather, because of) the language barrier, the handicrafts group proved to be the most interesting to watch: the local women handed out diagrams and gave all the instructions in full-speed Japanese, and yet the students caught on simply by watching hand gestures and guessing at the meaning. Here was true cultural exchange at work, on so many levels: the old teaching the young, crossing generations and nations and languages to pass on a part of the human experience that cannot be replicated in any other way.
In fact, upon mixing with the students to ask their opinions and impressions I learned that it was precisely this that most endeared them to Japan. In a marked contrast to the previous Kizuna group I had the opportunity to meet, the Canadian ambassadors almost universally cited the Japanese people as their favorite part of the experience. Most seemed overwhelmed by the kindness and sincerity, the helpfulness and generosity of their hosts. In fact, one student surprised me with a similar sentiment to one I’d experienced upon first visiting Japan, a fear of offending the countrymen. Having come with a perception of Japan as extremely traditional and severe (which, we must admit, is not entirely wrong) she had been haunted by a feeling of anxiety concerning making a faux pas, but had been relieved by the friendly and relaxed nature of their welcome.
To be honest, this struck me as one of the many similarities between our cultures. Both Japan and Canada have a reputation (with a solid grain of truth) for revering etiquette and politeness, while still maintaining a very friendly and welcoming demeanor. Though Canada has little in the way of unified traditional culture from the perspective of much older countries, there is also the fascination for different cultures and lifestyles that continues to thrive in Japan. The Kizuna Project had provided the perfect opportunity for both sides to recognize parts of themselves in the other and discover new elements at the same time.
However, it appears that it will not stop there. From the enthusiastic questions and comments I received regarding their future involvement with Japan, many students clearly have the desire to explore further opportunities. Just as my story began with a short three-week vacation many years ago, I saw the seeds of future dreams taking root among my countrymen. Whether it be applying for scholarships or work programs, family trips or simply passing along their experiences and impressions to friends back home, all appeared to be thoroughly enjoying their time in Japan and already considering how to make use of it in their lives.
Though from here on they will be going to home-stay in Chiba and from there to Tokyo, it was gratifying to see them enjoying themselves so much in rural Hokota. In fact, some said that this was exactly what they had hoped for: an opportunity to see parts of Japan that most visitors would never get a chance to know. Local, hometown lifestyles, personal instruction in cultural traditions, interaction with what they considered the ‘real’ Japan, these and more were valuable experiences that arguably most tourists cannot hope to gain.
Once again, I intensely enjoyed my time with them; it was hard not to be reminded of myself upon my first experiences with Japan, and I found myself reliving the sparks of excitement and fascination with the culture that had originally drawn me here. Their perspective was both nostalgic and refreshing, and it was inspiring to see another nascent generation of cross-cultural exchange between Canada and Japan evolving before my very eyes. I am indebted to them for their help, and wish them further wonder and discovery for the remainder of their time in Japan (and perhaps after as well!). Who knows where things may lead? We all started somewhere.