Monday, March 21, 2011

Nana Remembers Japan

In 2002 I spent a month in Japan as a participant in the Fulbright Memorial Program. The Fulbright Memorial Program was established by the Japanese government in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. The program promotes understanding and friendship between the United States and Japan by sponsoring short-term educational and cultural studies in Japan.  I was one of 100 educators, two from each state, who had been selected to participate. The program was fully funded by the Japanese government. The entire group spent three weeks in Tokyo and then one week in smaller groups around the country.  I was assigned to the group that went to Yamato, a city not far from Tokyo.  During our stay in Yamato we stayed with Japanese families and experienced life in typical Japanese homes.

The reception at city hall to welcome us to Yamato.
The Fulbright Memorial Program Yamato Group with Yamato government officials.  I'm hidden in the back on the left.

I have thought back to the month I spent in Japan numerous times this past week as I watched the images on the news of the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami. I can't stop thinking about the people who made my experience in Japan so memorable. I learned so much about Japan, but also about myself and my own culture. There's nothing like experiencing another culture first hand to provide the fodder for personal growth.

There have been so many terrifying images on the news this week, I am sharing some of my memories of Japan because I can't stop thinking of the people. These are the same people we're watching on the news.  In Yamato we had the opportunity to visit Japanese schools.   We watched the children arriving to school.  They walk together in groups along predetermined routes led by adults or older students,  and pick up more students along the way.  The older children helping the younger ones.

Walking to school in organized groups

I could go on and on about the similarities and differences of the Japanese and American educational systems.  One major commonality was happy, engaged students.

These elementary students performed for us and then taught us a traditional dance.

Tokyo was a cultural shock for me.  I'd never seen so many people.

I had always heard about Japan being a homogeneous culture with little diversity and strong pressure for everyone to conform. I was surprised at the individuality I saw in Tokyo.

A mother and a child in traditional dress

Goth with neon wigs!

One minute a family in traditional clothing is walking by....

and the next minute you're standing on the corner next to a guy in a top hat and five inch heels.  

The Fulbright Program was founded by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946.  Following World War II Japanese students had the opportunity to study in the US as Fulbright scholars.  Today those Fulbrighters are leaders in Japan in business and government.  The Fulbright Program helped Japan recover from World War II.  Numerous Japanese Fulbright scholars attended various receptions held for us during our stay in Japan. 

In Yamato we attended an elegant dinner that included the director of the Japan-United States Educational Commission, numerous former Fulbright Scholars and our Yamato host families.  One  member of our group played the violin and as a tribute to our hosts, he played the Japanese national anthem.  It was one of those moments that is seared in my memory.  We all stood for the anthem.  I looked around the room and noticed the tears in the eyes of the elderly men as they silently mouthed the words.  Later I learned that the national anthem is not played frequently in Japan.  It is also unusual to see the flag displayed.  In fact, following World War II the Japanese were not permitted to display the flag.  It is considered by many as a symbol of the extreme nationalism that contributed to World War II.  I was surprised that World War II continues to have such a strong influence in Japan. 

We reached out to help the Japanese recover from World War II.  It is reassuring to see the world respond to the crisis in Japan now.


  1. What a wonderful experience you have had. It has become so easy to associate 'Japan' with the things that it makes rather than with the people who live there. The terrible disasters that have befallen them have put before us their faces, their humanity -- that despite the difference in our cultures and history, despite wars despite everything else, they are us and we are them ...

  2. The pictures we have seen this week of Japan's devastation have been horrific. I do hope all your friends survived intact, but of course there are so many who did not. Thanks for the memories you shared; it looks like it was a wonderful trip.

  3. I spent three years in Japan as a Navy brat. I have a strong deep love for that country because of my time spent there. I whole heartedly agree with you about their education system, people and diversity.

    I have cry a river of tears since watching the devastation unfold that Friday. It has broken my heart into little pieces to the point I simply cannot watch any coverage of it anymore.

  4. I felt like that when Iceland's volcano erupted. I'd been there, seen it. The picture was much more real to me.

  5. Sounds like you had an amazing trip.

    My daughter-in-law is Japanese. I've made two trips to Japan, and both times, went into serious panic attacks within the first few hours after arrival. We have no idea why but I am reluctant to try again.

  6. Your trip sounds amazing. You must have really loved having all those amazing experiences. Congratulations on being able to participate in this prestigious program.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and stories. At our age, empathy has been fed by experience to the point that we know those who died in Japan were beloved by someone...those who suffer now, do so as much for someone they love as for themselves. It aches.

  8. What a wonderful experience you had, and such an honor. I really enjoyed reading this and share your feelings for the people in Japan struggling to rebuild one more time.

  9. FANTASTIC story and photos!
    You hit the essence of these kind and gentle folks right on the head. The people who wear the constumes really do stick out there, but I never heard anyone criticizing them. Even my wife's old and conservative relatives were nothing but amused when they took us to Harajuku to see all people in costume...from goth to elvis to SUPER high platform shoes

  10. What a wonderful program, it sounds like it was so meaningful in your life and will continue to have an impact on you forever. I greatly feel for the people in that country in this time of need and hope that they are able to rebuild with no more issues from reactors or otherwise. Tokyo looks really chaotic, a lot like Times Square!


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