Tag Archives: Bridging Scholar

A Monument to All Our Sins: An American in Hiroshima

By: Dustin Nguyen, Bridging Scholar

As a student studying abroad, I spent four of the most breathtaking and profound months of my life in Japan. I left that country filled with unforgettable memories of awe-inspiring places and bonds with people that will last me a lifetime. Though I have more to talk about here than can be contained in such a short response, I do want to focus on one particularly inspiring experience: my trip to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is an awe-inspiring city with an effective blend of natural beauty and urban delights. To think that a city could be devastated by a force as powerful as an atomic bomb and rise from the ashes to become a sprawling, modern center like it is now is almost beyond comprehension. Walking through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and looking at the diagrams of pre-bombing Hiroshima really drove the point home. You could clearly see all the landmarks that we walked by during the drive over represented distinctly in the diagrams: the bridge, the river, the city center the dome. All of these were reduced to rubble after the bombing and yet here they stand: rebuilt and improved. Granted it has been almost 70 years now since the bombs were dropped, but even so. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the immense strength and unity it must have required for the Japanese nation to have taken a catastrophe of this magnitude and turn it into a monument for world peace.

I had been put into a tour group in order to see the museum as efficiently as possible, but when I got the chance, I slipped off and took a detour by myself. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave the museum or anything, quite the opposite. I really wanted a moment alone to see the peace memorial without the distraction of chatter and hubbub. From inside the museum, I could see the memorial cenotaph. At the time the area surrounding it was empty and I wanted to get down there and explore it in solidarity. Walking up to the cenotaph itself, I took careful notice of all the architecture of the monument. From marble tiles to an elegant fountain, the beautiful construction of the monument was an odd contradiction to the unsettling truth it sheltered. Here, the world buried the souls of thousands of A-bomb victims; their names, inscribed onto a couple of granite plates and then sealed in history along. As I gazed into the memorial, transfixed upon the tomb, the thought that these very souls would never live, laugh, or dream ever again evoked a heart-wrenching pity from me. So many lives just carelessly tossed away; human lives cut short through no fault of their own. The insanity of all it disturbed me, but the humanity in how the Japanese were able to build on this tragedy, erect this beacon of hope and move on, inspired me.dustin pic
The saying goes that there are no lessons learned in victory, only in defeat. For the victims of the A-bomb tragedy and their families, this seems so very true. All of the features of the monument served as a reminder to never repeat this mistake again. In the waters surrounding the pond, there were plaques that had messages translated into several languages, eulogizing the victims and offering apologies for their deaths. All around the memorial there were inscriptions of the word peace written in a multitude of languages. The Peace Flame stood as a constant reminder that as long as there were nuclear weapons in the world, there could never be true world peace. As I stood there, silently observing and taking this all in, waves of conflicting emotions clashed within me. There was frustration. There was patriotism. There was guilt. There was anger. But most of all, there was a deep, profound sadness that persisted throughout my entire detour to the cenotaph.

I watched an old couple walk up to the front of the memorial. The wife of the man held
his hand as he shuffled toward the flowers placed at the base of the memorial. This man, as fragile and aging as he was, was making his daily trip to the memorial in order to pray for the spirits of his fellow man. I watched them, touched at the entire ritual. They stepped forward in unison, clasping their hands together and then bowing for a good two minutes. Afterwards, they muttered something unintelligibly and solemnly departed. As they walked away, I could feel a sense of serenity between the couple: a feeling that they had put to rest not only their own spirits, but the ones of the deceased. Looking back to the now empty memorial, I was inspired to follow their example. I would, too, pay my respects for these people.
With heavy heart and a distraught mind, I marched to the front of the memorial and slowly raised my hand to my forehead in the American salute. I must have stood there for maybe ten minutes, my body invigorated from the significance of the ritual. However, my heart and my mind received no such reprieve. Standing there with my eyes closed, I listened to the whispers of nature around me: the gentle summer breeze blowing the trees, the buzz of all the wildlife in the area, the swishing of the water from the pond beside me. They brought to mind the silence that must have enveloped Hiroshima the moment the bomb went off. They brought to mind, the silence of the survivors, unable to come up with the words to express what they’d just experienced. They brought up the silence of 50,000 souls who no longer had a voice in this world. And it was these poignant thoughts that finally pushed me to my limit. I don’t know for how long it was, or when it had started, but I was crying. Standing there with my back erect and my arm in salute, I was crying. Even though I had lost no family in this event; even though I wasn’t even from this country, the human being inside of me felt the injustice of it all and wept. When the field trip was nearing its end, I remember being in my room, staring out the window, and feeling a sense of endearment to this place. Millions of people live in Hiroshima and go about their lives just like any other citizen of this planet, but they are special in that their home is entangled with the memory of one of the worst tragedies to occur in human histories. All over the world, there are advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, but they all look to Hiroshima to lead the charge. For these citizens are the ones who must live with actual memories of an atomic bombing. They are the ones who have the first-hand accounts and can truly describe what it feels like to lose a loved one to nuclear weapons. Reflecting on this notion in my room, I was truly thankful that the people of the city could share their experiences with me. Though it wasn’t always easy to swallow all the emotional turmoil that went with this visit, I left Hiroshima a better person. To this day it will remain one of the highlights of not only this trip, but of my entire life. To Hiroshima, I left a prayer, but to me, it left something even more profound. To me, it left the strength and resolve necessary to pursue a peace: a peace it was robbed of: a peace that needs pursuit: a peace that is the right of every man, woman, and child in existence today.
I left Japan a changed person. It is one thing to read about a tragedy in your books, but it’s another to see the names of the dead etched onto a stone tablet; to reach down and sift through the gravel that marks their graves. Moments like these are the ones that breathe new life into your being and remind you just what it means to be human. To all my benefactors and supporters, I’m eternally grateful that I was able to come to Japan and have this experience. My only wish now is that others too can come to this beautiful country and have the same happen to them.

If you don’t speak, you won’t learn

Joelle Metcalfe (from newsletter)By: Joelle Metcalfe

My name is Joelle Metcalfe and I was a Bridging Scholar in 2009 – 2010 at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Since my time in Kyoto, I graduated and returned to Japan to obtain a Master’s degree in East Asia foreign policy at Waseda University, focusing on Japan’s diplomatic relations with North Korea during the Koizumi administration. I interned for a number of organizations related to Japan’s foreign policy, including a Washington DC think tank, the US government, the United Nations, freelance for the Japan National Tourism Organization, and the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo bureau. After graduating from Waseda, I now work at my first job as a reporter for a major Japanese newspaper, assisting coverage of the United Nations in New York. Without the Bridging scholarship, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get as far as I have, and the reason why is because this scholarship gave me one chance that I chose to take very seriously given the financial and time constraints of study abroad.

If I were to give advice to a Bridging Scholar studying abroad in Japan, controversial as it may sound, it would be this: don’t sit at the “gaijin table.” I use that term in reference to my experience, in which I would observe a picnic table where a large group of the study abroad students would sit together everyday conversing in English, separating themselves from the Japanese students in the cafeteria. But in a broader context, my advice for any study abroad student in Japan is don’t surround yourself solely with the English-speaking student atmosphere if you came to Japan to learn the language.

In this sense, I am an advocate for a 24-7 immersion strategy: as much as possible, as often as possible.  At Ritsumeikan, I would try to limit my English outside of the classroom and avoid clubs meant for international students, including language exchange or English tutoring programs. On the way to school, I would listen to NHK news podcasts on my headphones, and even if I didn’t understand some words, I would write down the repetitive ones and look them up later, as news is practical and consistent enough to learn vocabulary. After class, I would go to the club building and meet with my cinema circle and we would sometimes go to the theater to watch domestic movies, which helped visualize words and actions. In the evening, I would meet up with other Japanese friends at an izakaya, which is common for students to do, and it helped my listening and colloquial conversation skills so I wouldn’t sound like I was talking from a textbook.

The logic behind this was knowing that my time in Japan was limited, and I didn’t know if I would be able to go back, so I wanted to spend every waking moment submerged only in Japanese. Around campus, I would often seek out conversations with Japanese students that were not interested in studying English, so there would be no “safety net” if I got stuck in conversation. I was not the only student to immerse myself during the term; others in my class chose clubs like Yosakoi dancing or soccer in order to jump headfirst into an extracurricular surrounding (which Japanese students prioritize more than class), with positive results on their language ability and lifetime friends.

During the period I was a Bridging Scholar, my junior year in university, I passed the JLPT N2, which meant that I could concentrate on passing the JLPT N1, the final fluency certification exam, in my senior year. This progress in my language learning greatly helped the scope of my future plans, as those looking for work in Japan are expected by many Japanese companies to have a JLPT N1 certification on their resume, which is something I don’t think students are often told. After my study abroad, I wanted to prove foremost that there are other career routes that Japanese language majors can take besides teaching English in Japan, which I was often told at university is the major career route. Personally, I cannot agree with English-teaching as a career path as I don’t feel it justifies the hours and thousands of dollars of tuition I spent to learn Japanese.

My study abroad at Ritsumeikan is the period of my life that I treasure the most and that first exploration of Japan was the happiest time for me, but I will not sugar-coat the immersion strategy–learning a language is uncomfortable and intimidating. Even with four years of language classes, there is no magic wand you can wave where you will suddenly be fluent in all 2000 daily-use kanji or the punch-lines of Japanese comedians. There will be words you don’t know, embarrassing cultural faux pas, and sometimes even the threat of being isolated. Putting yourself in an English-speaking bubble with a close group of international students may feel like it’s much easier, but I found that it was through listening to natural conversations in Japanese by a group of peers in a social setting that I could recognize speech patterns that would self-correct my own way of speaking over time; if you stay in the bubble, you stay the same. No matter what proficiency level you are, you’re going to have to be stubborn, sit with the Japanese students, put yourself out there and talk; more often than not, they will not be the ones to strike up the first conversation. If you don’t speak, you won’t learn.

Study Abroad and the Art of Kimono

by Ashley Hayes
Ashley Hayes was a Bridging Scholar and JET Programme participant. She currently works for Google.

Ashley_hayesKimono, literally, “thing that you wear,” is a simple word for a vast cultural institution. I first became fascinated with kimono during my self-initiated exploration of Japanese history and culture during my teenage years. Right around that time, Arthur Golden’s acclaimed novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, graced the New York Times bestseller list. The book’s thoughtful descriptions of these ornate robes, with their intricate embroidery,  silky textures, and myriad of parts left a deep impression on me. It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to don a kimono myself, as a high school exchange student in Fukuoka, Japan. Although, the outfit selected for me was not as sumptuous as those worn by the geisha that I had read about, this thrilling experience paved the way for me to incorporate kimono into my own life as a student of the art of kimono-wearing (soudou). The kimono has also become the lens through which I reflect on my study abroad experience as a whole. Just as we say that you must walk a mile in one’s shoes in order to empathize with that person, I’ve found that dressing up in kimono has helped me to better appreciate Japanese culture.

Even the most enthusiastic study abroad student faces discomfort and awkwardness when they first immerse themselves a culture that is foreign to them. Often they lack confidence in their foreign language skills, feel bewildered by local customs, and do not know how to connect with their hosts. Similarly, when I first began wearing kimono, I could not help but be distracted by the uncomfortable feeling of being tightly bound up. That is because, in order to create a smooth, even silhouette, kimono wearers must wrap and pad themselves with specialized undergarments that eliminate one’s curves. Thanks to my American figure, hiding my curves involved several feet of folded towels and a hip pad custom-made by my sensei!

Wearing a kimono also imposes restrictions upon one’s movements that affect simple actions like walking and sitting. As a person who tends to power-walk everywhere, learning how to take small, demure steps required a conscious adjustment. Sitting in seiza, with one’s knees tucked beneath the body, is a posture that flatters the straight, clean lines of a kimono. However, for the longest time, I couldn’t help but tilt and squirm while trying to sit that way, in an effort to keep my calves from going numb. The more I practiced wearing kimono, and the more I learned about the mechanics of the garment, the more I was able to gradually shift my focus from feelings of physical discomfort to a sense of accomplishment at being able to take such an age-old foreign practice and make it my own. I also began to see myself as more refined and ladylike. Perhaps most importantly, the reactions of my sensei and other Japanese people who complimented me on my “kimono look” helped me to feel more integrated into the local culture and community.

The art of kimono wearing also gave me insight into the tangible objects and intangible qualities on which Japanese people place great value. First and foremost in my mind is the importance of form, and attention to detail. One must be very meticulous when lifting, tucking, folding, and tying the various parts of the kimono in order to make sure that seams align just so. This requires a kind of manual dexterity almost akin to a sixth sense, as often times one cannot rely on a mirror for guidance. The patterns that decorate kimono fabric — cascading flowers, graceful birds, and majestic landscapes, to name a few — a convey hints of the deep reverence for natural beauty that pervades Japanese culture. Many kimono are also decorated with depictions of everyday knickknacks from a time long ago, like fans, toy balls, and jewelry boxes. Others have sprawling designs in gilded threads that depict historical buildings or streetscapes. In my mind, these types of images represent an appreciation for a rich past whose elegance reverberates through the present.

Although I would never dare to pass myself off as an expert on Japanese culture, I do feel that the experiences I had as a study abroad student and, particularly, my engagement with kimono provided me with a more in-depth perspective on the country than I could grasp from books and films alone. Furthermore, draping myself in kimono also enables me to add a layer of almost ethereal sophistication to the regular, everyday me. I would encourage all young people to study abroad in order to see what new insights they can uncover about the world and themselves.