The Lasting Impact of Study Abroad

by Masako Notoji
Masako Notoji is a retired professor of American Studies from Tokyo University.  She served on the Japan CULCON Panel for six years.

Masako Notoji is a retired professor of American Studies from Tokyo University. She served on the Japan CULCON Panel for six years.

The very first Japanese individual who experienced a home-stay in America was perhaps the young fisherman Nakahama “John” Manjiro (1827–1898), who had been rescued from his drifting ship by Captain William Whitfield to spend three years from age 16 with the captain’s family in Fair Haven, Massachusetts. There Manjiro learned English, Math, navigation, and ship-building skills before he returned to Japan in 1851.  The beginning of the Japan-U.S. encounter would have been much more difficult without the contribution of Manjiro’s interpreter skills, knowledge, and personal dedication.

It’s obviously unrealistic to compare Manjiro’s dramatic life in the mid-19th century with what we experience today, but the fact that he was brought to the U.S. alone and was treated as a ”real” member of his host family and the local community remains a key to personal growth, self-discovery, and the development of deep, mutual understanding.

My first experience abroad was at the Seattle suburb of Edmonds, Washington, where I spent my high school senior year, 1966-67, as an AFS exchange student.  To share the day-to-day joys and sorrows with an ordinary family is perhaps the best way to understand a society different from your own, and I was fortunate to have a wonderfully generous and loving American family to host me for an entire year.  Those were the days when the exchange rate was 360 yen to a dollar, and international telephone calls home were unthinkable for a teenage student.  At the end of this total immersion in life in the United States, I had a strong desire to seriously study this dynamic and intriguing society, and decided to major in American Studies at the University of Tokyo.  I chose to do my graduate studies at UCLA and eventually spent a good part of my professional career of teaching and doing research on U.S. popular culture and ethnic relations at the University of Tokyo.

Through these studies in the U.S. at different stages of my life, I have met and made lasting relationship with many individuals.  How mutually important such a network of friends could be was brought home to me when the great earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan in the spring of 2011; the people who emailed me in the immediate aftermath of the disaster included my American family and many from my student days at Edmonds High School and UCLA.  I had stayed in contact with many of them, but in March 2011 some took great pains to locate me to offer their assistance and encouragement.  This is just one illustration of how long and deeply my life has been touched and enriched by studying in the United States.

Looking back, I feel it was important to expose myself to a different culture when I was relatively young, full of curiosity and the spirit of adventure, albeit with my personal immaturity and language and other difficulties.  I was allowed to make mistakes, experience misunderstandings and frustrations, and deal with life on new terms, all of which contributed to my personal development and my learning the skills for interacting with Americans and other international individuals from different walks of life.

Flexibility of thought, sense of humor, and the fundamental belief in the possibilities of mutual trust that I learned from my overseas experience proved to be particularly helpful when I was later involved in various cultural and educational exchange relations between Japan and the U.S. in a more official capacity.  During the period between the mid-1990s and the 2000s, I was one of the initial faculty team to launch a short-term undergraduate exchange program between the University of Tokyo and several partner universities in the U.S. and other countries of the world, and as part of my public service outside the campus I joined the Japan CULCON Panel and the Fulbright Commission to work with members of the U.S. government and various cultural institutions.

In addition to the tremendous personal gain from the experience abroad, I would like to emphasize, as I regularly do with university students around me, that the face-to-face encounter with an unfamiliar culture is increasingly more valuable in today’s world of ever expanding globalization and sophisticated communication technology.  There is a greater need for a young generation of individuals who are able to collaborate with others of diverse backgrounds and ideologies in finding common values and creative solutions to new crises that challenge the humanity toward the mid-21st century.  Study abroad still is a reliable source for opportunities and hopes.

Picture: Masako Notoji in front of her ancestral home, where she hosts visitors from overseas.

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