Laurent Chang, a junior at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, was selected as one of five participants of the 2017 Japanese American Student Program sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. This program, which began in 2010, provides the opportunity for Japanese American high school students to learn about Japan and promotes mutual understanding and exchanges between Japanese and Japanese American younger generations. Laurent traveled to Japan during the summer and shared reflections about his experience on the program.
Following is his essay:
Hope, excitement, and a little bit of nervousness filled me as soon as I touched down at the Narita airport. I was in a foreign country with little understanding of the native language and I was to embark on an 11-day journey with 5 people whom I’d previously only known as a name on a page. Yet in only that first interaction with the group, piling in the airport conference room as each member arrived and chatting about that long and tired flight , I was rid of that initial worry and instead filled with satisfaction and happiness, that along with this group of outstanding individuals I would take from the 2017 Japanese American Student Program, a lifelong and remarkable experience.
After an exhausting flight and a pleasant stay at the National Olympic Youth Center in Tokyo, we all got up (very) early the following morning and prepared for the day’s events. At the start of the day we were thoroughly educated on understanding Japanese people and their culture by Oikawa-san of the International Friendship Culture Association(IFCA). This knowledge we all carried with us throughout the trip and with it, we were better able to see the many subtle differences between American and Japanese culture. From the procedure of removing one’s shoes before entering the house, to the cautious way of conversing between one another, this trip opened all of our eyes to the intricate and widely different structure of society, compared to how we all grew up following in the United States. Later that same day we visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan. We were greeted very warmly by staff and Mr. Hideki Yamaji who gave us a presentation on the foreign policy of Japan and widened our horizons on issues overseas.
Japan is one of the most technologically progressive nations in the world, constantly pushing the envelope towards modern innovation. Our tour at the Panasonic Center in Tokyo gave all of us insight into the future of Japan’s technology and the foresight it provides of a surreal life seemingly not very far from the present day. The functionality and educational aim of the exhibits impressed me to an entirely new level and I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten the chance to have viewed them.
We were able to experience a more daily Japanese life in our time at the homestay. Each member of the program parted ways for about two days while we stayed with our host families. During the homestay experience I was able to observe the differences in the workings of a residence between the U.S. and Japan. The more reserved interactions between neighbors and difference in the architecture of the home are two examples of the small yet everyday aspects of residential life that I would not have even thought to have noticed. For the most part, my host family spoke very little English, and yet they were so loving and caring, more than willing to guide me through every step of our time together.
Our short but sweet time attending a Japanese high school taught me a great deal in the comparison of my life and that of a Japanese students’. During my time there I followed and was guided by one of the students of the school. I attended a variety of classes there including Film Analysis, English Learning, and French. I have been a part of the French program at my own high school for two years and to be able to see and (partially) understand lessons being taught in two foreign languages was absolutely mind blowing for me.
During our time on the trip we had had the great fortune to have Sugimoto-san as our guide. Her knowledge of Japan was beyond incredible. I remember a specific instance at the famous Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion) where we were all standing on a seemingly insignificant stone, and she surprised all of us with an in depth history of the stone, explaining its importance and deeper meaning. Her familiarity with the many quieter and local routes of cities allowed all of us to have a different perspective on life in Japan and provided us with insight into how people live their daily lives. She saved us many times in times where we were lost not being able to translate signs and conversations. She was there with us through the sleepy mornings, exuberant laughs, and instilled in us a greater interest to discover a widely different yet familiar culture.
Tradition plays a significant role in shaping Japan’s culture and much of what is to be understood of the history lies in its’ unique activities. We were able to experience a wide variety of those cultural activities ranging from a traditional tea ceremony to yuzen-dyeing. A largely undiscovered portion of ourselves we shared going on this trip was our Japanese side, and having a direct exposure to our roots really helped us understand the importance of our culture’s values.
Both the similarities and differences that all the members shared in our school lives, hobbies, and interests brought us together as a group. Having come from all across the states we were all able to bring a perspective into our own cities and learn the surprisingly prominent differences between where we come from. Entering this program we also carried our experiences as Japanese American individuals, and going through the journey of discovering our identity as a community and our place in the world as the bridge between Japan and America was a valuable lesson for us all. My fellow members made every moment of this trip ever more thrilling, always approaching the unfamiliar with an open and uplifting attitude, and to share this experience with them has created a memory that I will treasure forever.