Student Reflection: 2019 Japanese American Student Program

Japan Reflection 2019
Christopher Ichiho

Although I had the opportunity to travel to Japan before, I eagerly hopped on the plane with the desire to be open to a new experience and view Japan from a different lens than the 13 and 15-year-old Chris did. I was nervous that maybe the next ten days of my life were going to be spent with a bunch of teens that I had nothing in common with, and I wasn’t wrong. Not surprisingly, we were all very different in our unique ways, however, it didn’t take long for us to show an appreciation and respect toward one another. Although we all come from very different places with extremely different backgrounds, I would argue that this was the beauty of our little group.

After our long journey from the States, we met as strangers for the first time in Narita Airport, in the same spot that we would say goodbye to each other. All of us did have one thing in common. By race, we were all part Japanese, but ethnically, we are Americans. As we became more comfortable with each other, I'm sure that it was never hard to spot the “Americans” in the room: loud, thoughtless, and arrogant.

From my previous experience, I remember the heat and humidity of Japan hitting me with the same speed and voraciousness of the shinkansen the second I stepped out of the airport. However, this time it was different. Slight humidity, but cool with a subtle breeze. Very reminiscent of a Southern California day.

So there we were five complete strangers, on our way to Tokyo in a fancy chartered car.

We arrived at the National Youth Center and got our first taste of the Japanese lifestyle. Completely exhausted, I happily squeezed into the cramped shower and climbed into bed with my feet hanging off the end.

The first couple of days were filled with orientation and logistical meetings. We learned the details of our itinerary and got to know each other a little better. We eagerly prepared for our meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rehearsing speeches and going over details of the plan for our visit. Our visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was one of the highlights of the trip as we got to meet some of the most genuine and intelligent people that I have ever met. I left that day not remembering their prestigious titles or positions they held, but how astonishing their character was, and the way they presented themselves. This experience was truly remarkable and a once in a lifetime experience.

Every day had a packed schedule which required us to wake up super early for breakfast. Even at this grueling hour, we happily woke up and acted joyful and energetic. Our next excursion was to visit a nearby high school. While at the school, I was fortunate to be able to teach English, learn calligraphy, play basketball, and help with the school band. It was such an eye-opening experience to see what other teenagers’ school lives are like in another country. However, it was the four American teenagers that would prove to have the biggest impact on me by the end of the trip.

The next part of the journey was quite an adventure. We would wake up early and go sightseeing around Tokyo and Kyoto. We got to eat some of the most amazing cuisines, not only in Japan but in the world. In our free time, we got a chance to go off exploring the streets of Japan with our new friends. Throughout the trip, we spent lots of time together, each one of us bringing a new perspective to the conversation. It didn’t take long before we all felt comfortable around each other. Some of the best memories were staying up until the wee hours of the night, all packed in my small hotel room, talking about the most random things, and sipping the sweet nectar of Japan (literally peach water). This became a nightly routine. Nevertheless, like the good students we are, anytime something serious arose, we instantly switched on “scholarly mode” and behaved like intelligent kids.

I was quite nervous about the homestay, as any normal person would be, as the only information I knew about this family that I was going to live with was their names and ages. The journey to their home seemed long and uncomfortable, standing for an hour like a sardine on Japan’s busiest rail line during rush hour. When I finally arrived, I met the sweetest family that welcomed me into their home with open arms. Fortunately or unfortunately, my homestay mom was fluent in English, which made the entire experience less stressful. In our short time together, my homestay family introduced me to dozens of their friends and relatives which made me feel like a part of their family. In just two short days it had felt like we have been friends for years. In addition to taking me to do fun things, more importantly, I enjoyed just being exposed to Japanese culture. I was so grateful to see the level of commitment that had gone towards making my stay the best it could be. And I could never thank them enough for their wonderful hospitality.

Although we were only at our homestays for a couple of days, Japan felt different without my new friends. Though strangers just the week before, being reunited after returning from our homestay experience was very sweet. With only two days remaining in the trip, we made sure to cherish every moment. I think we all knew in the back of our minds that after this trip, we would all go our separate ways and never see each other again. At some point, it hit all of us that the good times of today will be sad thoughts of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the millions of photos and videos we took didn't make that easier. However, I walked away with valuable lessons learned. One of the biggest is now being excited about college. If I can meet people in college that are half as amazing as these kids, I'm going to have the best time of my life!

This trip to Japan truly allowed me to step beyond the bubble that I had been living in my entire life. Suddenly, the flight home wasn't that bad. And, those small hotel rooms the size of my closet felt almost homier. Through this experience, I definitely walked away with a greater appreciation of Japanese culture and history. The exposure that the Japanese American Student Program has given me, without a doubt, has impacted my life forever. I have been gifted with four new best friends from across the United States, a new family that lives in Tokyo, a thirst to travel and discover unfamiliar territories, and the desire to preserve the Japanese culture here in the United States.

As youthful Japanese Americans, our mission as participants of this program is to preserve Japanese culture in America. Being from Orange County, CA, it never crossed my mind that there was an issue. However, upon my return, I find new meaning in attending Obon festivals and seeing young kids dancing with their mothers and grandmothers, or being involved with events like “Walk the Farm” and raising funds for Japanese farmers affected by the tsunami, or participating in learning the tradition of mochitsuki. As I reflect on my own identity, I am appreciative and thankful for the influence of my Japanese heritage.