Twenty-three students and two professors from the University of Massachusetts Boston participated this summer in an international exchange program between the United States and Japan.

The Tomodachi Initiative is a collaborative effort between the U.S.-Japan Council and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to promote active participation in peaceful relations between the two countries.

The program began after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 dealt monumental damage to the nation. Immediately following the earthquake, the U.S. and Japanese governments worked together in humanitarian efforts to help the people of Tohoku. Since then, the program continues to foster the bond and help the two nations constructively address painful historic events, like the atomic bombings of World War II.

UMass Boston is part of the Tomodachi Inouye Scholars Program under the Kakehashi Project. This program, started by the Japan Foundation, was created in honor of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye. Paul Watanabe, an Asian American Studies professor at UMass Boston and member of the U.S.-Japan Council, spoke on the senator's legacy.

"I had met Sen. Inouye on several occasions and in these encounters, and indeed throughout his illustrious career, I was impressed by his commitment to the value of international understanding built on direct people-to-people exchanges," said Watanabe.

"This program, and our personal experience with it, demonstrates the wisdom of Sen. Inouye’s message. I am convinced that our students were changed for the better through their encounters with people from Japan. I am confident as well that many who met our students were similarly influenced in profound and positive ways." 

Watanabe made the entire trip possible by winning the U.S.-Japan Council and Japanese Foundation grant which allowed every participant an all-expenses-paid trip. "I put together a proposal for why our students would be excellent choices and made what, in the end, was a strong case for our selection," Watanabe stated. "The fact that all expenses were taken care of meant that students, whatever their economic situation, would be eligible for consideration."

Along with Dean of the Honors College, Rajini Srikanth, Watanabe ran the selection process and accompanied the students on the trip. The professors sorted through 130 initial applications.

"We cast the net campus-wide and announced the program to deans, department chairs, and directors of programs so that they could inform their networks of strong and dedicated students," Srikanth said.  

"The application process required you to write an essay explaining why the trip to Japan would be meaningful to you, what you hoped to gain from it intellectually, as well as in your growth as an individual, and what your previous interest in Japan had been. In addition, you had to attach your transcript, as well as a letter of recommendation from a faculty or staff member who could speak to your strengths."

Following the first round of selections, 40 applicants were interviewed and 23 finalists were chosen.

As a participant of the program, I was moved by the dedication of the program's creators to facilitate the peace initiative between the two countries. The U.S.-Japan Council covered all expenses, and also created an itinerary that allowed us to experience aspects of Japan that we otherwise would not have seen. The students were given an endlessly understanding and supportive tour guide, Sayuri-san, who led us through the overwhelming beauty of Tokyo and Hiroshima, two historically complex and culturally rich cities.

After a two-hour flight to Chicago and a 13-hour flight to Japan, we landed with little time to rest, and were plunged right into a lavish and traditional Japanese meal. Within the span of eight days, the group experienced the same hospitality as we explored the Tokyo National Museum, the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and many other historically important locations. Each site presented a lesson in understanding what it means to gather as human beings, rather than simply seeing each other as an ethnicity or nationality.

As Srikanth puts it, "We live in a global community, and our histories are intertwined with those of other nations. As U.S. residents, we have an obligation to understand the lives of peoples elsewhere, because so much of what we do has an impact on the rest of the world. When we are removed from our familiar spaces, we can sometimes be made uncomfortable and disoriented, but this discomfort is crucial to our growth as learners and as individuals.

"We realize what it is to be humble, to listen, to see the world from others' perspective, to hear the desires and aspirations of people elsewhere, and to appreciate our similarities but also our differences from them. Part of what we learn through travel is not to 'erase' differences, but to interact meaningfully despite differences," added Srikanth.

Similarly, I was struck by the collective generosity and patience of the people of Japan. Culture shock was overwhelming at times. It was difficult to communicate simple requests, as few people spoke English. Despite our lack of experience with the culture and language, the natives of Japan tried their best to help.

One of the most exemplary instances of international connection was meeting with students from Hiroshima University and Showa Women's University. The students from both universities were enthusiastic and kind. What was especially striking about Showa, however, was what the students represented. The women of Showa were not only excited about their studies, but bright and driven. Many of them dreamt of teaching in both the U.S. and in Japan. The women demonstrated the shift in traditional gender roles in a society in which women were once quite limited.

One participant from Showa, Kaho Kusayanagi, expressed interest in continuing her connection to the U.S. "[I signed up for this program] because I needed the opportunity to speak English and make friends," she said. "I'm really interested in spending more time in the U.S. and seeing places I've never been to before."

Sarah Bolden, a junior and orientation leader at UMass Boston, shared Kusayanagi's sentiments about the desire to form new connections, as well as getting out of her comfort zone.

"I applied to the Tomodachi program with the goal of exploring a new culture outside of my comfort zone. The trip has proven to be an incredibly insightful experience; I was able not only to learn about Japanese culture, but to begin to cultivate new friendships and a deeper connection to Japan. I fully intend to stay involved in U.S.-Japan relations and I hope to encourage others to do the same," Bolden said.

She added, "International programs provide students with an opportunity to experience diversity and explore a new area they aren't familiar with. Travel is tangibly educational by providing students with hands-on interaction with new cultures and societies. It can raise questions about one's own identity and beliefs; it can foster new friendships; and it is an opportunity for growth." 

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