Visit to Japan Energizes Mason Students

Posted: July 11, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: July 16, 2013 at 7:10 am

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By Frances Womble

During a visit to Yakama National University, Mason students joined the Japanese students in wearing traditional dress. Photo courtesy of Jane

During a visit to Yokohama National University, Mason students joined the Japanese students in wearing traditional kimonos. Photo courtesy of Jane Kirsch

Jeffrey Wood, a rising junior who is double majoring in global affairs and Chinese, is no stranger to international travel. Wood has traveled to China multiple times and will be spending the coming academic year in China as a Boren Scholar. Until recently, however, he had not visited Japan.

That all changed when Wood jumped at the opportunity to apply for the Kakehashi Project Bridge for Tomorrow: Youth-Exchange Project with North America, a 10-day study tour sponsored by the Japanese government.

Mason was the first university in the country selected to participate in the exchange, and the Office of Global and International Strategies partnered with Sufumi So, assistant professor of Japanese, to coordinate the project.  According to So, Wood was one of more than 100 students who applied for the trip and was one of 23 students and two chaperones who said “sayonara” to Mason and “konnichiwa” to Japan at the end of May.

“I wanted to see a different perspective of Asian culture,” says Wood. “I expected that Japan would be industrialized and that Japanese people would be conservative and judgmental of us. This trip completely changed my perspective on Japanese culture. Most of the people we came across were more liberal in their way of dress and expression than some Americans are.”

Chaperone Amy Reagan, coordinator of Global Crossings Living Learning Community, says this misconception was frequently discussed during the trip.

“The biggest lesson we learned was to never assume,” she says. “Throughout the study tour we had several conversations about our preconceived notions and our actual experiences. The common thread was that many of our assumptions weren’t true.”

Unlike Reagan and Wood, chaperone Jane Kirsch, core instructor and curriculum coordinator in the English Language Institute, has lived in Japan and vacationed there multiple times. According to Kirsch, this range of experience was representative of the traveling students.

“The selected students had a variety of cultural backgrounds and varying amounts of overseas experience,” she says. “Some had studied Japanese or had traveled to Asian countries, while others only knew about jiujitsu and sushi.”

Regardless of previous experience, a visit to Yokohama National University, where Mason students were able to connect with Japanese students, was a highlight of the trip.

“The main focus of the trip was to foster positive international relations and friendships with our peers in Japan, so visiting Yokohama National University to meet students was very important,” says Elena Galindo, a rising junior majoring in biology. “We were able to discuss the differences and similarities between our schools, and we got to tour the school grounds and learn a bit about Japanese university life. We were even able to attend a student festival. I will never forget the great warmth and hospitality that we were met with, and I will forever treasure the friendships I made at YNU.”

While the students enjoyed mingling with Japanese students, Kirsch and Reagan met with four YNU administrators.

“We felt like royalty,” says Kirsch. “The university was similar to Mason in many ways, and their administration runs very similarly to what we know.”

“It was our most engaged and interactive day of the tour,” says Reagan. “It was incredible to see the immediate friendships between our participants and their host students. After leaving the university, there was an energy on the bus that epitomized the purpose of the study tour.”

YNU students were also introduced to Mason culture.

“Our students represented Mason with a ton of Patriot pride,” says Reagan. “We took a lot of Mason gear with us and shared it with our new Japanese friends, so the Mason Idea is spreading around the world.”

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Kamakura, one of the former capitals of ancient Japan.

“We got to practice Zen meditation and learn about the traditional side of Japan,” says Reagan. “Most of our tour was focused on modern-day Japan, so this day was unique.”

“I was able to see how the Japanese people feel strong connections to their environment and how they work hard to preserve its health and beauty,” says Galindo. “As a conservation biology major, it interests me very much to learn about people’s attitudes toward nature and to see how people are working to preserve various ecosystems and organisms.”

Although the students are back at home, Reagan stresses that cultural exchanges can happen anywhere.

“An important lesson for all of us was that international exchange can happen on a daily basis,” she says. You don’t have to get in a place for 14 hours to learn about different cultures. We live in a diverse community and attend a diverse university. There are many opportunities to experience internationalism at home.”

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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