Written by Phil Cerroni
The Japanese American Society’s cultural exchange effort
By Phil Cerroni
Going to a foreign country can be exciting and disorienting at the same time, especially if you do not know the language. This is the experience Japanese students had when they visited Dallas with the Japanese American Society during which they experienced a full battery of American classics like baseball, barbecue, and, yes, the Boy Scout Museum.
Since the 1990’s, the Japanese American Society has been bringing Americans to Japan and vice versa. This spirit of cultural exchange is not new, however. It has its roots in the misty era of the shogunate in Japan.
In 1870, a whaling ship under the command of Captain Whitfield rescued five stranded Japanese sailors from a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean. One of these sailors, a teenager named John Manjiro, stayed on with Whitfield for the remainder of the voyage and in Massachusetts for ten years after that. After his stay in the United States, Manjiro returned home to the economically and socially closed Japan where he pushed the Shogun government to open its doors to western powers and was instrumental in their favorable reception of Commodore Perry.
Ever since Manjiro's stay in the United States his family and Whitfield’s family have stayed in communication with each other. The Japanese American Society’s efforts celebrate this historic friendship.
Sharon Rose, one of the summit’s organizers, explained why grassroots events like this are so important.
“Many times people want to do business in other countries, but they don’t take the time to really get to know the people or the culture. That’s one of the failings of American business people when they go abroad,” Rose said. “The Japanese will stick with you for a long time through the ups and downs if they have that relationship built. However many Americans want you when it’s up, and when it’s down we turn and go get somebody else. So the grassroots exchange is really important, because you get to know the people in their settings.”
The summit is not simply an economic relations tour, however. Rose was adamant that the summit is not merely utilitarian.
“It’s not business exchange or anything else, it’s come learn our culture, make a few friends, get to know us,” she said.
The DFW area held many cultural surprises for the Japanese visitors. If many Americans’ view of Japan is formed by the films of Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese teens admitted that when they thought of Texas, they had images about cowboys and Indians on their minds.
One of these was the “Texas portion” they had at Billy Bob’s in Forth Worth during the summit’s opening ceremonies.
“What a big amount Americans can eat,” said Takemi Wade, a chaperone for the trip and freelance translator in Japan. “They kept eating, eating, eating – we couldn’t believe it. Actually, the first time I told the students we’re going to have a big barbecue, they went ‘Wooo!’ but they ate too much and the next day they don’t want to see meat anymore,” she continued with a laugh.
An interesting but unexpected draw for the Japanese is the Texas Rangers, more specifically Japanese player Yu Darvish.
“We’re really interested in playing baseball and Yu Darvish is our dream,” said Gaku, an avid fan and baseball player himself.
The Texas Rangers even sponsored a Japanese Youth baseball team to come over to Dallas and organized a game between them and a local youth team.
As the teens are beginning their first foray into international exchange, Wada took some time to relate the start of her exposure, which began with her love for American films.
“When I was a kid, our town had one small movie theater, and that was our only leisure, and I really loved watching movies,” Wada said. “I started thinking I want to learn English,” and she did it by listening to conversation tapes and watching movies.
And if the teens have already noticed some of the differences between our cultures, Wada has experienced many more.
“In Japan, one of the virtues is to withhold our opinion,” she said. “To voice our individual opinion is not liked, so all schools teach students to be the same as others. We wear the same uniforms, same opinions – stereotypes. In Japan, for example, when you watch a movie, and you ask your friends how they liked it, nobody will start the conversation. Someone says the movie was good, everyone will say ‘it’s good, it’s good,’ but in American it’s very different. People can voice their opinions very freely. I really like that culture,” continued Wada.
This year’s participants have a very different view of the exchange experience because they are from parts of Japan that were devastated by last year’s tsunami and earthquake.
“I lost my house and my parents from the last year’s disaster,” said Wada sadly. “We lost all hopes and desires at that time, but thanks to supporters from all over the world and especially from the United States, now we think we can recover little by little again.”
It was seemingly banal things like swimming that the boys were looking forward to most.
“I’m interested in swimming in the river because we are all from affected areas of East Japan so we cannot go to the sea – it’s a little bit frightening,” said Gaku. “We’re a little bit scared, but we want to go into the water and swim because we are prohibited in the affected area.”
The summit not only gave participants an exciting time during their trip to Dallas, but also sparked a desire to foster more cultural exchange.
“On this trip I am standing on the receiving side so I’m interested in learning English, because I want to share this experience with not only Japanese people, but I want to share Japanese cultures with the people here,” said Hiroto, another one of the Summit’s participants. “When I go back to Japan I want to start English conversation study, and then I want to be involved in more exchanging of activities.”
Even though the summit will move to another city next year, this year’s participants have been given a taste of American and Dallas hospitality that they are not likely to forget.
“I’m very impressed by Texas culture,” said Wada. “I’ve been to some cities in the Untied States, but especially in Texas people are very nice. Food is very good and the landscape is very beautiful, and I love Texas already.”