Japan-US student exchange builds friendships and agenda for social change

Showing a friend around town can often teach natives a thing or two about the place they call home. But do it for four weeks straight, in a group of 60-plus American and Japanese students who have come together to study social change, and even a familiar world can quickly look like a very different place.

In many ways, that's the point of the venerable Japan-America Student Conference (JASC). Each year, students choose a theme and travel around the alternating host country, sharing academic debates on the topic, late-night chats, sightseeing, and the all-important experience of learning how differently international peers may view an issue.

It's all by way of promoting greater contact among members of two countries that share similar interests but still in many ways have limited understanding of one another.

"It's an intercultural, academic boot camp," says Lisa Pavia, who attends Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. "I've been thinking about friendships as well as trade issues. You can study about US-Japan relations, but this is experiencing it. You have to learn to communicate on an interpersonal level."

Doing that can often be serious business - students join in study groups that range in topic from multilateral relations to mass media to international law. But a variety of factors draw participants to the conference, which was founded in 1934 and resumed after an interruption during World War II.

From their starting point at Tokai University in Honolulu, members of the millennium JASC traveled across the United States, touring such places as the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the United Nations. They were feted by diplomats and did community-service projects together. And by the time they reached their final stop at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., they had worked through the intangible steps of blending a group of people who, just weeks before, had little more in common than an interest in learning about another country.

The process can literally point students' lives in new directions. Chinazor Ojinnaka, who just graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., said learning about JASC made him rethink his plans to go to medical school.

"It just hit me, and I started questioning my goals. I researched Japan, and realized I had more of an interest in international relations," says the delegate, who will spend next year teaching in Japan. The conference "was confidence-building and character-building."

Part of that comes from things like learning how to deal with new international roommates - "Ameri-delies" and "Japa-delies" are teamed up. But students also gain ground in diplomatic skills as they negotiate positions on their study tables and see firsthand how nationalism and entrenched points of view can come into play.

At a meeting of the multilateral relations table, for example, two-person teams give their ideas about the shape of the report the group will present at the upcoming final forum of the conference. The eight table members tap away at laptops, sounding like diplomats as they debate in the language that will best clarify their position. Delegates also get an education in new perspectives. Hiroshi Imamura, a student at Keio University in Tokyo, notes that his interest in e-business had put his focus on globalization. But the business study table shifted his focus somewhat.

"You need to consider the local," he says.

JASC comes about each year largely as a result of student efforts. An executive committee, elected by delegates each year, chooses sites, arranges events, and does the fund-raising. Delegates pay between $1,900 and $2,500 to attend, but many schools offer scholarships.

Pulling it all together is an education in itself, says Naila MacKenzie, a committee member and Harvard student. A JASC veteran, she jokes that the difference this year is "I know everything comes down to money."

But she has learned a lot. JASC, she says, is a microcosm of cultural shifts taking place on a larger scale. She notes that the notion of what is typical Japanese or American behavior is changing.

"We've had Japanese delegates pouncing on Americans with their opinions, and we've sometimes had to push Americans to speak up," she says.

The conference also had more bilingual students this year, and US delegates weren't as nationalistic as some Japanese expected on such things as trade issues.

In fact, says Ms. MacKenzie, who is half-Japanese, she felt the nationalism was stronger on the Japanese side of the aisle.

"There's more pride, in a good sense," she says. "They want to reassert Japan's place in the world."

The JASC experience can have a profound effect, she says. But she's realistic.

"We're not delusional. We sit around for a month and talk," MacKenzie comments. "But social change starts from individual reflection. The conference makes you turn inward and see how you're relating to the world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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