In February 2019, I was one of seventeen University of Toronto students awarded the honour of participating in the Kakehashi Project, a program run by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE). “Kakehashi” means bridge in Japanese, corresponding to our role as a bridge between Canadian and Japanese cultures. We deepened our understanding of Japan’s economy, history, politics, foreign policy and lifestyle through this unique experiential learning opportunity. For me, the highlights of the program were attending the keynote lecture, meeting Osaka University students, and staying with a host family in Hino town.
We met our first morning in Japan with much excitement and anticipation, but also jet lag. We discovered, the best “cure” for lethargy was the keynote lecture delivered by Professor Akira Nakamura of Meiji University. Professor Nakamura provided an exceedingly engaging and informative talk, candidly discussing Japanese government and public policy. Prof. Nakamura unpacked the controversy surrounding Article 9, the “Peace Clause,” in Japan’s postwar constitution. Specifically, increased threats in the international arena, including the threat posed by North Korea, have reignited debates concerning whether Japan should maintain an army, navy, and air force, which would potentially allow the state to resolve international conflicts militarily. It was also informative to learn about Japan’s urban-rural divide. Since the 1946 land reforms that transformed tenant farmers into landowners, rural districts have been strong supporters of Japanese conservatism. In many respects, their standard of living is also higher than that of their urban peers.
Meeting Osaka University students provided us with additional insight into contemporary issues in Japan, such as debates on the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) and women’s representation in politics. Though Japan does not have a military, they do have an SDF comprised of about 250,000 troops who assist in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions and natural disaster relief. It was intriguing to hear the perspectives of students on whether the SDF should be maintained and if they would consider joining. Women’s representation in politics was another pressing topic, and one which allowed for cross-cultural comparisons between Canada and Japan. For instance, while the number of female parliamentarians has increased in Japan, the number of female ministers has decreased, which contrasts with Prime Minister Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet. However, the most memorable aspects of meeting with Osaka University students were the warmth with which they received us, along with our mutual curiosity to learn about each other’s cultures, and the connections we continue develop even after our return home.
Undoubtedly, the main highlight of the Project was the homestay experience in Hino town. We learned about Japanese rural life, cooking, traditions, and, most significantly, the true meaning of Japanese hospitality when local residents welcomed us into their homes for two days. No one in my homestay group spoke Japanese and our ojiichan (grandfather) and obaachan (grandmother) did not speak much English either. The language barrier only added to our experience as were able to communicate through smiles, laughter, and (occasionally) Google Translate. Our ojiichan was keen to show us around Hino town and teach us the significance of cultural traditions. We learned about the Hinamatsuri or Japanese Doll Festival that occurs every May, and saw the dolls—carefully preserved from 1820—that our host family donated to the local museum. Our obaachan taught us how to make maki rolls as well as how to prepare many other delicious dishes using ingredients picked from their own farm. It was so hard to say goodbye.
Despite my sadness in leaving my host family and Japan more broadly, I am determined to return soon. After all, the Kakehashi Project is but a beginning point in my unfolding relationship with Japan, as I seek to strengthen and deepen Canada-Japan relations in my future academic and professional pursuits.