Japanese farmland, hot springs, language barriers, strange foods, new friends— these are just a few encounters in the experiences of the six students selected to represent Villanova University in the North American Region’s Kakehashi Project in Japan from March 9-17.
Coordinated by the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), the trip’s expenses were at no cost to students, being entirely funded by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Objectives of the program were to promote mutual trust and understanding between U.S. and Japan, create a global understanding of Japan’s economy, society and history, as well as to disseminate information regarding Japan’s attractiveness through communication platforms.
The University students Deyjah Foster, Joseph Manual, Thomas Dorrance, Alexander Eiden, Joel Park and Veronica Gedal were part of a ‘Pennsylvania group’ of the Kakehashi Project which also included students from Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College and Ursinus College. The University students were supervised by Dr. Joseph Lennon, Associate Dean of CLAS.
After landing in Tokyo, the group was dispatched to Aomori—the northern most region of the Japan’s main island of Honshu. The Kakehashi Project dispatched its students to areas of Japan that are rural and especially affected by an aging demographic.
Though most University participants are Japanese minors and/or Asian Studies minors, the Kakehashi Project provided the group with translators. The Aomori residents knew very little English.
“We had the ability to get an introspective view of the country where if we had a tour guide they may not necessarily know everything about these areas,” University participant, Thomas Dorrance said.
“We went to a lot of Japanese museums and temples to better understand [the Japanese] religion and festivals,” Deyjah Foster said. “The whole purpose of the project is to initiate cross cultural exchange. They wanted us to gain an affinity to Japan and promote Japan in a positive light as they want to bring more foreigners to their nation.”
Since areas like Aomori are in decline largely due to an aging population, Dorrance explained, “[the Japanese government] very much wanted to highlight the idea that younger people aren’t staying in the traditional areas in Japan, and [this] is having [a] detrimental effect on these areas that [is] also bleeding out toward the metropolitan areas.”
While for most of the trip the group stayed in hotels, for one night, students were hosted by Aomori families. Students said they were met with warm hospitality, an endemic part of Japanese culture.
“In the very rural area, none of the people spoke any English, but they still made an active effort to talk to us and get to know us,” said Veronica Gedal. She additionally commented, “My host mother knew I didn’t speak a lot of Japanese, but she was insistent to show me [photographs from] her wedding [and of] her children, her wedding dress. [She was] trying to show me her life.”
The students additionally visited with students from Hachinohe Gakuin University.
“It was fun to see how students who are the same age as us in a different country [who are studying] different majors go about their lives and how we are similar and different,” Dorrance said. He still keeps in contact with his new Japanese friends since returning to the University.
Though the Kakehashi Project rotates its target locations every year and will not be returning to the University any time soon, the students interested in visiting Japan should not be discouraged. According to the University participants, other programs such as JET contribute to the over 1000 university students that visit Japan each year.
Joseph Manual also found the exchange eye opening.
“This opportunity was a really good way to see how a different country works and to see what cultural foundations influence how a society acts,” Manual said. “Comparing any western country to Japan, the foundation is very different, so seeing how that drives Japanese cultural and I was able to critically compare how American society works.”