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“Being from a small town, I’ve realized that the world is pretty big.”
– Hunter, Global Youth Journey to Japan Student Ambassador from South Dakota, USA
Travel can be transformative at any age, but immersion and exposure to new cultures, places, and faces as a teenager can particularly affect one’s perspective on life. In June, FFI piloted a multigenerational Journey throughout Japan. The first ever Global Youth Journey to Japan brought together 15 students from three countries along with 12 of their family members serving as chaperones, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents. FFI Staff on the Journey included our Japanese Regional Support Manager, Noriko Kamamoto, and Director of Marketing and Communications, Kaitlyn Ranney, along with FFI leader, Will Henderson. The group traveled to Tokyo for a 10-day program, and were hosted by 3 Japanese Friendship Force clubs – FF Musashino Meguro, FF Hiroshima, and FF Mt. Fuji Yamanashi.
Many of the students knew about the travels and adventures their grandparents, aunts, and uncles had taken with Friendship Force, and they jumped at the chance to join their family members on this Global Youth Journey. Annette Watson of FF Tamworth Australia traveled to Japan with her grandsons Olly, 15, and Will, 14, along with her daughter (and their aunt), Chris. As Annette reflected, “This is tremendous for grandparents and it’s a fabulous experience to take a grandchild on this – they’re always on their best behavior. This is my sixth trip with my grandkids. It’s been lovely especially to have the three generations along.”
Hunter, an 18-year-old student from Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA, really enjoyed being with peers his age on this trip. “But I also connected with my grandma in a different way,” he said. Lou Ann King from FF, Dallas, Texas embarked on the Journey with her grandson Caspian, from Hawaii. “On a personal level, this gives grandparents an opportunity to bond or have an experience with their grandchildren. This way, our grandkids get to learn about us and our experiences in a different way,” she said. “The multi-generational aspect is key.”
Traveling with adult family members made for a more comfortable inaugural trip abroad for many of the students. As Svetlana from Moscow commented about traveling with her grandfather, Boris, “It was better than expected…. I felt calm with him because he has experience traveling,” she said.
A cornerstone of this educational, student-focused Journey was quality time spent in Japanese schools with Japanese students. The Journey began in Tokyo at Hosen Gakuen Jr. & Sr. High School, where the student ambassadors spoke with Japanese students in conversational English classes and acclimated to Japanese culture and customs.
“There’s a general inherent respect and focus on respect here – of each other’s space, belongings, and each other in general. The students are very welcoming and I can relate to a lot of them – some who are into school and some who aren’t so much,” explained Naia, a 17-year-old ambassador from Portland, Oregon.
“They are very kind and helpful – which I appreciate because that’s how I would want to be if people visited me.”
Later in the Journey, ambassadors spent a day at Fukuyama Municipal Jr. & Sr. High School, where they accompanied their Japanese student “buddies” on a school tour and participated in club activities, like calligraphy and a tea ceremony. They experienced a full day as Japanese students would, including bento boxes for lunch in the junior high homerooms and helping to clean the classrooms afterwards – a daily activity for students in Japan. Later in the day, the Russian students shared their home culture in a presentation and Japanese students taught ambassadors about a variety of cultural topics (from kimonos to ninjas and the roses of Fukuyama), while practicing their English language skills. “They have a lot of freedom and options with clubs to participate in,” observed Alina, a 16 year old from Albany, Western Australia. “They clearly have a good education system, especially when it comes to other languages.”
Even with only a day spent together, the American, Russian, and Australian students connected with the Japanese students. “The students are very kind. They looked at us as though we were special people, even though we really weren’t. They clapped when we came in!” said Polina, a 16 year old student ambassador from Moscow, Russia. “One Japanese girl texted me and she said she was inspired by me and wanted to learn English as well as I knew it. She wanted to keep in touch because of that!”
During a weekend with FF Mt. Fuji Yamanashi, the ambassadors visited the third school of the Journey – Suomi Elementary School, a private, independent learning school nestled within a forest, where students enjoy self-directed learning with a focus on nature and English conversation. The Suomi kids performed for the FFI group – even pulling the student ambassadors in to join them. That evening, student ambassadors were home-hosted individually with families of FF Mt. Fuji, while grandparents and chaperones stayed at a local hotel for the night.
Both students and adults, ambassadors and hosts, alike commented that the time spent in their hosts’ homes while experiencing their daily lives was the most meaningful. “This was my first experience in a homestay. It was cool because I had three host families and they were all different from each other, and now I have a better understanding of Japanese personalities,” said Svetlana from Moscow.
Naia from Oregon admitted she was initially nervous about being home hosted, “…but I found that you need to just be open-minded, respectful, and meet people halfway. You’ll make mistakes, but it’s ok. I think homestays are the way to go because you learn a lot more. It’s a window into the culture more than if I was in a hotel alone or with my family.”
Even with generational differences between family members and ambassadors, the Japanese clubs truly imparted the home of home hosts. “Everyone made me feel like I was part of the family,” said Demetri, from Georgia, USA. Mr. Toru Ogawa of FF Hiroshima said, “Younger generations can melt the ice in five minutes.”
Caspian, from Hawaii, explained, “I felt at home there even though I was very far away from home. I’ve definitely learned a lot with the host families. I learned I’m a little more independent than I thought I was. Away from what I know and have experienced all my life, I still function just fine. I’m adaptable.”
The student ambassadors also reflected on the differences and similarities between their home cultures and Japanese. “Before the trip, I thought Japanese people were very different from Europeans or Americans with a completely different culture. But after some communication and time with them, I found they are very similar,” said Valentin from Moscow, Russia. “They are the same people as us, just in a different country. I really liked my host families. The people made this trip – not just Japan itself.”
Though the new faces meant a lot, the vastly different places also impressed the ambassadors. “I was most surprised by the technology – the toilets and trains! – how efficient they are. The MagLev is so advanced – how they use magnets to hover above the tracks. Riding the bullet trains was a totally new experience [for me],” said Caspian from Hawaii.
From memorable meals of okonomayaki and hoto to Maglev trains and Zen Buddhism meditation with a German monk, the activities of the program exposed all to the vastness of Japanese culture, history, and language. One of the most powerful days of the Journey was at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, touring the peace monuments and remembrances from the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The afternoon concluded with a moving recitation of stories and poems by victims of the A-bomb by volunteer readers and time in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The young people took a lot away from their experiences – changes that they will hopefully bring to their home communities. “I’ve learned to be very kind to everyone – even strangers, because the Japanese people are kind to everyone,” said Olly, 15, from Australia. Anita of Denver adds,“I would assume [the students will] take important parts away from this, especially comparing experiences and lives. It’s a tremendous opportunity.” As Annette of FF Tamworth, Australia reflected, “Some of these kids will be leaders when they grow up. They will be strong ambassadors for their country.”
Upon return to Tokyo, the group met up with FF Musashino Meguro hosts for a farewell party at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center. Ambassadors reflected on their experiences and expressed gratitude to their hosts and for the many new friendships formed over the previous ten days. Many adults commented about how impressed they were with the group of student ambassadors and the bonds formed among all involved – in just a week.
Svetlana’s grandfather Boris, a member of FF Moscow, proclaimed,
We are heroes of the Friendship Force – breaking all the stereotypes. And our mission is accomplished now.