On October 23 fifty students from two high schools in Okinawa visited the Consulate General of Japan in New York as part of a government-funded youth exchange program between the US and Japan. Called KAKEHASHI Project – The Bridge for Tomorrow, the program is aimed at highlighting the aspects of “Cool Japan” in the hopes of promoting Japanese culture overseas. The goal is to increase tourism to Japan while providing students from both Japan and the US an enriching cultural experience.
At the Consulate students from Futenma High School in Ginowan and Hokuzan High School in Nakijin gave presentations about the unique history and culture of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. One student asked the audience if we knew who had control of Okinawa before Japan. The answer: No one; it was an independent country. He went on to give us a brief history lesson of the Ryukyu Kingdom – Okinawa’s former name – and the trade relations the citizens enjoyed with China and Southeast Asia.
Another group took us on a tour of Shuri Castle and the Nakijin Castle ruins, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The students from Futenma briefly discussed the presence of US military bases on Okinawa, which comprise more than 70% of the bases in the entire country of Japan. They showed us how close their school is to the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, even including a picture of an Osprey – the military aircraft, not the bird – flying overhead.
“That looks dangerous!” one of the presenters exclaimed.
“I think it is!” responded another.
That was as political as the presentation would get. It continued with their school schedule, which begins at 8:50 a.m. and includes lunch, “which most students bring from home,” and the thorough cleaning of the classrooms at 4:00 p.m., and ends at 7:30 p.m. each day after extra-curricular activities.
The students also sang their school song, gave a basic karate demonstration, and performed a dance.
The students spoke to a small audience. I attended the reception at the Consulate as a member of the Okinawa American Association of New York (OAANY), of which I serve as president. In addition to several employees of the Consulate, I was joined by three other members of OAANY and a JET alumna who spent five years teaching in Okinawa.
After a catered meal, the students were whisked away to the Top of the Rock. They’ll have a few days of sightseeing in New York before they travel to Atlanta for a homestay and more exchange programs.
The Okinawan representatives are just a few of the 2,300 students from Japan who are participating in the KAKEHASHI Project in the US. The same number of American students, ranging from junior high school to graduate students, were invited to Japan for a 10-day study tour to gain first-hand experience of Japan’s culture, history, nature, and modern technology.
The Japanese government provided the Japan-US Education Commission funding for this exchange, which is implemented by the Japan Foundation in conjunction with the Japan International Cooperation Center and The Laurasian Institution.
The KAKEHASHI Project also supported a panel discussion with emerging Japanese animators at New York Comic Con on October 12.