In February, I applied to the Japan Society’s Junior Fellows Leadership Program, not expecting to even make it to the interview phase. Much to my surprise, I ended up getting accepted. The program allows 10 students in America to travel to Japan and take part in an immersive summer experience. Each year, a new group of students does a homestay with a Japanese family, goes to school in Japan, and gets to attend an array of business meetings. I hadn’t applied to any programs since I joined the iSchool, so I saw this an opportunity to take a shot at becoming a part of something that interested me.
After finding out that I got accepted to the program, I was excited, but nervous at the same time. It would be my first time traveling outside of the country alone. After a 3-day pre-flight orientation and getting to know my group members, my anxiety subsided, and I was ready to make the most out of this opportunity. The flight from New York to Japan was roughly 14 hours, and in that time I got some sleep and wrote down important phrases to remember during the trip.
Since the flight itself was quite long, everyone in my group was jet-lagged after the plane landed. The next day we met our host families, so everyone in the group decided to get a lot of sleep on the night of our arrival.
The next morning, I woke up with a low-grade fever. I started worrying, since it was the day that all of the people in my group would split up to be with their host families. However, besides feeling overheated at times and having less of an appetite than usual, I was fine that day. After two long bus rides filled with beautiful scenery and shopping breaks, it was time for everyone to meet their host families in Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima. One by one, our host parents came to pick us up and bring us to their homes. Soon enough, it was my turn.
My host parents were an older couple that I ended up warming up to very quickly. They drove in their car to their house, and then they showed me around their house and helped me with my luggage. After that they gave me dango (a Japanese sweet on a stick), and offered me beverages. That night, when I was drinking iced coffee and eating dango in my host family’s living room, as my host mom was trying to dance along with the J-Pop groups on the TV, I felt at home, even though I was extremely far away. I could tell that they put a lot of care into the dinner they made for me, and I enjoyed exchanging gifts with them.
They also asked me if I was alright when I seemed nervous, which was something that made me happy. I made sure to get a lot of sleep that night, even though I had to wake up early. My fever had gone away too, so I stopped stressing out. Much to my surprise, the trip helped me get into the hang of things in terms of time management. The alarms I set on my phone never failed to wake me up once I set foot in Japan, which was very reassuring.
When I woke up, I was given a very delicious breakfast. Breakfasts in Japan are different from breakfasts in America. Like Japanese lunches and dinners, Japanese breakfasts are composed of various dishes. They also contain foods that most Americans would most likely eat at lunch or dinner. Some examples of this would be rice, miso soup, tonkatsu (pork cutlets), etc. After eating breakfast, I ended up meeting one of my host parents’ friends, a student at the University of Aizu, named Yaqub.
The four of us went to Bandai and saw the mountains, then rode in a canoe and took in the sights. After that, we went to an orientation for Canadian students from Manitoba to meet their host families. That was where I befriended Taryn. She’s older than me, and was my host sister when I was in Japan. We were driven around Fukushima together, and we shared our experiences with one another. I enjoyed doing origami with her and our host mom who taught us how to create many intricate things out of paper. Later on, I met another one of the family’s friends named Rei. She was extremely helpful and made me and Taryn feel at home.
Once a few days had passed, it was time to go to school in the town. Taryn, my group members and I ended up attending Gakuho High School for four days. During that time, all of the foreign exchange students were split into different homerooms, leaving us alone to talk to Japanese students around our age. We were put into either first year or second year homerooms, since the third years were doing testing at the time.
The first two days of school were when ”sports day” took place. I don’t consider myself to be an athletic person, but I decided to join the girls in my first year homeroom and play basketball. In the process, I became closer with people in my homeroom by communicating with them both verbally and non-verbally. Even though my homeroom did not end up winning the sports competition, it was fun befriending fellow classmates and cheering on my exchange student friends when they played sports.
At lunch during the first few days, I socialized with my peers too, stepping outside of my comfort zone and getting to know others. I answered a lot of people’s questions about life in America, ranging from what school was like, to what the best American foods are. Some other notable interactions I had included: being dabbed at during a classmate’s introduction, being in the middle of an argument between a guy and a girl in the class about whether K-Pop was bad or not, three guys having a flossing battle over me, the same three guys telling me to call them ikemen (meaning good-looking), a guy pulling down his pants in front of me and some of my group mates, only to reveal shorts underneath (much to our relief), having a girl in my homeroom completely fangirl over Nathaniel (one of my friends in the group), having that same girl say I’m her wife, and being hugged by another girl in my homeroom for giving her the LINE ID of one of my group mates (Connor). One of my other group mates, Jacob, managed to finesse his way into a majority of the homeroom group chats, which was pretty remarkable.
Besides the funnier interactions at the school, there were a lot of heartwarming, educational, and eye-opening moments that came out of the experience too. The Junior Fellows Leadership Program had all 10 of the Junior Fellows split into groups and do research revolving around an issue of our choice within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I was in the health and well-being group with Nathaniel and Jared, so we got the opportunity to survey Japanese students in our age range at Gakuho High School (we had already surveyed Americans before we flew to Japan). Through surveying various Japanese students, I learned more about how they coped with stress and anxiety, and what common factors for stress were in Japan. It was very interesting to see how the data from the Japanese survey compared to the data from the American one.
The differing data was very useful when it came to helping us create our group presentation after the trip had ended. On the last two days of school, we got to witness what classes were like, and I got to attempt classwork during some portions of the day. During others, the other exchange students and I went to assist the English classes and talked with students who wanted to practice improving their language skills. At one point, we even got to meet Junior High students, and Nathaniel, Erica and I ended up getting really heartwarming notes from one of the girls who we helped.
Throughout my time at Gakuho, I got to attend various clubs as well. The clubs that I spent most of my time in were the drawing club and the English club. In the English club, everyone was extremely friendly, so Erica and I were able to bond with the club members well, and teach them more about the language itself. The drawing club was a place where a lot of the Junior Fellows could unwind and talk to each other. The majority of us ended up going, so I was able to talk to Junior Fellows that I didn’t see around school too often (like Lexi, Pierson, Kate, and Desmarie). Taryn also joined the group, and we all got to know an Australian foreign exchange student named Will. Will was staying at Gakuho for longer than we were (since he’s a part of a different program), but he was happy to meet other exchange students, even if we were only staying for a limited amount of time. In the drawing club, I was able to witness many interesting drawing techniques and look at the art from Japanese students, along with creating my own drawings, which I had a lot of fun doing.
Unfortunately, the window of time that all of us (with the exception of Will) had at Gakuho was very limited, which meant we had to say farewell to our Japanese classmates after the four days we spent at the school had finally elapsed. I ended up having to leave soon after classes were over on the last day, since I was scheduled to go to a nearby clinic with my instructor Yumi. She had made an appointment for me after I contacted her when I realized I had lost my medication a few days earlier. I was able to get a new prescription thanks to the help of Yumi, the kind people working at the clinic, and the host mother of one of the other Junior Fellows who drove us to the clinic. However, once the appointment was over, I decided to head back to school.
Before my appointment, I had handed Rice Krispies Treats to classmates, and given New York keychains to students who I became close to (even putting some in people’s desks). I decided to give a Gudetama plushie to a girl who I befriended, and seeing the happiness on her face made me touched. Although I had done a lot of what I planned, I still had things I needed to do on the last day. I met up with Erica again, and we took photos of the school for memories.
I also managed to get the LINE ID of one of the guys that wanted me to call him handsome, which ended in a ton of cheering from his friends from inside the classroom once they thought Erica and I had left. We also bid farewell to the girls in the English club, exchanging contact information with them, and introducing them to Jacob, who was interested in the club. We managed to say goodbye to members of the drawing club as well, and they were sad to see us go.
A while after our school life in Gakuho ended, our homestay experience came to a close. Before Taryn and I left my host family’s house, we did a lot of karaoke, and a lot of family friends were invited over. The morning we had to leave, our host parents drove us to where we needed to be. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend Taryn’s leaving ceremony, since I was the first to go. I missed everyone when I had to say goodbye, but we all promised to see each other in the future and keep in contact with one another. Now that the homestay has ended, I would be traveling with Yumi and my group mates to Iwaki City and then Tokyo.
The trip to Iwaki City was extremely thought provoking. The sights were really nice, and I was very moved when I got to hear from survivors from the tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011, in the Tōhoku region of Japan. Hearing about the experiences that others had was very emotional, and I took a lot out of the stories that they shared with my group. Once we made it to Tokyo after the few days in Iwaki City, it was time for the Junior Fellows to attend an array business meetings. These business meetings ranged from going to the Nikkei Journal building and hearing from Japanese journalists working there to learning about what working at Sony is like. We also got to visit the Ashinaga Foundation, an organization working to provide emotional and educational support from orphans across the globe, among many other business trips. These trips made us more open to considering different career paths, and allowed us to learn more about the careers that already caught our interest.
Even though we were expected to work on our group projects and take notes on our business meetings when we were in Tokyo, we were given time for leisure and learned more about Japanese culture itself. Every night, we could spend time with each other in our hotel rooms until curfew ended at 10pm. We got to visit the University of Tokyo and eat lunch there, exploring the campus beforehand. We also were given time to go shopping in areas like Harajuku, Shinjuku Station, and Asakusa for souvenirs and personal items. We also got to learn more about Japanese art and the practice of religion in Japan during various temple visits. During the temple visit in Asakusa, we got to meet Japanese alumni of the Junior Fellows Leadership Program (since there’s a version of the program where Japanese students go to the U.S.). Then we had lunch with the alumni after the temple visit, which allowed us to get to know more about them and their experiences with the program. Like us, they all had positive memories from the time they spent in America, and were happy to teach us interesting facts about Japan.
I ended up becoming friends with an alumni named Tatsuyuki, and we had interesting conversations about politics, society, and different cultures. I also befriended a female alumni and we got peach frappuccinos together (if you go to Japan, please try the peaches – they taste amazing). The day before we met the alumni, the rest of American Junior Fellows and I were able to go to an interactive art museum, which was absolutely stunning, along with a street festival. Traditional music could be heard throughout the festival, and a large group of people could be seen dancing. Drums were also being played, and booths with games and food were set up. It was a really fun experience that I was able to enjoy with my friends. Also, I was able to try takoyaki (fried ball-shaped cakes with chopped up octopus inside) for the first time, which was quite delicious.
Much to my dismay, it was time to fly back to New York after spending some of the most eventful weeks of my life in Japan. I made a lot of great bonds, witnessed amazing scenery, improved my time-management, social, and organizational skills, learned a lot of valuable information, and mastered the art of stuffing a horrific amount of items into one tiny suitcase. Seriously, that suitcase was so packed that I got a bloody finger attempting to zip it up… With all of those things on my mind, it was sad to say goodbye to everyone I met that lived in Japan. I managed to buy my final souvenirs for people, candies, and merchandise at the airport before it was time for us to board our flight back to JFK. On the flight back, I watched foreign movies, slept, talked with my group members, was saved by Kate who gave me a candy when I had a low blood sugar, and reflected on the trip itself, along with how far I had come as a person.
I’m thankful that I was treated with such kindness and respect from my host family, students at the high school, workers at restaurants, and even regular citizens. I’m also very thankful for the support from Yumi and the help from other Japan Society members, such as Endo and Alex (even though he didn’t travel with us to Japan, he still helped us with preparations). It was nice to form such a strong connection with all 9 other Junior Fellows during the time I spent with them. All in all, the experience was something I’m very grateful for, and it will always hold a place in my heart. As an alumni, I can say wholeheartedly that I recommend Japan Society’s Junior Fellows Leadership Program to any freshmen, sophomores, or juniors with an interest in Japan.
You get to make a lot of lifelong friends during the program, and you get to experience both rural and urban parts of Japan as opposed to only the urban areas during the trip. The program also helps you grow and step outside of your boundaries. Even if you doubt yourself, I encourage you to apply anyway. I didn’t expect to get accepted, and had a lot of worries along the way, but once I was in Japan, my mindset changed, and I felt my concerns ease away. If a program isn’t your cup of tea, or you’re too old to apply to the Junior Fellows Leadership Program, I recommend that you travel to Japan sometime in the future if you haven’t already. There’s so much to do, see, and learn over there, and I definitely want to visit the country again in the future.