The 5th AnnualJCSB-Canon Essay Competition (2009-2010)
1st Place: Gen Ishikawa (Syosset High School)
2nd Place: Ethan Hamilton (Horace Mann High School)
3rd Place: Sarah Lam (Bronx High School of Science)
College Division Best Essay Award
Elizabeth D Kaufman (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan Special Award
Gen Ishikawa (Syosset High School)
Giovanna Braganza (Sewanhska High School)
Yanling Fang (Lower East Side Preparatory High School)
Sandy Guerrero (Longwood Senior High School)
Kathleen Rivera (CUNY Hunter College)
Stephanie Song (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts)
Leighton Suen (Staten Island Technical High School)
Kimika Berger (Kings Park High School)
Kevin Chen (Ward Melville High School)
Jinnie Lee (Lehman College)
Lauren Yoder (NYC Lab High School)
Krystle Rodriguez (Hunter College )
Mary Rossillo (Longwood Senior High School)
Davanie Singhroy (Sewanhaka High School)
Peter Vey (Hunter College)
Sophia Washburn (The Berkeley Carroll School)
"A World Apart" by Gen Ishikawa (Syosset High School)
I can clearly remember before every trip that my family and I have made to Japan, that I would always dread the 15 hour plane ride from New York to Narita International Airport that awaited me. Ever since my grandparents had become too elderly to travel to the States, my family and I had decided to travel to Japan instead. My parents believed that a trip to Japan would be beneficial in that it would make my grandparents lives a bit easier, and I would also be able to “catch up” on my Japanese heritage. This was because; my parents are strict about preserving my identity as a Japanese individual. Although I did consider myself American, I believed without doubt that I knew about Japanese culture equally as well. I reassured my parents, “Mom, dad, I know enough about Japanese culture, I mean come on, I am Japanese! What could I possibly not know?” But, when they began to question me about simple Japanese values, beliefs, and culture, I had not a single clue. This put me on the same level as the kids that I despised who believed that Japan was nothing more than sushi and Sony electronics. I was disappointed in my hypocritical self, and at that point, I began to develop a desire to learn more about Japanese culture. I viewed going to Japan as an opportunity. An opportunity that allowed me to realize the “culture shock” between my life in America, and a life in Japan.
The second I set foot in Japan, I realized that I was in a place world’s apart from America. We lived in Kami-Itabashi, Tokyo, a town right outside of Ikebukuro, Tokyo. The most noticeable difference that stood out most to me at first was the environment. There was no grass to be seen for miles, vending machines that dispensed cigarettes, and game centers on nearly every single block. I soon realized that I was getting strange looks from people, as if they were ostracizing me from Japan, and placing me as a “gaijin” or an outsider. My parents then explained to me that what you wear in public is a very important aspect of life in Japan. I asked, “What’s wrong about shorts and a t-shirt?” but as I looked around, despite the fact that it was nearly 100 degrees outside, there was not a single person wearing shorts. Rather, everyone was well over dressed in jeans and suits. I could not get myself to comprehend this as in America; it is socially acceptable to do so. I could not believe that this was the case in Japan, and I finally began to acquire a taste of how different the culture in Japan was from what I knew.
However, the culture shocks that impacted me the most were the ones that dealt with human relations. An experience that I will never forget was when I was walking the streets of Shin-Juku, and I realized that there was not a single piece of litter to be seen on the streets. When I accidentally dropped a hi-chew wrapper, someone around me picked it up for me! I was truly astonished as this was something that would never happen in New York, something unimaginable. However, what allowed this to happen was the Japanese belief in respecting the individuals around you. I further realized the extent of this virtue when my parents explained to me that you couldn’t cause a raucous within your household as your neighbor’s house is within a few feet. A loud disturbance within your household would be likely cause a disturbance for your neighbor as well, which would be a selfish act. Japanese people live their day-to-day lives thinking not only about themselves, but for others as well. A virtue that does not exist as strongly in America as it does in Japan. Thinking about others, or placing them before you is an important virtue that should be embraced not only in Japan but throughout the entire world as well. With this in mind, I was able to bring it back to America where I began a new life. A life that is “a world apart”, different from my previous, where all that used to matter to me was myself. Not only have my trips to Japan allowed me to gain a better understanding of my culture, but the virtues that I did not realize before have helped me to become better as a person.
"Journey To A Japanese Family" by Ethan Hamilton (Horace Mann High School)
I may not remember any other “firsts,” those landmark accomplishments parents keep track of. But I do remember one – my first favorite book. It was “Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say. Maybe it was the beautiful illustrations, or maybe it was that my own beloved Grandpa always added in some personal anecdotes, but this autobiographical story was the beginning of my own parallel journey to Japan.
Almost everything in my room has relevance to Japan. From the reproductions of Ukiyo-e prints or the Japanese style Buddha to the Domo-kun piggybank, I’ve assembled artifacts of Japanese culture through careful purchases. Suddenly I sip my Oi-Ocha and snap back to the present. I was lost in my own little Japan again. While other kids dream of becoming rock or sports stars, my own fantasies center on connecting with a culture that I believe epitomizes both aesthetic and spiritual beauty. In addition to reading that first story about Japan to me, my Grandfather introduced me to his own Japanese treasures. Grandpa shared his books about Hokusai and Hiroshige and later read to me about the Showa, Edo and Meiji periods. Perhaps my favorite among his treasures was his teapot collection, which somehow survived my enthusiastic handling.
My Grandfather, however, couldn’t have grown up further from Japan. A first generation Jewish kid from the Bronx, he enlisted in the army as soon as he was old enough after WWII broke out. Never having been out of New York, he was shipped overseas once his training was complete. By the time he arrived in Japan, the war was finally over. Grandpa was astonished not only by the hideous devastation resulting from the war but also, by complete culture shock. He explained how being in Japan changed the way he looked at everything. So much so in fact, that he came to feel more at home abroad than he had back in NY. He illustrated his stories with gifts – a ceramic Buddha he’d fallen in love with and bought with his soldier’s salary. A cinnabar box upon which my fingers have traced and retraced the carved cherry blossoms. I came to understand why Grandpa had selected “Grandfather’s Journey” for me. It was striking how it was almost the inverse of Grandpa’s own journey.
We continued to explore Japan as much as possible from home. This bond between us never felt complete without an actual trip to our spiritual homeland. I’d been studying Japanese in school and had completed my Bar-Mitzvah into adulthood. Grandpa began t o plan meticulously and we debated our itinerary passionately. Should we focus on Tokyo and be thorough or spread our precious days across the country thereby having only a brief visit in each place? Because Grandpa and I both had medical problems – and because neither of us ever did anything lightly – we settled on an intensive visit to Tokyo. From our first lunch at a noisy noodle shop (soba for me, udon for Grandpa) to the shrine of the 47 Ronin, there was nothing that appealed to only one of us. Together we drew fortunes at Asakusa and Grandpa, remembering a long-ago visit, showed me how to light an incense offering. It was certainly the trip of a lifetime and perhaps you can tell by now that it ended very sadly. Despite great effort, Grandpa’s heart, always brimming with love, could last no longer. I made the trip home alone.
Thus it was with mixed emotion that I signed up for a homestay in suburban Tokyo last summer. Once the Nakahamas picked me up, it was easy to fall in with the rhythms of their lives. At last I had two brothers and between visiting Hiroaki’s school, playing PS2 for hours, or just joining in with the family’s Sunday barbecue, I had much to distract me from my bittersweet memories. One weekend, the Nakahamas planned a journey to Kamakura and along the way, we enjoyed eating at a decades-old family-run noodle house. Unlike the lunchtime restaurant Grandpa had taken me to in Tokyo, it was a quiet place where we sat at tables instead of at a counter. In a way, I now feel as though I have my own family in Japan. Still, however, I dream of making another journey when my Japanese is fluent and my brothers and I can laugh at my awkwardness when we first met. Above all, as I strive to accomplish this goal, I will always try to make Grandpa proud.
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say Copyright 1993 Houghton Mifflin Company
"What Japan means to me" by Sarah Lam (Bronx High School of Science)
Japan. This is the one word that would ring like a bell in my head. At a very young age, I had admired Japanese artwork – mainly animation and manga. The artwork was beyond what I had ever seen in my life. The drawings differed for different animation and manga. The eyes, hairstyle, and clothing- the style of each artwork varied. At this moment, my life revolved around Japan.
I remembered the first time I saw Japanese artwork was during my 2nd year in grade school. At this time, I had no friends, no companions; all I had were bullies, people who disliked me just from my very presence. I remembered how no one would help me, how the teachers believed that these “bullies” would never do such a thing, and how many people who saw my suffering stood idle, done nothing but watched. I could not dare tell my family of such a situation, did not want them to worry, did not want them to be sad, and most importantly, I did not want to see their disappointed faces. It was here and then that I was introduced to animation and manga by my one and only brother. While watching these animations and reading these manga, it shocked me to read and watched of such a plot. I laughed, cried, rejoiced, and even had bitter resentment towards different scenes that were portrayed. I thought, “How very amusing. I wish I can draw like that. Even if I can’t draw, I want to try to write a story similar to this”. During the time I faced harassment and felt that maybe it would have been better if I wasn’t here, if I wasn’t alive, then maybe everyone else would be happy, it was Japan that rejuvenated me. It made me realize that life was harsh and that nothing can always be the way you want it to be. Just like Koyama Mitsuki, a character in “Full moon o sagashiteru”, although her lover and both her parents deceased, and although she had a tumor, she struggled to the very last minute to continue living. It told me that life is very precious and that you can’t give up so easily. It told me to “Live. Strive for the people who love you and don’t you ever give up”. Japanese artwork acted as remedy to my suffering by allowing me to be “me”. It gave me courage to face my problems head on. It told me “ganbate” which means “do your best” in Japanese.
Soon after, I learned about Japanese food, the language, and their history. The more I studied, the more in love I was in with Japan. It fascinated me when I learned that the very drawings I fell in love with was based off of Western aspects. It thrilled me to know that Japan was such a flexible country. They bend to various religions, and countries. I had a teacher who once told me that Japan was a great country. They adapted to different situations that allowed the Japanese to prosper. During the world war, Japan faced a terrible crisis which was the possibility of being overrun. The Japanese prevented this from occurring by taking in other countries beneficial aspects. They took Britain’s navy skills, and took Germany’s military system which allowed the Germans to have a superior military. What surprised me even more was the Japanese language. Hiragana, katakana, and kanji – many characters were based off of Chinese letters. I tried not to get confused between Chinese and Japanese but it acted like a tongue-twister. The more I thought, the more confused I got but I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to know more, learn more about Japan and how it became the way it is today.
Studying Japanese history encouraged me to try visiting Japan at least once. Recently I found a scholarship program that allowed high school students to travel to Japan and live with a host family during the summer to experience Japan firsthand. I was thrilled to go however all my efforts were put aside and labeled void by my parents. However I haven’t given up hope yet. I still study Japanese language, and continue learning about their religion and history. If I get a little tired, a little angry, or a little upset, I listen to Japanese music, watch Japanese animation or read manga to sooth myself. If I feel like I giving up, I tell myself the magic word – ganbate.
"Shotokan: A Way of Life" by Elizabeth D Kaufman (Stony Brook University)
“What, are you too afraid to look at me or something?” That was the question she posed as the others once again ganged up to watch. I never knew why I couldn’t. It was just a fact. I couldn’t look people in the eye.
Then, she hit me. Every day of elementary school was the same.
I never knew for sure, until recently, why I just couldn’t fit in as a child. The other kids dubbed me the class freak. I played alone. I couldn’t make friends. I didn’t understand jokes and I just didn’t “get” what other people were talking about. I could hear things the other kids couldn’t. Not voices- things like light bulbs and television sets buzzing, along with high pitched tones. That drove me nuts. More than anything else, it drove me crazy how I couldn’t look most people in the eye.
The school, during my early years in the education system, thought I might be a little “slow.” After getting past the second grade, however, they changed their mind and decided I was very intelligent. No matter how smart they felt I was and no matter how many awards I received or what talents I had, the other children wanted nothing to do with me.
Years inevitably passed and, while my peers opinions of me weren’t as big an issue, I still felt misplaced and bullied. Pokémon became a means of escape from the world I seemed to be bound to. Arriving in America, in 1998, Pokémon, a Japanese cartoon, card gaming and video gaming series, took the country by storm. Cards, toys, a television show and a plethora of accessories stocked toy stores. Drawn to the animation, distinct from American cartoons, I was curious about the mannerisms of the characters, but most of all by bowing.
I saved money from working around the neighborhood and earned enough to buy the cards, a game boy and a Pokémon game. The main character, Ash, didn’t fit in with the others, but had the same goals. It just took him longer to reach them. This was a prominent theme in many other anime (Japanese Animation) shows that I have come to watch. The more I watched anime, the more I felt connected with characters that were just as clumsy and out of place as I was. More than that, however, anime I watched sparked my curiosity about other aspects of Japanese culture.
Everything from food to manners intrigued me. How the Japanese could live in such tiny apartments in order to share space with others was difficult for me to grasp, looking around me in America. It baffled me (and still does) that Americans complain if they touch other people on public transportation or if they cannot sit, and how we bump into others upon exit, not apologizing, while the Japanese shout “sumimasen (sorry!)!” and bow as they wiggle their way out of an over packed train car. I couldn’t get enough information.
I suppose that my thirst for knowledge inspired me to take up the martial arts. Partly because of the desire to defend myself against the bullies I faced and partly because of its mystery. Movies like The Karate Kid promoted martial arts as a means of turning one’s life around. Also, the moves were “cool.” But above all, bowing still intrigued me. I couldn’t figure out why people bowed to one another or what the true history of it was. I decided I wanted to learn for myself.
It was a hot Las Vegas afternoon when I stepped foot into what would become my dojo. The windows facing west, I was blinded by the setting desert sun. When my vision was restored, I found myself in a very simple, open setting. Immediate to the entrance were chairs, couches, a coffee table with some Shotokan magazines and pamphlets written in the mysterious characters I knew to be of the Japanese language. Bamboo plants were nestled between the L-shaped couches. Black furniture made of wood and white surroundings set the tone. Traditional Japanese lantern-shaped light fixtures enveloped the area as the sun sunk lower. It was peaceful.
For a moment, I lost myself. It was refreshing listening to the trickling of the small fountain next to the tall bamboo plant that I missed upon entering. The door jingled as it was opened and the students began to arrive. Sensei appeared from the back and introduced himself with a bow. Clumsily, I bowed back.
“Do you know what a bow is?” I stared at him. “A proper bow,” he continued, “is showing respect. It is also showing the other person that you trust them. You look down when bowing, back straight. You look the person in the eye during Kumite (sparring). Respect must be shown at all times. Do you understand?” His voice grew louder upon reaching those last words. Suddenly, out of nowhere, all the students yelled “Osu!” and bowed perfectly, looking down.
It became clear to my why the characters bowed in anime. Unlike the characters in the anime, though, while I could learn to bow, I didn’t progress as quickly in karate. Sensei asked me to come before class and stay until after class. We didn’t practice kicking bags or punching. Without knowing it, sensei gave me tools to control the things that hindered me outside the dojo.
Meditation was one of those tools. Something as simple as breathing, he taught me, could be the foundation for everything else one did. In and out. No thoughts. In and out. Clear head. I learned to use this skill before kumite, before performing kata (forms), while getting frustrated in school and when I felt I was about to lose my cool anywhere outside the dojo. Over time, I was impressed- meditation, done both in the morning and evening, really did help get my thoughts under control. I felt better.
I was soon looking at karate as more than just an Olympic sport. It was true that I did enjoy being a national competitor after a few years of practice, but I couldn’t have become that if I didn’t live karate as a lifestyle. Sensei taught us about Japan and the people who lived there. We would go as a group to Japanese restaurants and learned about Japanese food. We would live treating all people as beings that were equal to ourselves. I came to learn some of his teachings as elements of Buddhism, which I later studied in college. I began to live life in this manner; helping others became important. So did reducing the complications in my life. Feeling inspired, I began to participate in helping my community and “being the bigger person” as they say in America.
Slowly, but surely, I was beginning to gain confidence. I became stronger not only physically, but mentally. For someone who was a complete outcast, this was greatly beneficial. Most importantly, my sensei taught me the skill that truly changed my life forever- sensei taught me how to look people in the eye.
Why this is such a big deal to me can be hard for others to understand. Until recently, I had no way to describe my difficulties. I felt uncomfortable looking people in the eye and being around them. I panicked when things got slightly tense. I had no hand eye coordination and did not enjoy daily life. I hid from the world. The word I was looking for was “Aspergers.” While I was diagnosed with everything else under the sun, Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism, is now something I that a doctor says we should explore. They don’t have a cure, but they have a name.
My sensei made me look at people in the eye for periods of time. He had told me he “just knew” I needed the help. Doing those drills while taking hits made me more uncomfortable than anything I had ever done, including getting knocked out, but I couldn’t be more grateful.
I have chosen to study psychology and Asian American Studies, along with Japanese these past four years. Though I’m not sure where I’m headed, I’ve enjoyed taking psychology courses, learning about myself, and studying Japanese culture, which I fell in love with. Since karate and studying ways of Japanese life has helped me so greatly, I intend on giving back to my community. I would love very much to found a karate program for autistic children.
Regardless of what I do, the skills I have gained have made me who I am today. I can meditate when my senses are overwhelmed, have self-control and have the confidence that I can learn to overcome anything. I believe this to be the result of my training and the confidence I developed by living that life. I truly love Japanese aesthetics. I am confident karate and the Japanese spirit within it changed who I am for good. So confident, I can look you in the eye and say so.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
Photos (under construction)