2005-2006 The First JCSB-Canon Essay Competition
The First Japan Center - Canon Essay Competition at Stony Brook University was launched in September 2005. The Japan Center received 99 submissions, and they were carefully evaluated in two stages by a panel of judges composed of the faculty members of Stony Brook University. Three best essays were selected in the High School Division and one best essay was selected in the College Division. Each of the first, second, and third place Best Essay Award Winners in the high school division received $1,500, and the Best Essay Award Winner in the college division received $2,000. The First Place Best Essay Award Winner in the high school division also received a special certificate with Japanese Ambassador's signature from the Consulate General of Japan in New York. The Best Essay Award winners, Honorable Mention recipients, and Semi-Finalists were as follows:
High School Division
Best Essay Award:
1st Place: “My Japan” by Nora Iordanova Micheva (Ward Melville High School)
2nd Place: “Cycling to Satori” by Michael Cohen (The Fieldston School High School)
3rd Place: “Japan and Me” by Amita Jain (Syosset High School)
“Japan: A Granddaughter’s Perspective’ by Kaitlyn Ann Ferris (Mount Sinai High School)
Dan Xue (John Bowne HS)
Ji Kim (Syosset High School)
Benjamin Allen Pierce (Paul D. Schreiber High School)
Kimani Calnek (United Nations International School)
Lauren Ashley Sharan (Cold Spring Harbor High School)
Shunna Ide (Northport High School)
Jenna Kon (Northport High school)
Jason Ju Yong Sim (Half Hollow Hills High School West)
Michael David Chow (Syosset High School)
Victoria Siu-Ying Wong (Lynbrook High School)
Kellie Jean Murphy (Earl L. Vandermeulen High School)
Best Essay Award:
“Rebuilding a Nation, Rebuilding a Life: An Inspirational Story of Japanese Language, History and Culture” by Robert C. Donnelly (Stony Brook University)
“Search for the Essential Japan” by Jerry Michael Blackman (the Cooper Union School of Art)
Joanna Goodman (Stony Brook University)
Jordenne Aimee Nash (Stony Brook University)
Award Winning Essays
1st Place in High School Division
"My Japan" by Nora Iordanova Micheva (Ward Melville High School)
Imagine that amidst your normal life, you are teleported to a butterfly’s world. You live in harmony with the butterflies and you forget you were different. Years after you have left, you doubt if you were a butterfly, or it was just a dream.
My two year butterfly dream started in the heart of the ancient city of Kyoto, Japan, where we moved from Bulgaria. As a mathematician my father obtained a research position in Kyoto University. Thus, not knowing the language or culture, I found myself in the forth grade of a public Japanese elementary school. I could never imagine that in only two years Japan would become a part of me.
Pictures and sounds fill my mind when I think of my Japan. The bright red “torii” of Yoshida Jinja, and the emblematic entrance of Kyoto University “Kyodai seimon mae” surround our traditional Japanese house. I hear the cicadas’ cry and the university students, practicing their musical instruments late in the summer nights. I see my school, and hear my classmates’ voices calling every morning at our door “No-ora chan!” I feel their quick touches of my long hair, “Are you real?” I remember the cherry blossoms of the Philosopher’s Path and the autumn leaves in the old Emperor Palace’s garden. Reading and writing kanji and kana came hand in hand with learning to ride ichirinsha (unicycle), and taking calligraphy lessons that made me appreciate the hard work, persistence and humility needed to create anything beautiful.
Japan is also in the many friendships we remember fondly. There is one person, however, that made an indelible impression on me - Chie.
I first met her on a warm sunny day in Kyoto. My father’s watch broke and we looked for a place to repair it. Skipping on the stone turtles in the sparkling waters of Kamogawa we crossed the river near Demachi Yanagi station and found a watch repair shop in a very old Kyoto house. There was a genuine enthusiasm and cheerfulness in the voice and body language of the girl behind the counter. Her smile lit the dark and narrow shop.
She wanted to improve her English, so my father invited her to take lessons with my mother, who is an English teacher. In the following two years we would see Chie every week, and not once did the smile leave her face. She was always happy and didn’t look like she had a worry in the world.
Chie was an artist. For her paintings she used an ancient Kyoto tie dying technique called rozome. This is an extremely intricate and slow process of layering acid dyes and wax on silk which has been sized with a soybean ground. Although traditionally rozome was used to make kimonos, Chie used it for her contemporary compositions. I remember Chie’s works in the Kyoto National Museum - enormous panels of cloth paintings hanging from the ceiling and situated at different depths of the exhibition space, creating a whole composition. It wasn’t only its beauty that impressed me so much. I wondered how such a small woman could create such large (literally) works of art. I often listened to Chie explain to my mother that because her room at home was so small she used both the walls and the floor simultaneously to dye, wax and wash the fabric.
Soon after we met Chie, her father got sick of cancer and after a year passed away. Her mother took care of her bedridden younger sister who was born paralyzed, and never talked or moved on her own. I knew that, but was not even remotely prepared for what we saw visiting Chie’s house. Her sister was lying surrounded by machines. Her whole body was twisted and small, but her face was beautiful with an angelic white skin. It was both the prettiest and scariest sight in my life. Suddenly Chie’s sister reminded me of the roses Chie painted in her compositions – transparent flowers in full bloom that dazzled you with their beauty, but reminded you of the transience of life.
Chie’s grace and strength in the face of tragedy symbolize the Japanese woman in my eyes. She set an example for me and made me want to be a better person. I often long for my butterfly world and hope to return some day. As for the future, I’d like to share my Japan with other people and help them see the beauty of Japanese culture.
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About the Author: Nora Iordanova Micheva was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1988 to parents Iordan Michev and Liza Micheva. She studied in the capital Sofia until the third grade, when her father, a mathematician, obtained a research position at Kyoto University, Japan. In 1997, Nora entered a public Japanese school (Dai-yon-kin-rin Sho-gakkou) and faced learning Japanese from scratch. She only understood Bulgarian, while her teachers only spoke Japanese. Slowly, Nora began to pick up some words and phrases, while also gaining a sense of Japanese customs and traditions. She took private calligraphy lessons, and was published in a local children's calligraphy magazine. In 1999, Nora moved with her family to Boston, and in 2000 to Long Island, NY. She now attends Ward Melville High School in the Three Village School District. Since first moving to Long Island, Nora enrolled in a Japanese Saturday school "Sakura Gakuen" in Glen Cove under the guidance of Maggie Yamamoto. She has attended that school for five years, in order to keep up her Japanese. In addition, Nora was given an opportunity to do her summer research in a chemistry research laboratory at Stony Brook University in tenth grade. Under the supervision of Professor Ojima and his graduate students, she did two research projects over two summers, and entered science competitions. In 11th grade, she presented to the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair (LISEF) with a partner, and after being named the First Place Winner, advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). In her senior year, Nora was named an Intel STS semifinalist, as well as a Siemens-Westinghouse semifinalist. Nora is the "Viewpoints Editor" in her school newspaper, and an active participant in Ward Melville's "Asian Culture Club". She plans to study at MIT this fall, majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Japanese.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
2nd Place in High School Division
"Cycling to Satori" by Michael Cohen (The Fieldston School High School)
In an attempt to discover America, I discovered Japan.
Last summer, I embarked on a cross-country bicycle trip from Savannah, Georgia to the Santa Monica Pier. Although I had been captivated by a class I had recently taken about Japan, Japanese culture was just about the last thing I expected to find in the 3100 miles from sea to shining sea. But this bicycle trip was truly a life-changing experience, teaching me volumes about the connection between body and mind; the fruits of discipline and sustained effort; the cleansing effect of an ascetic monastic lifestyle; the truth that exists just below everyday fixations; the broad view of a fluid mind and the profound capabilities of mental detachment. Thus, I discovered Zen Buddhism.
As the school year wound down and my trip approached, I bought a durable touring bike and started to prepare. The training regimen that I received in the mail was as specific as it was intense: a minimum of four 50-mile rides loaded with 35 pounds of gear. This proved to be an impossible task. On the Sunday afternoons that I had designated for training, I set out determined, only to return feeling unsuccessful and frustrated. The truth is that I drove myself crazy on the bike. My cadence was inconsistent, my restless mind wandered anywhere from my last math test to my upcoming dinner. My eyes were glued to my odometer, and I quickly grew tired and preoccupied. Thirty miles seemed daunting. My dad warned that if I did not improve, he would need to pick me up somewhere in Alabama. He was probably right. Excuses mounted, time flew, and the trip began.
After dipping our rear wheels in the Atlantic, we headed west through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and found ourselves on the seemingly endless plains of Oklahoma. It was 4:30 a.m., not yet light, and we were gliding through the monotony of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Then it hit me. I awoke from a sort of meditative state that had become second nature to me, a profound rhythm in which my legs seemed to move by themselves and my fluid mind floated through complete emptiness. I looked at the biker in front of me, his wheel only six inches from mine; and the biker in front of him, equally close and compact. I vividly recalled how the Zen monks walked around the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto: marching in a tight line to show discipline and concentration.
The similarities to Zen Buddhism did not end there. My biking rhythm lasted nearly all day; the zazen (seated meditation) and kinhin (walking meditation) of practicing Zen monks occupy much of their waking hours. When I first learned about zazen and kinhin, they seemed painfully pointless and abstract. Suddenly I understood. When committed to a task so great that it requires complete focus and dedication, there is simply no room for everyday concerns. Mundane thoughts pollute the mind and undermine one's discipline. Only after achieving an empty mind can one devote one's complete self to a given task. In the Zen Buddhists' case, that task is reaching satori (enlightenment); in my case that task was reaching the Pacific Ocean.
I realized why I had been unsuccessful on my training rides. Like the zazen and kinhin of Zen monks, the profound rhythm and detachment that propelled me across the country is not a state that is easily accessible. It takes enormous discipline and practice to free the mind and approach one's true potential. Attempting to become a cyclist on Sunday afternoons is just as ludicrous as a Zen Buddhist trying to achieve satori over the weekend. It simply cannot be done.
While cycling across the country, I awoke at four a.m. everyday, peddled 80 to 100 miles (eight to ten hours), climbed off the bicycle, ate, (and ached) and fell asleep. I reaped the benefits of drastic discipline and depravation. I experienced the power in the simple, almost ascetic existence of the Zen monks and warriors. Through extreme bicycling, I exalted in the beauty and truth of Zen.
According to legend, when Ikkyu (distinguished Japanese Zen monk) reached satori, his teacher awarded him a certificate. Ikkyu burned the certificate, claiming that the value was not in reaching enlightenment, but in what he will do with his enlightenment. I echo that sentiment. Reaching the Pacific was a triumph, but it was only a momentary triumph. Finding power in the discipline and mental fluidity of Zen is a lifelong gift.
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About the Author: Michael Cohen lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York and is a junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. He is interested in learning history, rooting for the Mets and, of course, riding his bike.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
3rd Place in High School Division
"Japan and Me" by Amita Jain (Syosset High School)
I was contentedly crunching away on my fourth piece of chocolate Pocky when suddenly the taste in my mouth wasn’t so yummy anymore. It was all but nauseating. I had just entered the first exhibit in the Nagasaki Peace Museum to be greeted with videos and pictures lining the walls of grotesque mutilated bodies, each limb out struck at odd angles, each face twisted with agony.
After four hours of stomach-twisting and heart-wrenching episodes like those, I told my Okaasan that I needed to leave. She understood and let me find the way out. While my stomach was settling, I sat in the museum lobby and watched paper cranes flutter overhead. It was a Japanese belief that making a thousand paper cranes would grant a wish. And what was above me, were not a thousand paper cranes, but tens and tens of thousands of them.
It struck me then how absurd the whole idea was. Honestly, folding paper was going to grant peace in the world? It was going to bring happiness to the wretched and miserable? I scoffed at the ridiculousness naiveté of it all. My Okaasan softly sat down next to me and took my hand. It wasn’t really the act of origami or the wish itself, she said. It was the hope that each wish was carried by.
It is appalling that a misfortune of any magnitude be ignored in the face of another. For me, and really for everybody, no tragedy, no matter how small, should go unnoticed, whether it is one child going hungry, or an entire country dying of AIDS. The only difference is the availability of people willing to help. That void is where I want to step in. I want to be a person who can put a smile back on a tear-streaked face. I want to be a person who can feel somebody else’s pain and make it go away. I want to be a person who can make somebody else’s life a little more bearable. I want to be a person who cares.
Ideally, I would like to use my language skills, my science abilities, and my commitment to participating in positive change as a physician. More importantly, however, I believe that exhibiting compassion and simply being available to help can make the necessary difference in people’s lives. While I may not change the world, and can’t reverse the horrors of Nagasaki, each patient that I effectively treat, every conversation that allows a patient to feel respected, and every opportunity to give back to our global community is, for me, a lovingly executed fold in my own peace crane. In that, I think I can hear a soft flutter of hope.
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About the Author: Amita Jain was born in 1988 to parents Ajay Jain and Sunita Jain and is currently a senior at Syosset High School. Last summer she was honored to receive a full scholarship for a summer six-week cultural exchange program to Japan from Youth for Understanding, Inc. She spent that time in Saga with a loving host family and left with memories that she will cherish for years to come. Amita is an active member of her school and local community, as co-President of the Japanese club, Vice-President of the Table Tennis club, and an active participant of Science Olympiad. She also volunteers and interns at Winthrop University Hospital and North Shore University Hospital. Amita has not yet decided on her future college but just might decide to continue her education at Stony Brook University, where she was accepted into the prestigious Scholars of Medicine program.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
Best Essay in College Division
"Rebuilding a Nation, Rebuilding a Life: An Inspirational Story of Japanese Language, History and Culture" by Robert C. Donnelly (Stony Brook University)
“The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair, you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.” Gustave Flaubert
Ever since my childhood, I always remember having an image of beauty come to mind whenever I heard the word Japan. It may be that when I was in grade school studying the various countries and cultures of the world the first pictures that were introduced to me were not of the busy, crowded filled streets of downtown Tokyo or Osaka, but of a serene, meticulously sculpted garden, or a beautifully sewn field of tea. These were the pictures that appeared in my books as a child, and the images that I took with me as we quickly moved on to the next chapter and area of the globe. So without ever really having noticed at the time, I had been introduced to one of the most profound aspects of this country in such a way so that it had stayed with me through my young adult years where I was finally able to realize what I had learned.
I made the decision to pursue a career in the field of classical music when I was coming closer to graduating high school, however, that seed had been planted in me since I received my first recording of Beethoven from my father when I was only ten. Of course I had no conception of what I was listening to at the time, I only knew that it was beautiful and it made me feel something every time I heard it. Thinking about it today, the experience of hearing that music was similar to that of seeing my first images of Japan. Being only a small child, I was unable to reflect on what I was hearing or seeing, but I remember it being powerful enough to grab my interest and hold a place somewhere inside of me, where it was going to be used and more importantly needed some years later in my life. My study of music continued on, where I used the talent that was given to me and was able to have great success as a classical trumpet player. I had enjoyed accomplishments in the field that I could not have realized were possible when I was that ten-year old boy with his first horn and recording. I entered college and began my study with wonderful professionals who immediately began to shape my talent and ability for me into a form that would be ready to be used in the professional orchestras, where my dreams could truly be realized.
With an encouraging introduction to the path that I had waited to be on for years, I had hope that I could actually succeed, until one day in late spring when news was given to me that had changed my life from then on. As a young twenty-year old I was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and was told that I would have to have a major operation to prevent what had been found from worsening and possibly threatening my life. I received a serious operation to my neck; a vital part of the support system needed for professional trumpet playing, and as a result was unable to play again for years after my ordeal. Sadly, I slowly found myself falling away from music. The loss of something that I had worked years to achieve brought me to a reality that was just unacceptable for me and so coming to terms with it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. However, eventually I was able to begin examining ways within myself and with others about how I would be able to continue on a path in which I knew I could be happy, and through this found an unexpected interest in linguistics that I had not known was there before. I began studying languages and continued with Japanese. The study of the language eventually lead me to study the country, its people, culture and values. I began to rediscover the beauty that had made such an impression on me as a child along with an aspect of its people that I found to be my greatest motivation. The Japanese conception of professionalism and perfectionism is I believe on a different scale than the rest of the world. Japan’s people have not only proven this set of values culturally and historically, they have applied it to a level that enables them to succeed in every aspect of their endeavor. The constant strive for this perfection has seen Japan become a leader in various pursuits ranging all the way from the arts to technology, and seeing how deeply the commitment to this idea is so ingrained in the people, it is hard not to draw inspiration from listening to their stories. In particular I was introduced to a program called Project X: The Challengers, which is a popular documentary-style program shown in Japan. Each episode is a story of a single person or a group of people who are faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulty, yet through their will, desire, and passion, along with this ingrained conception of perfection are able to achieve some of the greatest goals ever seen, not only in Japan’s history but the entire world’s. As my knowledge of the language grew, I was able to understand more deeply the stories of these people and began to see how I could bring these stories into my own life and use them as tools in achieving what I had lost. In one particular episode, I remember watching a man who was struck with a terrible sickness. I watched as he went through experiences similar to my own, but throughout his ordeal had somehow been able to keep site of his goals, which were to regain his health and status thus making his focus, and resolve even stronger. I began to realize that it was in this, where a special characteristic of the people of Japan existed. For a long period in my life I was not able to do what not only this man, but the groups of men and women I was watching each week were able to do. Regardless of the amount of hardships or setbacks they had, they used what life had given them to propel them forward, not hold them down. This side of the culture I feel is also related to the history of the country itself.After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country which had once been on the verge of complete supremacy and domination had been diminished to a mere trace of its former form. It had seen a tremendous rise to power and fame and then a sudden loss of everything it had accomplished all within a relatively short span of time. The impact that Japan had felt, as a nation was undoubtedly a tremendous one, and maybe on a smaller scale within my own life resembled my own feelings of devastation. However, through my relationship with the history of Japan and the perspective from which I was experiencing it, there came something that had not come along before, a desire and hope to continue in my life and finally on some level become free of what had been holding me back. I had imagined that Japan, its people, and the people that were given the responsibility of rebuilding it might have felt this way also.
Just as Japan had done, I found the strength to bury what had happened to me in the past and once again continue on a course toward my goals as a musician. As I began the impossible climb, paths appeared before me that were once covered in complete darkness and doubt. I began to remake myself with a new outlook, and have been fortunate enough to be accepted into a professional trumpet studio once again, sit and play in orchestras being surrounded with the beauty of the music I once loved, and graduate with my degree in music. I hope that we all will be able to see these aspects of Japan, and if ever need be apply them to our own lives on whatever level necessary. They are indeed beautiful, and I am ever grateful for my relationship with them.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook