9th JCSB Essay Competition (2013-2014) 

 9th group

Award Ceremony at the Charles B. Wang Center (April 6, 2014)

 

 

May 24 2014

Recognition of the award winners at Ambassador & Mrs. Kusaka's official residence (May 24, 2014) 

 

Thank you for those who submitted essays to the 9th Annual JCSB Essay Competition. We received 271 essays (243 essays in the High School Division and 28 essays in the College Division). We are excited to announce the winners, finalists, and semi-finalists listed below.

High School Division Best Essay Award

1st Place: "A Little Respect Goes a Long Way" by Stephanie Lin (Stuyvesant High School)

2nd Place: "Effortless Grace: A Hero in Two Hemispheres" by Charles Beers (Huntington High School)

3rd Place: "The Rain of Flowers" by Fangrui Tong (Ward Melville High School)

College Division Best Essay Award *  **

"Awake" by Iman Esmailzada (Farmingdale State College)

"Instructions for the Tenzo" by Kyle Tulod (Stony Brook University)

Uchida Memorial Award

"My 20-Minute Inheritance" by Monique Bloomfield (Binghamton University)

Merit Award*

"Procrastination and Me" by Shaikat Islam (Stuyvesant High School)

"To Love, To Live Japan" by Erich Makarov (Staten Island Technical High School)

"The Training of a Professional" by Anju Okamura (Elwood John Glenn High School)

"Life's Beautiful Tragedy" by Daniella Schoen (Huntington High School)

"Tokyo Kareem" by Qire Snowden (West Babylon High School)

"Getting to Know My True Self" by Jeanette Wetherell (Stony Brook University)

Finalists*

Sheryl Chen (Staten Island Technical High School)

Mindy Feng (Millennium High School)

Joice Im (Townsend Harris High School)

Parina Kaewkrajang (Townsend Harris High School)

Valerie  Kehoe (Smithtown High School West)

Hyun Sue Kim (Stuyvesant High School)

Hilary Lee (Townsend Harris High School)

Lily Lin (The Cooper Union)

Semi-Finalists*

Monisha Afrooz (Townsend Harris High School)

Corinne Banning (Stony Brook University)

Michaela Carnesi (Huntington High School)

Eleanna Cerda (Marble Hill School For International Studies)

Elizabeth Corrao (Huntington High School)

Grace Curran (Huntington High School)

Hayley Drace (Huntington High School)

Francis Foo (Staten Island Technical High School)

Prathana Gurung (Long Island City High School)

Tabashshum Islam (Stony Brook University)

Kioma James (High School of Language and Diplomacy)

Anjali Kapur (Huntington High School)

Alex Lamy (Valley Stream Central High School)

Bliss Amanda LoScalzo (Huntington High School)

Emma Lou (Stuyvesant High School)

Ivan Miketic (Townsend Harris High School)

Miranda Nykolyn (Huntington High School)

Jan Pazhayampallil (Townsend Harris High School)

Alexander Robateau (Valley Stream Central High School)

Isabella Scarpati (Huntington High School)

Romaan Sheikh  (Bay Shore High School)

Ryan Smith (Garden City High School)

Donnie  Stewart (Huntington High School)

Rhode Elise St Jacques (Medgar Evers College)

Michael Towson (Lynbrook High school)

Casey Woo (The Mary Louis Academy)

Dillon Wu (Stuyvesant High School)

Susan Wu (Stuyvesant High School)

Brenda Yue (Townsend Harris High School) 

 

*   The authors are alphabetically ordered by their last name.

** Two contestants split the prize. 

 

Award Winning Essays

"A Little Respect Goes A Long Way" by Stephanie Lin (Stuyvesant High School)

It’s intimidating, walking into a new school. You meet new people and make new friends, but it’s a whole different atmosphere. Especially, if it’s high school. It’s all made worse by the fact that you’re also taking a new language. For me, I was nervous, but at the same time, really excited by the prospect of learning Japanese. It seemed like such an elegant language, with its complicated stroke order and many different pronunciations. As I walked into my Japanese classroom, I was greeted by a graceful woman in a cardigan with her hair slicked back into a ponytail. “Hajimemashite,” she said as she bowed. I looked around nervously, hoping that the other pairs of eyes that were staring at me from the desks in the classroom could help, but they all returned with blank stares. I blushed, gave a quick bow, and ran to sit down in a seat.

It was later on that I learned that it was completely natural, what she did. It was a standard in Japan for people to bow when meeting one another. It symbolized respect. We were taught how to bow properly, and “Kiritsu, Rei, Ohayou Gozaimasu!” became part of everyday class. At first, it felt unnatural, but it gradually became a routine I was proud to participate in. It was different from our New York lifestyle, where people bump into you and walk away without apologizing. As I continued learning Japanese, I also learned more and more about their culture. Respect is such a big part of their lifestyle. Whether it’s bowing or taking off shoes before entering a building, it all goes back to respect. Punctuality is important, prolonged eye contact is rude, nodding is imperative; my head swirled with all the formalities and customs of their culture. But at the same time, it was remarkable. The culture puts so much emphasis on respect and responsibility; it wasn’t shocking to find out that their crime rate is lower than the crime rate in all other developed countries. 

It really put things in perspective. How had I treated my mother that morning? It probably involved yelling at her and complaining. In retrospect, I was ashamed. How could I have treated my own mother that way? My mother, who moved from Taiwan just to give us a better life. My mother, who sacrificed everything for my sister and me. I would do everything to make sure I treated her better from then on. I would do everything to make sure I treated everyone better. I would come to school with a smile on my face. I would respect my teachers. I would respect my family and friends. New Yorkers might be a little rude, but if Japanese people could live with such an emphasis on respect, I could try it as well.

As I became immersed in the language during class, I also tried to incorporate more and more of their customs into my life. Nodding is natural; it shows that you are paying attention to the speaker. I started to listen to my friends and family more, instead of talking about myself. I took modesty and being humble more seriously, as it is a polite response to a compliment in Japanese culture. Respecting personal space became a must if I did not know a person well. Politeness and respect are very important to others, but in the end, it is important to learn how to treat people nicely for your own benefit. I became happier, I felt that my relationships with people became better, and ultimately, I felt more satisfied with life. It was amazing. Every day as I say, “Kiritsu, Rei, Sayounara, mata ashita,” to my sensei, a wave of gratitude washes over me. She introduced me to such an incredible lifestyle and culture.

As it is, a little respect here and there goes a long way.

Works Cited

"Japan - Cultural Etiquette - E Diplomat." Japan - Cultural Etiquette - E Diplomat. EDiplomat, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2014.

"Social Conventions." Japanese Manners & Cultural Norms. Inside Japan Tours, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2014.

Effortless Grace: A Hero in Two Hemispheres by Charles Beers (Huntington High School)

There are a few moments in a baseball game that can’t be described as anything less than perfect: the crack of the bat to hit that game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth; the last-minute dive by a runner to safely avoid the tag of a catcher at home plate. But perhaps the greatest and rarest of all of these is robbing a batter of a homerun. Players have made their fortunes scaling outfield walls and taking long fly balls away from the outfield bleachers with spectacular grace. If there was ever a player that had mastered this sacred art of fielding, it was Ichiro.

Ichiro Suzuki was a name I frequently heard throughout my Little League career. As I sat in my dugout eagerly anticipating my next at-bat, I occasionally got pieces of advice from my coach. “Hit it like Ichiro.”

Ichiro has never been known for his power. His speed, however, made any connection between ball and bat a threat to the opposing team. A routine ground-ball to the pitcher’s mound could turn into a single in the blink of an eye. No matter how bleak the outlook seemed, Ichiro had determination I had never seen before and will likely never see again. His probable Hall of Fame career has featured some incredible statistics: 10 dominant years with 200 or more hits which was deemed impossible by baseball experts around the globe (www.baseball-reference.com) and 2001 Most Valuable Player award in his first year in the Major Leagues. Every time I struck out in Little League, I always remembered how Ichiro would always bounce back. With his perseverance in mind, I never gave up.

It was impossible to describe my excitement in 2012, when the front page of the newspaper announced that Ichiro was becoming a Yankee. To me, it was a match made in heaven: one of my favorite players on my favorite team. Ichiro was much more than simple statistics and awards. He served as a symbol of perseverance and hope to both the United States and his home country of Japan. In 2011, Suzuki donated 100 million yen to the Japanese Red Cross in order to aid earthquake relief efforts, motivating the Mariners to donate profits from the first six home games (sports.espn.go.com). Additionally, when Ichiro was traded to the Yankees, he signed his equipment and donated the proceeds to 26 different charities across New York (kenthimmel.blogspot.com). I realized then that one of baseball’s greatest players was also one of the world’s greatest international heroes.

Ichiro settled in well with the Yankees in 2012, leading the team to the postseason with his stellar performance at the plate. However, my story with Ichiro didn’t end there. During the summer of 2013, I was offered a chance to interview relief pitcher David Robertson for Newsday and explore Yankee Stadium as a reporter. Words cannot describe my energy as I sprinted to the ballpark, took my stadium pass to the stadium, and followed my guide through the maze of hallways that held endless secrets.

After hours of exploration, it was finally time to step onto the field. The entire team was out for batting practice. Up at bat was none other than Ichiro himself, looking as confident as ever as he scattered hits all over the ballpark. 

I watched with bated breath as he walked back towards the dugout where I was sitting and looked me in the eye with a smile on his face. He didn’t speak English well and he had never seen me before, but the way he shook my hand and welcomed me into this unfamiliar place said enough. That same day, Ichiro hit a monstrous home run that helped the Yankees win the game, and is a moment in my life I will never forget.

Ichiro’s kindness and compassion are inspiring. He is a symbol of Japan in more ways than one. He is tranquil and patient at the plate, using precision and grace in every at-bat. His generosity has transcended his native country and he has become the embodiment of international charity. Most of all, Ichiro is the embodiment of perseverance, never giving up on or off the field. For this reason, Ichiro is an inspiration and I try to emulate his effortless grace. When assignments seem insurmountable, when exams keep piling up, and when I feel like caving in to the pressure, I think of #31 dashing to make the seemingly impossible catch, and keep my eye on the ball.

Sources Cited

"Ichiro Suzuki Statistics and History - Baseball-Reference.com." Baseball-Reference.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2014.

"Report: Ichiro Suzuki Donates 100M yen." ESPN.com. N.p., 19 Mar. 2011. Web. 02 Jan. 2014.

Thimmel, Ken. "Ichiro Suzuki Gets Traded To The NY Yankees. Money Raised for              Charity."Ken Thimmel Blog: Ichiro Suzuki Gets Traded To The NY Yankees. Money Raised for Charity. N.p., 24 July 2012. Web. 03 Jan. 2014.

"The Rain of Flowers" by Fangrui Tong (Ward Melville High School)

It was there that I stood, only one person in a vast world of many, but for that one moment I could pretend that it was only me. A subtle breeze, warm and comforting blew past and on it rode a flurry of pink, delicate and soft. A single petal gently caressed my cheek and as quickly as it had come, it was gone, going back to join the wind in its graceful dance. The springy grass underneath my bare feet wriggled between my toes, valiantly defying gravity in its attempts to grow and rise. The taste of the late March air was fresh on the tip of my tongue, but an incessant beeping sounded from somewhere, muffled at first but growing in a dreadful clarity with each passing moment. My eyes flickered open and my fingers blindly reached out in the winter cold to turn off the alarm as I sighed, wanting to return to that wonderful place.

But unfortunately I had never really been there to begin with.        

In all my past decade and a half years of existing on this planet there had always been two things that fascinated me to no ends, a calming existence in my hectic world- rain and flowers. I still remember the day these two seemingly ordinary works of nature had combined in this glorious mess of wondrous delight. I had been on a field trip to a botanical garden, sometime around when I was seven or eight. Everyone had decided that we would play tag in this marvelous house of intricately intertwined branches. However, while everyone else was running around in the vain hopes of avoiding whoever was it, I was static, gaping, staring at the orchard that lay before my eyes; an orchard of cherry blossom trees.

It was really a fantastic sight to see. With each gentle breath of a wind, the branches shook, quivering, releasing tiny streams of petals to float loftily in the air and eventually settling onto the ground, but not before giving a spectacular performance. It seemed as though some sort of enchanting music was playing, for they swayed in time to a beat, fluttering and floating and coming to a gentle rest. The dark chocolate brown of the tree trunks was almost masked and hidden by the plumes of descending blossoms, and indeed it looked as though each flower was a single soldier in a vast army of pink raindrops.

It was raining flowers, and I was in bliss.

“The sakura are blooming.”

I turned around, startled out of my trance. It was the tour guide. He went on to explain that sakura meant cherry blossom in Japanese; how every year the trees would bloom, decorated with the pink flowers, and a week after they’d nearly all be gone. Hanami, he said, was a Japanese custom where the people would enjoy the beauty of the flowers while everything was still alive.

And it was since then that I became fascinated with such an idea. That for one week every year something so magical could happen and as quickly as it had come, it would be gone. I would visit Japan everyday through my computer screen and simply stand there with all the falling petals. It was truly my happy place.

It was also since then that I kept having the same recurring dream of being able to stand in Japan among all that beauty, among the rain of flowers, and I still hope that someday my dream will be realized.

"Awake" by Iman Esmailzada (Farmingdale State College)

No matter how mundane events in your life may seem, you may step back years later and realize that those were moments you are never going to forget, for they shaped you in ways you wouldn’t have understood at the time. We have photographs for the bigger moments: birthdays, family trips. But my most vivid memories don’t have snapshots to go along with them; they live in my mind, raw with feeling. My childhood experience with Japanese culture was one of those memories.

Memories are emotional waves that live on in my mind, bright with color and vibrating feelings. Jumping on the trampoline in our yard made me feel awake, full of life. I would jump as hard as I could until my knees would give out and my enormous brown hair covered my eyes, my mouth erupting laughter until my belly hurt. Writing left me in a dream; my stories and journal entries let me be anywhere, with anyone, doing anything I wanted. Playing the violin with my peers during lessons in school left me frustrated. I could never master Mary Had A Little Lamb. I played my own version of the rhyme and was asked to leave for disrupting the lesson. My mother moving away left me feeling numb. An unexpected divorce filled my home with a sudden deafening silence. I didn’t want to jump or run or write anymore. Staying numb is a safe feeling. Neither high nor low, I could stay in that place and be content.

But one day, while spending the weekend with my mother, I was given bachi drumsticks. I was told to bang out a sound on an enormous Taiko drum for fun. I hit the skin of the drum hard, felt the bachi vibrate back into my hand, into my skinny arms. The sound was enormous, full, and powerful. I made my own rhythm and was lost in the noise. My eyes were wide. I felt alive.

My sister, mother and I learned how to play Taiko together from family friends who showed us the art of Japanese drumming. We each had our own bachi drumsticks, long thick pieces of wood, rounded at the top. My mother’s friend, who was Japanese, gave us special shoes made of cloth and rubber to wear while we drummed. We learned different songs, how to stand during each song, how to perform, what to say and chant together. We yelled, we laughed, we learned together, and our arms were sore after practice together. We helped make drums, with hide and water, stretching it over the barrel in the basement of my mother’s friend’s house: our very own sensei. We were nervous before performances, made mistakes, got red in the face, blossomed under the applause of a crowd, and felt giddy with energy. I was told to make my own solo that the group incorporated into a song. We were all a part of the music, and with that, together in our creation of something beautiful.

Taiko gave me an outlet. The drumming was a physical and emotional release of pent up energy. I was told to beat on a drum hard, and make a bigger sound, louder, stronger, fill the room, follow the beat, get lost in it. With the beat of six other drums thumping away, never were you too loud. I could drown out my own thoughts or worries, all while creating a beautiful, powerful song next to my family and my new friends. Taiko gave me an outlet of physical energy that helped me feel alive again emotionally. As a child, I thought I was merely tagging along with my mother and her friends, participating in something new and fun. I never realized how much Taiko did for me. Now I remember how special it felt to do something with my mother. All together we drummed, supported one another, creating new things, like a big mismatched family.           

My memories of Taiko drumming are so engrained in me because of how I felt in it and because of what it meant to my family. It was time with my mother and sister. It was empowering. It was beautiful. It was special. It was something we needed and something that made us closer. Japanese drumming was a deep breath in, a pause, and with wide eyes, an explosion of sound that kept my heart beating fast, my emotions flowing, and my family close.

"Instructions for the Tenzo" Kyle Tulod (Stony Brook University)

The Tenzo is a senior monk in a Zen Buddhist monastery charged with cultivating the physical and spiritual well being of fellow practitioners by preparing the meals with meticulous and meditative care (‘Instructions,’ 53).  This is a paraphrase of a question I posed early in the course of study of Buddhism in Japan:

I understand that the Tenzo is not to waste a single grain of rice.  Having read some Buddhist texts, I can guess the scripture explaining why what I am about to say is not the Buddha-Way.  But I must ask: if the Tenzo had the means to save and multiply all the grains of rice to feed all hungry mouths, how and why should that temptation be resisted?

There is a long pause before the reply comes, in which Sensei seems to wish a Kyosaku were handy.  This is the ‘stick of encouragement,’ a wooden implement used in a gesture of non-punishing striking to wake monks from attachments such as sentimentality, logical thinking, and egoism (‘Kyosaku’).  In retrospect, all three were deeply embedded in my question.  So, if I am to understand Sensei’s answer, I need to understand the assumptions of Western thought that lead to my attachments.

My wish, “to feed all hungry mouths,” arises from my sentimentality.  However, Shinran, founder of Pureland Buddhism, points to, “the [Vimalakirti] Sutra [which] states: ‘The lotus does not grow in the solid ground of lofty plateaus, but in the muddy ponds of lowland marshes.’” In Pureland orthodoxy, Shinran is emphasizing the all-encompassing power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow to grasp all persons entrusting to her compassion without regard to their past faults, and only based on their presence of mind here and now (Shinran, 76).   Yet there is a hard lesson here too for the secular western humanitarianist examining Shinran’s philosophy: benevolence is easily distorted into sentimentality, if an attachment to the transitory state of the world leads to instant gratification rather than the highest good.

My hypothesis of a, “means to save and multiply all the grains of rice,” arises from my logical thinking.  The Western scientific method is prone to imply that for all problems there exist physical causes for which solutions can be engineered.  Yet, “An ancient Buddha said, ‘A painting of a rice-cake does not satisfy hunger (‘Painted,’ 134).’”  Zen master Dogen interprets this on one level by recognizing the spiritual needs of humanity beyond mere physical hunger.  However, his inner meaning points to painted manifestations of rice-cakes which, while illusory phenomenal forms, encode the truth of reality: such that the true rice-cake is the great taste that drives spiritual hunger (‘Painted,’ 136-7). This has tremendous consequences for the problem of rice shortage, because it suggests the “problem” may merely be a symptom underlined by a deeper problem, and subverts the assumption that rationality and science are the solution.

My presumption, “if the Tenzo had [this] means…,” arises from my egoism. To assume all problems have solutions in a progression in utopianism places no limitation on human agency to control society and the universe.  The role of the ego self as an illusion is at the very heart of Buddhist enlightenment and cannot be neatly summarized.  However, a self-explanatory passage from the “Regulations for Zen Monasteries” intended for the Tenzo and also pertinent to rice shortage helpfully instructs:  “Just think about how best to serve the assembly, and do not worry about limitations.  If you have unlimited mind, you will have limitless happiness (‘Instructions,’ 61).”

But back to the beginning: Sensei sees in my earnest yet tactless question my obvious ignorance of any of these subtleties.  Finally, Sensei decides to gently encourage me, asking, “Where does this idea come from?”

I hesitate.  Sensing that Sensei seems not to want my baggage from the West, I set it aside, admitting, “It comes from me, apparently.”

Sensei’s reply, striking for its novelty, would soon become as familiar as a chant, and just as melodic.   The first syllable is a staccato, brief and sudden as if sharing in my epiphany; the second syllable is slightly prolonged, as if savoring the moment: “That’s right.”  Then, as if I were not already sufficiently startled, Sensei suddenly cocks her head forward and, widening her stare, challenges me, “And are you Buddha?”

“I don’t know… it… yet…” I am at a loss, with no other recourse but to cite whatever little I thought I knew about Buddhism up to this point.

Sensei smiles, nods faintly, and our study continues.

Bibliography

Kazuaki Tanahashi, Ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. Trans. Ed Brown and Kazuaki Tanahashi. New York: North Point Press, 1985. Print.

Dogen, Eihei. “Instructions for the Tenzo.” Tanahashi 53-66.

Dogen, Eihei. “Painting of a Rice-cake.” Tanahashi 134-139.

"Kyosaku: Stick of Compassion." sarasotazen.org. Sarasota Zen Center. 05 Jan. 2014.          <http://www.sarasotazen.org/kyosaku/>.

Shinran. “The Hymns of the Two Gateways of Entrance and Emergence, I.”  The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting. Trans. Hirota, Dennis, et al. Alfred Bloom, Ed. World Wisdom, 2007. Kindle.

"My 20-Minute Inheritance" by Monique Bloomfield (Binghamton University)

I was already used to having feet slightly bigger than desired for woman, but my weight gain became an additional burden. While the other girls in my study abroad group showed off their dresses and shoes that they bought in Shibuya and Harajuku, all I had managed to buy where t-shirts; stockings after scouring several stores. The Japanese size of LL struck me with fear and embarrassment, as I left several stores empty-handed. My bags were full of cute omamori or good luck charms but when it came to finding something to wear, maybe that wasn’t a part of Japan that was meant for me. So naturally, when some friendly obaasan at my host school gave me a chance to wear a kimono, my first thought was if it would even fit me.

I was nervous about making an awkward visage out of the beautiful garment, the only thing that had captured my eye when I combed through glossy depictions of Japan in 6th grade. As beautiful as the grassy fields littered with delicate cherry blossoms were, nothing gripped me like those flowing layers of cloth. I had never seen anything quite like the one-size-fits-all garment that managed to remain era-appropriate: I saw them elegantly wrapped around the waists of not only geishaand maiko but everyday women as well.

The kimono was not just something that was out of style like hairstyles from the 80’s or hand-me-downs given away when it no longer fits. It was a living and breathing symbol of its own, lending to the ever-expanding mecca of what it means to be Japanese. It has meant so many different things to different people: it was an attire during the day, and a blanket at night; a way to show allegiance; to show social class or marital status. It was a canvas upon which talented artists could showcase their legacy with the sense of pride that I admired about Japanese work ethic. The time it took to choose and put together the right obi and kimono was an art in itself, showing the Japanese values of patience and harmony.

So much of the kimono wearer’s identity is shown without words, avoiding the directness I had to tone down once I arrived to Japan. My concern was whether a foreigner like me, who preferred jeans over dresses, would do such elegance justice. The three obaasan, looking flawlessly in-synch with the kimono they were wearing, were not concerned with my body type as they fussed over my furisode. As they consulted with each other too quickly in Japanese for my brain to comprehend, I felt a rush as I pushed my arms through the pastel green silk kimono, its long sleeves brushing against my ankles. The bright orange obi hugged my waist, much like one of the hoodies I was fond of.

Even though my steps had to be reduced dramatically and I resorted to tipping over like a teapot to pick things up from the floor, I did not want to take it off. I was amazed at how well it represented me from not only a physical level, but a spiritual level as well. The fabric welcomed me, embracing my body perfectly to serve its purpose. I was without race or size, only concerned with care of what I could see myself calling my kimono. Just as quickly, it was removed from me, ready to become owned by another.

 I wish I had known enough Japanese to ask the obaasan about how many hands had passed through this beautiful silk. How many young unmarried women, since that is who furisode were for, had worn this? Whose grandmother? Whose aunt? All I could muster was a very heartfelt, “Arigatou gozaimazu”. I am forever thankful for that 20-minute inheritance that truly felt like my own. There was no need to change myself for the kimono because size or background did not matter. I felt a sense of belonging that no clothing store could match, in a traditional garment I would never have the chance or reason to wear again of all things. Perhaps the reason why the kimono continues to live on despite its decline is because of the impression that stays with you. It was one and at the same time many when it needed to be. To me, it was the part of Japan that I was looking for, beyond the justification of tags.

Bibliography

"Kimono." Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 01 2014. Web. 7 Jan 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono#Furisode>

"Procrastination and Me" by Shaikat Islam (Stuyvesant High School)

Without any regard for anything going around me, I sit on my plush desk chair and I begin my cycle. The snow white screen of my monitor surges a temporary relief into my body as I begin to browse. I click. I check my email. I watch some YouTube videos. I watch more. More. I check my email again. I go on Facebook.  I wait. Then, the relief absconds, leaving behind an undesirable: agitation. I look around for the source of this restlessness- out of nowhere; my schoolbag suddenly makes it into my line of sight. Oh. At this time, I try to make a decision: “Now or later?” but before I reach a sound conclusion, temptation and lethargy redirect my attention towards the screen. The cycle repeats, and the ability to work is superseded by the thirst of entertainment. As a high school student carrying the weight of his future, I dared not say the word- p-p-pro- procrastin- procrastinationOut of all students, me, a Stuyvesant student, procrastinating?  Without even knowing it, I had been conditioned; conditioned for procrastination. 

Although I try not to admit it, procrastination has become my dogma, my disease: my fault. Unfortunately, this disease also affects 70% of American students, according to the American Psychological Association, and students are not exclusive to it: from 1978 to 2007, 27% of the American public thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators, while in 1978, it was a meager 5%. I chuckled to myself- America, the country with the greatest GDP, a nation of procrastination.  Insomnia and schoolwork don’t’ go hand in hand, but they burned a lot of my time, so I began doing what I did best: browsing. I searched the Internet for ways to mediate my procrastinating, and in the process gained lots of information on procrastination, and found methods, which to no avail, could not help me. Then, I found something new, something fresh: kaizen.

Kaizen means “improvement,” but has evolved to be translated as “continuously improving”. The term “kaizen” began in Japanese business after WW2, where the economy of Japan lay in shock, after having surrendered to the Allies. The ideas that would serve as a base for kaizen came from a joint operation between Emperor Hirohito and allied occupation forces.  The head of this operation was W. Edwards Deming, a statistician whose work granted him an award from Emperor Hirohito and inspired the creation of the Deming Prizes by the Union of Japanese Science and Engineering (JUSE). I began to relish in these facts: Demings must have created something awe inspiring; something that worked.

Kaizen has since evolved greatly from post-war Japan, with Toyota changing it to implement it in their factories, but its key characteristics: standardization, waste reduction, and problem solving, still stand, along with its most unique characteristic:variability. Kaizen can be implemented in corporations, by individual people, in life therapy, and even health care systems.A NY Times article shows how the Seattle Children’s Hospital transformed from being unreliable and a place where “nurses…would stockpile stuff” in a makeshift manner to a simplified area where supplies where stocked efficiently. Variability also exists in time lapse. Contrasting from a New Year’s Resolution, kaizen can work with both short term and long-term goals, in lieu of one long-term goal.

Kaizen has many forms, as stated before, but much of the modern kaizen comes from the evolution of Toyota’s kaizen system.  This is why kaizen, when used personally, may remind someone of an automated factory. Nonetheless, the key characteristics still remain: Problem solving- Take on the smallest problems first, creating initiative to solve bigger problems later. Waste Reduction- Organize your thoughts effectively and error proof your day. By error proofing, I mean finishing a problem and thinking of ways it could’ve been solved even faster. By organizing, you also reduce waste, which increases productivity by allowing more work to be done in a short time. Standardize and Automate- Man takes on machine! Make your tasks automatic and standard, as if in a factory. As you practice, this becomes easier, and there you have it. 

Japan has always been self-improving. Its post economy after WW2 had skyrocketed like a miracle, and more recently, Japan showed incredible progress after the Tōhoku disaster. Japan serves as a model for anyone, showing that self-improvement, even in the worst of times is still possible. As we go into the New Year, add kaizen to your resolution. I know I will, maybe later.

Works Cited

Borenstein, Seth. "Study Is a Put Off: Scientists Research Why Procrastination Is Getting Worse - USATODAY.com." Study Is a Put Off: Scientists Research Why Procrastination Is Getting Worse. N.p., 12 Jan. 2007. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007-01-12-procrastination-study_x.htm>.

"Kaizen." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen>.

Knezevic, Milana. "Procrastination: A Student's Worst Enemy?" Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 09 May 2012. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2012/may/09/students-procrastinating-exams>.

Poretsky, Solomon. "What Does Kaizen Mean When Applied to Its Use in a Business?"Work. The Houston Chronicle, n.d. Web. <http://work.chron.com/kaizen-mean-applied-its-use-business-5789.html>.

Trapani, Gina. "Practice Your Personal Kaizen." Lifehacker. N.p., 12 Oct. 2006. Web. <http://lifehacker.com/207029/practice-your-personal-kaizen>.

Weed, Julie. "Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital." The New York Times. N.p., 10 July 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/business/11seattle.html>.

"To Love, To Live Japan" by Erich Makarov (Staten Island Technical High School)

I had never been enchanted with a culture before. That is, until I stumbled upon a simple, yet absolutely beautiful, piece of music. The piece was Koto Funk by Minoru Muraoka. Utilizing almost every traditional Japanese instrument, the Shakuhachi master created more than a euphonic beat: he captured my heart. I listened to the vast array of sounds, the combinations of low and high, new and old, soft and booming, surrounded by an aura of complete tranquility, enveloped in emotions and desires I could not yet comprehend. This was my first touch of Japan.

With every new piece of Japanese music I listened to, no consumed, my desire to uncover the full culture that lay behind these masterpieces became ever keener. Beginning with Japan’s history, I learned of the great wars which engulfed the three islands, and the intermittent peace which fathered the beauty I was falling in love with. I studied in great detail the wars of the Taira and Minamoto clans, the cunning and brilliance of Oda Nobunaga, and the betrayal and insatiable desire of Ieyasu Tokugawa. I delved in delicate poetry and yamato-e drawings of the peaceful Fujiwara period, the ukiyo (floating worlds) of the Edo period, the westernization of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and the revival of the 1960s that only a people as industrious and dedicated as the Japanese could ever bring about. Nothing was quite as dramatic, suspenseful, and motivational as the history of such a small group of islands off the coast of Asia. I was intrigued, I wanted to know everything.

I gazed at a paper filled with hundreds of characters. By now I had learned the hiragana and katakana systems of writing, but before me lay the greatest obstacle: kanji. I knew very well that this was not an easy journey, but language was my bridge to the unobstructed beauty of Japan. I needed to cross it as quickly as I could to enjoy the treasures that waited me on the other side. Many nights, I ploughed through the rows and columns of characters, connecting images with words, sharpening my pronunciation, and practicing the subtle strokes which produced these miniscule symbols – symbols which alone radiated with history and aestheticism. To continue with such a difficult endeavor, I needed motivation, and what better motivation is there than food.

“Kyō wa niwatori no kara age o junbi shimasu” (today we will be preparing chicken karaage) said the grinning lady on my computer screen. My hands were washed, the chicken lay in front of me, and the other ingredients were neatly positioned around the table. I was ready.

One hour later.

Flour was everywhere, speckles of oil covered the stove, all the plates were smothered in soy sauce, but my prize was radiating in the pan. There they were, golden brown, sizzling in the heat, twenty pieces of delicious chicken karaage. I stood smiling at my creation, until my mother came down and saw the condition I left the kitchen in. True, it looked like a tornado had just passed, but I couldn’t care less. I had done it: I made my first Japanese meal. That was only the beginning. In the next months I created a vast array of Japanese dishes. I did not cook simply for the enjoyment of the meal. No, cooking was something else: it was a way to discover Japan that no other medium could provide. Aromas, precise hand motions, the calming music of the shakuhachi playing in the background – united, these factors brought a culture to life. I was no longer studying the history, or observing the customs, I was living them.

As I sit today, writing this essay on a cold, rainy December morning, I cannot help but picture the people of Tokyo gathered in the night, celebrating the Chichibu festival. How I would love to see those magnificent fireworks, and the splendid Chichibu floats, decorated in shining lanterns. How I would love to transport to Sekigahara, and witness one of the greatest battles in the history of the world. What I would do to see the hills dotted with the rosy blossoms of the sakura. What I would give to meet the hundreds of valorous men who built the nation of Japan, who created this unique world. People tell me I cannot do it, but they are wrong. I can do it. I do it every day. Even as I am telling you of my dreams, I am living them.

"The Training of a Professional" by Anju Okamura (Elwood John Glenn High School)

In America, there are variety of types of restaurants you can go to for food. There is Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, American, and Japanese restaurants spread all over. Now, you can have food from a different country right in your own town without traveling on a airplane to go to the country but sometimes at the restaurant you are eating at, the chef cooking for you may not originate from the country of the restaurant. For example many Japanese restaurants on Long Island have a Korean or Chinese chef. The training they have experienced in America is very different from how a Japanese chef in Japan would train. My father owns a Japanese restaurant here on Long Island and the way he trained is very distant from the training of someone outside of Japan.

My father was born in Japan and his bloodline is all Japanese. He started studying to be a sushi chef when he was only 15 years old and did not attend school during his training because in Japan, when you enter high school, you are not made to go. He was very determined to be a chef. During the first three years of training, he was only permitted to make deliveries and clean around the restaurant. He was not allowed to be in contact with any ingredients including fish. In the morning, around five A.M., he would visit the fish market with his mentor and examine the fish that was taken out of the ocean that morning. My father would study the fish and determine which of the fish would have the best taste and freshness. After these three years of just cleaning and studying without touching, he was finally allowed to make the rice and prepare small fish and clams. In Japanese the meaning of sushi is vinegary rice. This is the correct type of rice made for sushi. The mentors of sushi in Japan would not teach their apprentices how to make sushi. The apprentices would have to steal the mentor’s techniques by watching them carefully. My father was able to steal his mentor’s way of making sushi rice and made it. After another two years of this, his mentor finally allowed him to make sushi rolls. Many people may think making sushi rolls is easy but really it is not because you need to know the correct amount of rice and how to cut the ingredients that goes into the rolls. My father was able to quickly move on the make “nigiri” sushi which is the sushi with the fish on top of the rice. In the beginning of his overall trainings, there were six others going in to training. Throughout the training, many left because of the hard, long training that continued for over 7 years. In the end, my father was the only chef that stayed for his full training.

In contrast to the Japanese training, in America, many of the people who learn to become sushi chefs, come in contact with fish on their first week. Their training is only about 2 years at the most and they are allowed to stand in the sushi bar on their first week of training. Chefs in Japan are able to tell the difference between fresh fish and old fish and are able to estimate the price of a fish just by looking at it. In America, the apprentices are taught how to make sushi by their mentors instead of them stealing the techniques by watching their mentors carefully. Learning how to cut fish is very difficult because with a wrong way of cutting, the flavor of the fish is not able to come out at its fullest and the taste will be affected. The way of cutting also affects the texture of the fish which is very important when eating sushi. Many Japanese restaurants in America adjust to American customers by making rolls such as crunchy spicy tuna rolls or a philadelphia roll which do not exist in Japan. Many of the rolls at Japanese restaurants in America were invented here because they do not include fish so people who do not like fish are able to have sushi too.

There are many differences in the Japanese and American sushi restaurants and their chefs. This is the reason why restaurants in places outside of their original country have different dishes than they would have in the original country. Professional chefs of Japan are able to do a variety of things.

"Life's Beautiful Tragedy" by Daniella Schoen (Huntington High School)

It was a beautiful April day. The sun was shining, and there was a slight breeze. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Walking hand in hand with my dad as we meandered around  the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC. I can remember the sense of pure happiness I felt as we strolled along the path, with big beautiful bright pink and white flowery trees as they draped over us. There were people everywhere, and not one person I saw did not have a smile on their face. Children laughing, birds chirping, music playing and people picnicking beneath the breathtaking trees. The whole scenery was breathtaking. It wasn't until the encounter my dad and I had that I truly understood what exactly the festival was about and why it was such a big deal. 

My dad and I were just parading along, admiring everything around us, until we met this wise old man who forever changed my life. He kindly approached us and introduced himself as Akito. Before I knew it he began explaining to me the significance of the day. He explained to me that the beautiful trees were known as a Cherry Blossoms and that they were the national flower of his country Japan. He then began to unfold the truth about the flower and what made it so special to him and his country. He began "For hundreds of years, the Japanese culture has looked at the cherry blossom as a representation of life. But first you must understand one thing before you can truly fathom what exactly I mean." To be honest, when he first started by saying "For hundreds of years.." I immediately thought that he was going to give me mini lesson on Japan's history and I started to lose interest. I think he sensed what I was feeling because he quickly assured me before he continued that I would learn a life lesson and he would not bore me. He then continued by first explaining to me that the cherry blossom trees only bloom for a short time each year. Before I knew it he reached up and picked a flower off the tree and placed it behind my ear. "You see?" he questioned. "Look around you, all the happiness among the air and how beautiful it looks." I took a second and glanced all around me. He was right. He continued, "The cherry blossom represents how fragile life is and how the beauty of it. Just like the tree, life is overwhelmingly beautiful but tragically short. So each year when the tree blossoms it's a reminder of how precious life truly is." I just stood there for while, soaking in what he said. His last and final words to us were, "Just remember how short life is and to appreciate the beautiful aspects of it." I reached out, hugged him and thanked him for what he had shared with me. I could tell he wasn't expecting that reaction from me, he was pleased and after I let him go, he smiled and was on his merry way.

Akito truly touched my heart and reminded me how thankful I was for everything I had and everyone in my life. After he left, my dad leaned over and whispered to me that the cherry blossoms were his favorite tree. He told me that I reminded him of the tree because I was just as beautiful as the flowers. I spent the rest of that day with my dad walking around, treasuring every second with him. I was so jubilant, that I was able to spend such an exquisite day with my dad, it was an experience I will never forget. Akito taught me to not take life for granted. 

A few years passed and I was once again reminded of the cherry blossom tree. But in this case it was unfortunate. My dad had passed away. All I could think about was how he now reminded me of the tree. The time I shared with my dad was beautiful and I cherish every moment I ever had with him but Akito was right. Life is tragically short. Little did I know the long lasting effect Japanese culture would have on me. Between the life lesson Akito taught me and my dad passing on, I truly appreciate the cherry blossom tree and everything it represents.  Which is why the cherry blossom is and will forever be my favorite tree.

"Tokyo Kareem" by Qire Snowden (West Babylon High School)

My Godfather Kareem used to live in Japan for a few years. He taught English at a Junior High School and said it was one of the best experiences of his life. Once a week he would also teach at an elementary school. I asked him what he taught the students, and he shared most of his lessons with me. I knew it would be a blessing to adapt to the Japanese language and wondered if I could learn those same words. Knowing it would take some time to remember most of the language, Kareem would spend hours with me teaching me about Japanese. He would not only teach me the language but also tell me a lot about the culture of Japan and what it was like living there. He told me that Japan culture was diverse from other places and was widely known for its traditional arts. Along with teaching, Kareem also loved the music he had discovered while staying in Japan. Kareem lived in Chiba-ken, which is like the New Jersey of Tokyo, but he would hang out in Tokyo often. This is where Kareem got his nickname “Tokyo Kareem”. He would go to Hip Hop and R&B clubs and make friends with the Japanese people that also enjoyed Hip Hop and R&B music. Kareem went on to meet one of his greatest friends today, Masayuki. He met Masayuki at a Hip Hop club named “Harlem” which is ironic because Kareem’s birth place was Harlem, New York. It made me wonder how Kareem and Masayuki had become friends. He told me that they had a common interest in music. I was introduced to Masayuki at Kareem’s wedding where he would later on share with me some of his experiences in Japan. I had no idea that Japanese people listened to the same music as I like to listen to. This is when I realized that Japanese arts & culture are often represented in Urban/Black arts & culture and vice versa. Masayuki happened to be a producer who also enjoyed listening to Hip Hop and R&B. Using music as their common denominator, Masayuki and Kareem used the song lyrics to teach each other English and Japan respectively. Kareem said that he was amazed and inspired by Masayuki’s dedication and commitment to learning the meanings and that motivated him to study Japanese harder. My Godfather Kareem told me that he incorporated the Japanese work ethic and dedication to his studies. When he returned to New York, he continued to study Japanese and started his first business coordinating tours and translations. Masayuki and several of his Japanese friends came to New York to visit as tourist and when people would see Kareem speaking Japanese to them, they simply called him “Tokyo Kareem”. Then, he realized that people were asking his friends from Japan about their clothing because they appreciated their style. The Japanese brands like Evisu, A Bathing Ape and UNIQLO became just as popular in Urban/Black culture as the Urban/Black music is over in Japan. There appears to be traces of Japanese culture in many elements of Urban/Black arts, from fashion to music. Kareem inspired me by showing me that you could learn more than one language and how important it is to understand other cultures.

"Getting to Know My True Self" by Jeanette Wetherell (Stony Brook University)

A professor I had began her Japanese Buddhism class by asking the question “What is the self?”  As we went around the room sharing what we thought, I heard things like “student”, “mother”, “daughter”, “son” and “friend”. Some said their name and listed characteristics, while others just shrugged their shoulders. I personally thought; “I am a yoga teacher and student”. I said this because I was so proud of that recent accomplishment and because yoga was something that defined me at the time. Little did I know, my professor was eluding to something much greater than the color of our skin, or the characteristics we define ourselves by.

As a child, one of the most profound memories I have is sitting with my mother, in a space we dedicated to meditation, holding our “energy” stones, devoid of dialogue, just meditating. We did this for so many years. However, as I grew older, I lost this sacred practice. I became preoccupied with my friends, how I dressed, what my hair looked like and following the latest trends in order to fit in. Like so many of us, I became consumed with the phenomenal world we live in.

I found yoga when I was 17. I started this journey as a way to deal with the never-ending pain I suffered from due to an autoimmune condition. Stretching and strengthening my body was a form of healing. My yogic asanas began to flourish. Before I knew it, I was able to stand on my head, balance on my forearms and twist myself into positions others can’t even dream of. Yoga was my favorite form of exercise, and I would even go as far as to say that yoga saved my life. However, something was missing and I felt an emptiness because of it. That something was meditation.

During my yoga teacher training, meditation was introduced marginally, but there is only so much that practiced in 200 hours. So, I was encouraged to pursue meditation on my own. I was given all the tools, and told exactly what to do: “Find a comfortable seat, sit up straight, breath in this manner, quiet the mind and it will come.”  All this valuable information was given to me, yet I still could not quiet my mind. Until I studied Buddhism.

Throughout the semester of Japanese Buddhism, we studied Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. We learned concepts such as Zazen, Nembutsu, Tariki and Shinjin and heard stories of Buddhist monks reaching enlightenment. The concepts, beliefs and traditions of Japanese Buddhism struck my interest. Something about this religious practice intrigued me unlike anything else I have ever studied

It wasn’t until the end of the course that I understood the intention of my professors’ question. She didn’t want to know about our favorite foods, the music we listened to or even what religion we practiced. Her intention was to deepen our understanding of our true self. Nothing is permanent, so there is no purpose in being attached to anything I have. I am not the job I do or the car I drive. The body I inhabit is a part of the phenomenal world, but I exist otherwise. What I truly am is something I have only experienced glimpses of in my savasana after a 60-minute asana practice. My true self was something that I did not have access to.

While yoga introduced the impermanence of this life to me, the study of Japanese Buddhism solidified it. Because of this realization, I began to meditate. At first, for just five minutes every few days. Then, for twenty minutes here and there, until it became a part of my daily life. The benefits I have gained are immeasurable. I see things in a new light. I understand this existence in a profound way. While I do not know if I will attain enlightenment in this lifetime or any future life, meditation has brought me closer to understanding my true self. I do not pretend to be a Buddhist or to understand all there is to know about Japanese Buddhism, however, I cannot deny the impact it has had on my life. Buddhism is the reason I am beginning to understand what I truly am and what my purpose is. I consider this the greatest gift.

My yoga teachers were right when they told me “It will come, if you practice” I just needed to find the motivation. This life-changing course on Japanese Buddhism was my motivation. 

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The Japan Center at Stony Brook• Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5343 • Phone: 631.632.9477• Fax: 631.632.4098 
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