2006-2007 The Second JCSB-Canon Essay Competition
High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place: Molly Baum (Longwood High School)
2nd Place: Joan Kim (Syosset High School)
3rd Place: Melida Maldonado (Marble Hill School for International Studies)
College Division Best Essay Award
Heather Highfield (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan Special Award
Molly Baum (Longwood High School)
Pratima Bhattacharyya (Bronx High School of Science)
Stephanie Miceli (Floral Park Memorial High School)
Ruthie Nachmany (Hunter College High School)
Briana Codispoti (Longwood High School)
Sarah Flood (Longwood High School)
Justin Walsh (Deer Park High School)
Allycia Barbera (Islip High School)
Alice Hung (Townsend Harris High School)
Alice Kai (Townsend Harris High School)
Samantha Rubinstein (Longwood High School)
Jen Klock (Longwood High School)
Richard Edele (Townsend Harris High School)
Ashley Graham (Deer Park High School)
Lawrence Brenner (Stony Brook University)
Jonathan Stimmer (Hunter College)
"Japan and Me" by Molly Baum (Longwood High School)
When examining the numerous Japanese philosophies, one particular principle bares greater significance than the rest. The Japanese people believe in Gaman- a value system that praises self-sacrifice, selflessness, and especially, forbearance. The idea of forbearance resonates strongly with me because of the relationship between forbearance, courage, and emotional endurance. Throughout my life, I have encountered numerous obstacles and seemingly impassable challenges. I have overcome such hurdles only after discovering an indomitable sense of hope within myself and among my parents.
I was born with arms that end slightly below my elbows, and a spinal chord that lacks certain lower nerves. Most doctors told my parents that due to my spinal condition, I would not be able to walk. Despite the immediate devastation they felt due to my lack of hands, they focused on the prevalent issue- ensuring the functionality of my legs. After numerous grim prognoses, my parents found a doctor with a more promising prediction. Before I was a year old, the doctor fitted my legs with braces spanning from the bottoms of my feet to just below my kneecaps. As time progressed, my parents’ perseverance in finding a solution proved worthwhile. Gradually, I began to walk with the leg braces. During my first two years of walking, I encountered issues with maintaining balance, but my parents persisted in finding an occupational therapist that helped me to correct this problem. When I reached an age of comprehension, my parents recounted to me this first of many struggles. At that point, I realized that my parents never had and never would stop believing in my abilities. This thought surfaces whenever I want to give up on myself. My mother and father taught me the forbearance and determination that I use whenever life seems impossible.
I had adjusted to my lack of hands within the first two years of my life, but the less visible medical issues that followed became increasingly difficult to confront. From the age of three years old, I encountered a barrage of invasive medical tests, medications, and painful surgeries. From the frightening days that approached an operation to the following month of recovery, I unknowingly committed myself to the Gaman philosophy of forbearance. I despised every minute of the fear and the pain, but I knew that my experiences would increase my emotional endurance and contribute to my character. Due to the support of my parents and the courage I have acquired, I can triumph over every new obstacle with greater strength and the wisdom that accompanies experience.
In August of 2007, I will begin my freshman year of college. Although the prospect of independence and liberation is exciting, I acknowledge that the new environment and lifestyle will be the greatest trial of my character. College will be frightening and challenging, and its stress combined with the stress of my physical obstacles will be overwhelming and will sometimes seem insurmountable. However, my parents’ reassurance, their ceaseless faith in my capabilities, and my own perseverance will enable me to adjust to the changes. Eventually, I will thrive on what was once an obstacle.
While many philosophic ideals seem esoteric and irrelevant to the modern world, the beliefs included in Gaman are more than relevant to my life. Gaman’s principles of forbearance and character-building have become essential components of my values. They have enabled me to overcome countless difficulties and setbacks. Each day may bring a more menacing obstacle, but with Gaman as the foundation of my ideals, I know that there is no limit to what I can accomplish through determination.
"A Gamble in Japan" by Joan Kim (Syosset High School)
When I was younger I used to despise Japan. I thought it was Japan who taken away my grandfather, leaving my dad without a father and my grandmother without a husband. In 1948, the war had separated my grandfather while he was on a business trip in Japan, forcing him to settle there temporarily and then permanently. During those years, my grandfather, thinking his wife and child had died, married a Japanese woman and had another son. He began a few businesses and was very successful. Eventually he came to understand that his wife and child in Korea were still alive and living in America. He began to send money to help support my grandmother and father. One day, my parents and I went to visit him in Japan. Forty years had passed since my father had met his father.
I remember my dad lifting me out of a car, whispering in my ear, “Joan, don’t forget what I told you. Remember to bow politely.” My parents, luggage in one hand and my hands in the other, walked towards the building with whimsical designs on the windows. Rolling the front door to the right, my jaw dropped at the sight of hundreds of strange machines. I had never seen anything like it, except it reminded me of a room in Las Vegas that I was not allowed to enter. My mother, fluent in Japanese, called out someone’s name and flipping back to Korean, said: “We’re here!” After a moment, we heard the sound of creaking wood and a clatter of pots; then an elderly couple appeared at the bottom of the stairs. These strangers were my grandparents.
Starting from scratch, my grandfather had started a casino business and at one point in time, owned over three buildings in Japan’s most industrious cities. “Pachinko,” said my grandfather, as he beckoned me to come and sit in front of one of the machines. Ignoring my parents’ protests that I was too young to gamble, my grandfather took out a coin for me to insert into an opening. As soon as the coin hit the bottom, the machine sprang to life and began to show images of a singing mermaid. After a minute or two, the machine spit out two silver marbles, and that was my first introduction to Japan’s most popular pinball machine.
Tired of the crowded and polluted cities, my grandfather had moved to the countryside of Nagano. Customers interested in pachinko were scarce, but strangely, my grandfather continued to open his doors every morning to his small business. The building was surrounded by rice patties and somewhere, there must have been a bean field because my step grandmother always brought in a basketful of cooked string beans. To this day, I cannot forget the way these furry pods popped out sweet beans into my mouth.
These memories are vague, yet they stay with me. As I got older and began to learn about the culture and history of Japan, I realized that it was the war, not the country or the people that I disliked. I realized that, in a way, Japan had saved my grandfather and provided him with great success, even allowing my family to be financially supported after immigrating to America from Korea.
Many things have changed since I left Japan in 1995. My grandfather’s buildings had become bankrupt and were sold for very cheap prices. Recently, he passed away, leaving his Japanese wife and son in Japan, and another elderly Korean wife in America who still remembered what he wore on their first date. Seeing that generation fade away, I dearly wished that I were older and more successful. I wanted to help my step-grandmother and my sick uncle, but I did not know how…That is, until I learned about a Japanese language course at my high school. Dropping four years of honors Spanish courses, I enrolled in Japanese Level 1 as a senior at Syosset High school. Sad that I did not find out about this course any sooner, I am faithfully studying my hiragana, katakana and ru, and u-verbs and plan to continue in college. I only hope for the day that I am able to meet my Japanese family again and tell them how much I waited for this day to come in fluent Japanese.
“Foggy Homestay” by Melida Maldonado (Marble Hill School for International Studies)
While walking out of the Hokkaido subway, lugging my oversized suitcase, I was unaware of what I would see around the next corner. Being in a new country, Japan, gave me the motivation to try as many new things as possible. However, I was hesitant about the host family stay. After hearing home stay horror stories from past students, not only was I apprehensive, but I was dreading the next ten days of my Japanese home stay.
As I stood with my luggage staring in awe at the anxious crowd of host families, I eventually located the family holding up the sign that read “Melida.” When I approached them, I was so overwhelmed that I tried to greet my host mother with a hug. Unfortunately, my unannounced hug startled her, because in Japanese culture, touching strangers is not customary. Considering that I was in a foreign country, I was aware that I would make mistakes. However, the awkward and embarrassing moment of my host mother backing away from my hug only increased my pessimism about the home stay. My biggest fear, other than committing any further mistakes, was enduring awkward silences between me and the family. I knew the language well enough to get by, but I was limited to the things I knew how to say. This caused us to resort to sign language for things we did not know how to express. The language barrier seemed like it was going to be an issue for the rest of my stay.
It was not until the day my host father took me to JR Tower, the tallest building in Sapporo, that I started to appreciate my host family. As I was looking at the foggy mountains in the distance, I asked my host father for the Japanese word for “fog,” just out of curiosity. He replied, “kiri” and then asked for the English word. After listening to the English word, he stood thinking and then it was as if a light bulb clicked on in his mind. He realized the meaning of the English words in his car, “fog light.” Soon after, he excitedly told his wife and some friends about his discovery.
At the time, I could not believe the enthusiasm he had for learning such a small word. However, throughout my days in Japan, we both demonstrated this same level of excitement when we had conversations where neither of us knew what the other was saying, but we learned a new word or phrase. Finding different ways to communicate and get our message across helped clear up the fog I had endured at the beginning of my experience. I realized that as much as I love learning the mechanics of languages, that was not the only way I was going to convey an emotional connection. There is so much more to learning languages than just memorization of words and grammar patterns. It is how one uses their skills to clarify misunderstandings between different cultures in order to help others. Knowing that I helped my host father understand English words expanded my love for languages. My will to teach and learn in Japan, even though I made mistakes along the way, granted us both a cross-cultural education.
When the end of my home stay grew near, I realized how much I had underestimated my experience. Even though I was raised bi-lingual, I had been afraid of living in a home where communication would be a challenge. However, in those ten days, I became determined to incorporate my affinity for the Japanese language into my future career and think before I throw myself into any other person’s arms as a greeting.
Holding back tears, I packed my bags on the last day, reluctant to say goodbye to the family I had been so hesitant to meet. As I made my way to the train station, my host mother slipped her hand into mine for support. Before I boarded my train, she embraced me with the biggest hug— surprising for a person who originally stepped away from my hug. Right there and then, I knew that being part of this family was a risk worth taking.
“Make Believe: Finding Fantasy in Reality in Old Japan” by Heather Highfield (Stony Brook University)
Often, when I was a child, I would finish reading some fantasy-fiction novel and lament that this world was a terribly boring place. Everything was ruled by logic and science; phenomena which once were considered supernatural were now known to have set formulae and reasonable explanations. It always seemed as if everything that could be invented or discovered had already been. Nothing was left to the imagination. Even mysterious creatures like those living on the bottom of the ocean had been found and made into documentaries. Raised with this very practical mindset, I found that I could never really be astounded by anything; even as I felt silly wishing for some fantasy world like the kind I had read about, I wanted to be able to wonder at something, to honestly feel that perhaps magic was possible.
Even as I grew up and went to college, that small childish part of me never really changed. I had a casual academic interest in fairy tales; It wasn’t that I found them believable, but I enjoyed the way logic and reason took a back seat to novelty, and anything could happen. The world in those stories was wild and uncharted; to live there must be frightening and exhilarating.
When I began taking Japanese language and history classes, I inevitably became curious about what sort of monster and fairy stories such an ancient country had produced. What I found was an incredibly rich lore full of fantastical creatures and dark forests, of warriors trained by mysterious mountain goblins, of spirit gods and demons who became beautiful women by night. I also found many wonderful examples in the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki, which I quickly came to love. His movies, though mostly created for children, depicted precisely the world I wished I could believe in. One features a shadowy, bustling Japanese bath-house town full of mysterious Japanese deities like radish and river spirits. Another, “My Neighbor Totoro,” features a giant, furry forest-god-type creature called Totoro who protects the woods and whom only children can see. This one, by far my favorite, depicts a world which is not dangerous, but which is dark and wild and exciting; the forest is deep, untouched and infinitely explorable; a sense of real childlike wonder is possible. In such an environment, even those who cannot see Totoro can nonetheless truly believe he exists. As I learned more about bright, fast-paced modern Japan, my imagination also grew, and I wondered whether these tales still had any place in the national psyche or if that dark and mysterious world still existed within the popular gleaming, technology-saturated vision of Japan.
I kept this in my mind when I applied to study as an exchange student in Japan. I chose a program in Kyoto over one in Tokyo or Chiba, passing up the urban life for a more traditional experience. At first, I took every opportunity to visit temples, go for long walks and explore countryside as well as city. But after a few months, having seen a little of everything, I had regressed to my usual state of sitting in the computer room all afternoon when I should be using my time more wisely. As time passed, I did of course travel to many places and see a lot of Japan, but my experience was also becoming more and more like everyday life: that small sense of wonder and newness that everything held when I first arrived was disappearing. I had seen a great deal of Japan, but there was still one side of it I had not found. I desperately wanted to see the side of Japan that inspired those fairy tales, but I began to doubt whether that world still existed at all.
One night in the middle of July, just a month before I was scheduled to come home, my boyfriend, Hiroshi, suddenly announced over dinner that he knew the perfect place to go see fireflies, and that we should go there at once. Ever practical, I pointed out that we should probably go another day, as it was already almost 9 and the train up to the mountains would stop running soon. Also, I observed, it might be a good idea to finish our meal first in any case. But he would not be deterred by logic nor reason. And so, fifteen minutes later, still hungry, I found myself standing outside the tiny, remote Kibune train station, staring out into the unbroken darkness of what I came to realize was the road we would be taking.
I turned to the solitary vending machine and bought some milk tea in a heavy steel can, not so much for drinking as for defense against wayward bears. Or monkeys. Or radish spirits. I had taken this road during the daytime, and it was not remotely threatening; but now, it seemed as though anything could happen. Out of bravery or carelessness, we resolved not to turn back and set out down the deserted, winding road toward the next street lamp, far in the distance.
We stumbled along through the night arm in arm, neither sure of who was clinging to whom. The bluish, flickering streetlights were separated by intimidating stretches of total blackness; the next light was always just out of sight. The road wound gently uphill through hills that towered high overhead on both sides; somewhere to the right was a river, though we knew that only by the sound of water running over the rocks somewhere below. At length the hills and trees gave way to a string of weathered, ancient Japanese houses and inns lit by low, rust-colored streetlights. Even at this relatively early hour, all of the windows were dark; the houses seemed to lean sleepily against each other. I briefly considered what I would do if one were to suddenly stir; I tried to walk more quietly.
As the houses grew more sparse and we plunged once more into darkness, I asked Hiroshi how soon we would get where we were going.
“We’re there,” he said. “Look up.”
I looked up. For a long moment, there was nothing to see - just blackness and the soft rush of an invisible river. But then, suddenly, they were there: first one, then four, then seven, then fifty; the lazy, floating green lights seemed to pour in from nowhere as my eyes found something on which to focus. First one, then sixty, then two hundred, drifting up in wide, sweeping arcs down along the river, then up to the trees, then up over the barely-visible hills. First one, then, suddenly, a thousand. We watched the fireflies glide silently over the river and rise into the sky, wordlessly, as though they would flee at the slightest disturbance. I don’t know how long we stood there, frozen. If I stared just a little bit longer, I was sure I’d see some ancient, mythical creature rise out of the forest with them and into the moonless sky.
“Oh no.” Hiroshi flipped open his cell phone. I looked into the light for an instant and recoiled, blind. “We have to hurry. Is it okay if we leave now?”
But there was no point in asking. I looked up over the river, but the hills, the water, the fireflies were gone. They had fled after all; the spell was broken. We set off running down the way we had come, pounding footsteps swallowed in the streetlights’ wake. The houses did not stir; there were no assailing bears; the mountain goblins let us pass.
We reached the lonely train platform with just enough time to turn and look back down the road we had taken. We stepped onto the train; the doors closed. There was a second; we breathed. It was when I finally sat down, exhausted, that I realized I had found exactly what it was I had come here to experience. At that moment, I could believe that if there were a bus stop along that road, I had only to wait and I’d meet Totoro there.
Feeling not at all silly, I drank my tea.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
Photos (under construction)