7th JCSB Essay Competition (2011-2012)


 Award Ceremony at Charles B. Wang Center (April 14, 2012)

Amb Hiroki 7th competition

Recognition at Ambassador & Mrs. Shegeyuki Hiroki's Official Residence (May 12, 2012)


High School Division Best Essay Award 
1st Place: Yumiko Siev (Valley Stream Central High School)
2nd Place: Mizuho Yoshimune (Bronx High School of Science)
3rd Place: Duke Atalay (Ward Melville High School)
College Division Special Award
Special Award A: Daniel Xu (Princeton University)
Special Award B: Shariful Syed (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan Special Award 
Yumiko Siev (Valley Stream Central High School)
Honorable Mention
Emma Berniczky (Stuyvesant High School)
Pauline Ceraulo (Trinity School)
Jake Reiben (Brooklyn Friends School)
Natsuko Sato (Arlington High School)
Kaitlyn Shin (Jericho High School)
Kelsey Weymouth-Little (Ward Melville High School)

Jasmine Jang (Syosset High School)
Catherine Koumas (Huntington High School)
Steven Menelly (Garden City High School)
HusnainKaukab Mushtaq (Oceanside High School)

Mitchell Abrams (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High school of Music & Art and Performing Arts)
Begina Armstrong (A. Philip Randolph Campus High School)
Rohit Bachani (W. T. Clarke High School)
Monisha Dadlani (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High school of Music & Art and Performing Arts)
Justin Daane Engelsher (Huntington High School)
Bonnie Kaprat (Wellington C. Mepham High School)
Emily Rose Kass (Smithtown High School West)
Doyun Kim (Townsend Harris High School)
Julia Y. Lee (Trinity School)
Brian Murphy (SewanhakaHigh School)
Gianna Ortiz (The Mary Louis Academy)
Aya Terki (East Meadow High School)
Ashley Wong (Syosset Senior High School)
Amanda Yan (Townsend Harris High School)
Marissa Young (Hebrew Academy of Nassau County)

 Selected Essays


Obaachan’s Sword by Yumiko Siev (Valley Stream Central High School)

When I was younger I was convinced that my grandmother was a samurai.  Imagine a five year-old little girl exploring her grandmother’s house, discovering a sword in a small closet no one really used.  It was inside a smooth case with Japanese calligraphy etched into it, and beautiful pink cherry blossoms on the handle.  I remember seriously thinking about opening it, but then my grandmother called my name and a current of panic flowed through me.  The sound of my grandmother’s voice sparked an epiphany, and everything I knew about my grandmother came together in my mind.  She was undeniably a samurai.  How could I not have seen this before?  It suddenly made sense: all the mail that came to Obaachan’s house was addressed to Yasuko, when I heard everyone call her June; this was the reason that she needed a double identity.  And the reason she woke up before the sun rose was because a curtain of darkness was necessary to practice her samurai sword techniques.  On a later date, when I tried to show the sword to my sister, it was gone. 

It wasn’t until years later that I asked my grandmother about the sword I found.   It turned out that it wasn’t a samurai’s sword, but a soldier’s sword.  That soldier was a Japanese lieutenant during World War Two. After the war was over and the Japanese surrendered, many of the soldiers had gone into a cave on a small island to take their own lives to preserve their honor.  From the time of the samurai, soldiers believed that they should die before they surrendered, or bring shame to their country.  Before they could commit suicide an American General gave a speech on the importance and value of life, where he convinced them to continue living.  These men returned to Japan, leaving their weapons behind in the cave as one of the conditions of the surrender.

An American soldier had found the sword among other weapons in that cave, and brought it back with him to America.  Years passed and that American soldier’s son became best friends with my father.  After getting to know my grandmother, who frequently visits her family in Japan, he asked her if she could return the sword to the soldier. He proceeded to explain that he tried to return it in the past but the people he entrusted with the sword never followed through with their promises.  He also knew something about how the Japanese soldiers revered their swords, and had always intended to give it back someday.  My grandmother agreed to return the sword the next time she went to Japan.  The Japanese soldier had his name and address written on a piece of wood attached to the sword.  My grandmother wrote to him explaining the story of how his sword was with her, in America, and would return it on her next visit to Japan.

When my Grandmother arrived at Narita Air Port in Chiba, the Japanese soldier, now an old man, and some police officers were there.  She handed him the box with the sword in it, “As soon as he touched the sword tears began to come from his eyes” Obaachan told me.  He tried to give her money for the return of this prized possession, but Obaachan refused.  After they talked for a while she did agree to accept a locally made Kokeshi doll as a token of their meeting. 

Back in America Obaachan told the American soldier about its delivery of the sword and the owner’s reaction, this soldier too, felt a peace in his mind he had been waiting years to feel. “In Japan, when someone has a sword, it is their spirit; they live with their sword and they die with their sword,” she explained.  She had returned to the Japanese soldier, a part of his life.  

Now that I’m older I found out that Obaachan isn’t a samurai, but something even better. 

“I Am Mizuho” by Mizuho Yoshimune (Bronx High School of Science)

When I was four I wished that my name was Michelle.  When I was five I wished that my   name was Amanda.  I still recall sitting in my kindergarten class, drawing stick figures of my family and me.   I vividly remember labeling the drawings with childish scrawls of “Mom” and “Dad,” but I would rarely write “Mizuho” underneath the drawing of myself in green crayon.  In each drawing, I would be someone else, such as Lisa or Hannah.  As a child, I did not understand why I was not given a “normal” name, even though I was born in the U.S.  Oh, how I wished I could be more American!

In elementary school, I would listen with veiled jealousy as my classmates went around in a circle saying their names.  Inwardly, I would cringe when I heard the teacher say, “Oh, this is a hard one…Mee-zoo…ho?”  Though I didn’t blame him, I would sit rigidly until the five seconds passed at a painfully slow pace.  Interestingly, it never occurred to me to ask my parents why they named me Mizuho, or what it meant.  Looking back today, I will always be grateful to my sixth grade English teacher, who assigned a project on how we got our name. 

In my quest to unravel the mystery behind my name, my twelve-year-old self ran into the kitchen with a notebook and a pen, shouting, “Mom! Mom! MOM!  What does “Mizuho” mean?”  My mom, who was preparing dinner, gave a light laugh at my semi-frenzied state and began the tale…

“So, for starters, ‘Mizuho’ originates from Japan’s oldest chronicle, Kojiki.  Do you know what Kojiki is?”  I shook my head.

“Well, it is similar to Greek mythology; it’s a collection of myths about the Japanese Kami, or gods.  In the Kojiki it calls Japan, ‘Mizuho no kuni.’  ‘Mizuho’ means “rich rice crops,” and ‘kuni’ means “land” or “country,” so ‘Mizuho no kuni’represents a land blessed with prosperous rice.  Do you remember how I told you many times to never leave behind a valuable grain of rice in your bowl?”  She mildly scolded me, but soon returned to her jovial persona. 

“It’s all because of the amount of hard work needed to harvest the rice crop.  It has to be tended to all year round and harvested carefully. Because of this, rice is the national symbol of hard work, perseverance, and success…” 

What was meant to be a simple creative project turned into an epiphany.  Instead of sounding like six random letters thrown together, it was now a three-syllable name that carried so much cultural and personal significance for my parents and the people of their homeland.  I began to truly love my name, and how the syllables would naturally roll off of my tongue.  My confidence grew, as did my silent pride in that my parents did not simply browse through a book of common baby names.  It has served as a reminder that I do not have to be like everyone else in order to feel confident and that I belong somewhere, since being named ‘Mizuho’ has brought me one step closer to the culture that exists an ocean away.

This all happened six years ago, in 2006.  Today, in my last year in high school, I have found that I have changed in many aspects, such as my perspectives on certain issues, my interests, and especially, my future plans and goals.  However, despite all the changes I am just as eager as I was in sixth grade, to gain more insight and to experience more of the beautiful Japanese culture.  At school, I often help students who are taking Japanese with reading, writing, and speaking, while teaching them about some of the exciting cultural events (Oshoogatsu is my favorite).  At home, my parents have regularly incorporated Japanese traditions and values to our daily lives, which have taught me the importance of balancing two cultures at once without letting go of either one. 

In September, I will be going to college, where I look forward to further learning about the Japanese language and culture by studying abroad in Japan.  As a Japanese-American born and raised in the U.S., and never having attended a Saturday Japanese school, studying Japanese in Japan while experiencing the culture first-hand will be an invaluable opportunity.  Since taking the first big step of discovering the meaning of ‘Mizuho,’ it has opened many doors of curiosity and possibilities for me to further explore the unique culture of Japan.   

“A Sacrifice That Should Not Be Forgotten” by Eren Duke William Atalay (Ward Melville High School)

I awoke to the familiar sounds of radio hosts as my alarm clock went off at 6:30 AM. A leading song on the Billboard Top 100 began to play as I slowly opened my eyes, wearily turned off the alarm, and stumbled out of bed. My daily routine in preparation for school ensued as follows; I ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and took the bus to school. March 11th, 2011 began just like any other day.

As the bell rang, I entered my biology classroom and took my seat. The teacher stood up from her desk and spoke with anticipation. “Did anyone hear about the earthquake in Japan?” A few students responded and the teacher continued. “I heard it was an 8.9! Can you imagine?!” The class uniformly thought in silence as we tried to imagine such a natural disaster striking New York, and immediately returned back to work.

The school day ended and I returned home where I discovered my dad watching CNN stories about the disaster in Japan. I saw headlines of a tsunami striking the north east of Japan. I stood there astonished by the footage of the colossal wave peeling buildings into the ocean’s abyss, as if they were leaves being carried off by a faint wind.  Japanese civilians were huddled above the enveloping sea, stoically watching despite the omnipresent quality of their grief.

Headlines that a meltdown had occurred at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima due to the tsunami began to emerge. There were reports about nuclear plant workers who stayed behind at the plant in order to prevent a broader nuclear catastrophe. Pictures of men breathing through respirators in full body white suits walking into the reactors started to appear on the screen. The men, in the middle of a radioactive zone where death seemed imminent, were pumping seawater on exposed nuclear fuel in order to prevent a full meltdown that would spread radiation to the whole nation. These men were heroes, risking their own lives in order to ensure the well being of their family members and loved ones. I could not help but compare these brave individuals to the firefighters that sacrificed their lives by entering the World Trade Center on 9/11. All of these men were able to muster up the courage that few men are able to do, to boldly overcome fear’s perpetual grasp and venture out into the most dangerous of circumstances.

 When taught about Japan during the times of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the valiant samurai and their deep devotion to the Bushido were integral parts of the lesson. We learned that the Bushido was the moral template composed of seven virtues that the samurai lived by. The one that is most cogent, according to the author Inazo Nitobe, is Rectitude (46). It is described by him as follows: “Rectitude is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right” (Nitobe 46). These words were the inspiration and essence of the bravest of samurai, who fought for their masters no matter how bleak the battles may have seemed. They knew that if there was any moment to leave this world, it would be on the battlefield, the most glorified testament of their sacrifice and devotion.

As I watched these brave, unnamed heroes enter the nuclear power plant, the virtue of Rectitude echoed in my head. These heroes knew that this was the right thing to do, to put the welfare of their nation above their own health and safety. I have always prided myself on my values of choosing the path of virtue because I believe that the emotional satisfaction you receive in the end is paramount. These Japanese workers were able to confront the most crippling of fears because they knew that this would be their moment of Rectitude, their moment to light their eternal shine. We often look to famous names of valiant war heroes or prominent political heroes for inspiration, but we often forget about the men and women who do what is right for the advancement of the world around them instead of for self-pride. The Japanese workers at Fukushima remind us what chivalry really means in a world constantly obsessed with making a legacy, and should inspire even the most weary of people to take the path of sanctity despite the demons that stand in their way.

Work Cited:

 Nitobe, Inazo. "Rectitude or Justice." Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 2002. 46. Print.

“To Biwa Lake” by Daniel Xu (Princeton University)

Summer was nearing the end of its stay in Kyoto, and so was I. From where I sat at a table in the second-floor kitchen of the Kyoto Sangyo University International House I could see the verdant willow branches through the glass balcony door that somebody had forgotten to close, allowing the cacophonous chirping of the cicadas resting on those branches to waft in on the simmering August air: tsuku-tsuku-boshi, tsuku-tsuku-boshi! I smiled as I remembered my disbelief when my co-worker at the lab had described to me the sound made by the cicadas that emerged after the end of the rainy season. “You’ll see,” she had told me, “You’ll see! They sound just like that.” And she had been right.

I finished my morning tea and washed the mug out in the sink, placing it underneath the sign that brightly reminded all residents to respect the health and well-being of the dorm community by cleaning up after themselves. I had grown used to the communal sort of lifestyle in the International House, and it gave me an odd sort of feeling to think that in a week’s time I would be gone from there forever.

In the stairwell, on the way back to my room, I ran into two other residents of the I-House, Henri the German and Pae the Korean. They had knapsacks on their backs and full bottles of water stuffed into the pockets of their shorts, and looked to all the world as if they were about to embark on some sort of expedition.

“Daniel,” Henri said, grabbing me by the shoulders. “Want to come with us on a fantastic adventure? We are going to Biwa Lake in Shiga prefecture, maybe forty kilos away. Only a three-hour bike ride—both ways!” I guess it was a testament to how little thought goes into my decision-making process that I agreed to come along. And so I hurried downstairs to the overpriced vending machine in the lobby and purchased two chilled bottles of water for the equivalent of five American dollars. Within moments they were jostling around in the wicker basket between my handlebars as I pedaled alongside Henri and Pae north toward Shiga prefecture. The tires on my bicycle were slightly flat, so I had to pedal just a little bit harder than my companions to ride at the same pace.

As a child, my introduction to the land of the rising sun had not been through the conventional cultural vehicles of Hello Kitty or Dragon Ball but rather through weekends spent with my father and brother watching patriotic Chinese World War II dramas in which the portrayal of the Japanese were resigned almost universally to the role of the relentless enemy. And so as an eight-year old I harbored a slightly irrational and misguided dislike for anything Japanese, and naively equated the entire nation of Japan with the one-dimensional villains I observed on television locked in gory combat with Chinese resistance. I look ahead at Pae, who is pedaling a few feet in front of me, joking with Henri about something, and wonder if his childhood experience with Japan had been of a similar nature—after all, Korea had also been an enemy of Japan during the war. I wondered what had brought him later in life to choose to study in Japan.

For me it was a number of things. Even as an eight-year-old, my initial impressions of Japan evaporated almost immediately when I was introduced arguably the cleverest diplomatic tool ever conceived, the Nintendo Gameboy Color. How could the nation that had put Pokemon into my pocket be anything but a benevolent presence on the Earth? And as I got older, experiences like learning to play the game of I-go, reading introspective Japanese haiku in school, and the afternoons spent quietly folding origami with the Japanese lady whose son took his piano lessons before mine further taught me to appreciate the subtlety and beauty of Japanese culture. I was interested enough to study a year of introductory Japanese during my freshman year at university, and I fell in love with that small sampling of the Japanese world, and decided I must spend a summer in Japan to see the rest of it for myself. 

Part of it also had to do with my parents. Having completed their graduate school studies in Japan during the 80’s, they often told me about their experiences, and in fact it was actually one of their former professors who had offered me an internship working under him during the summer. Before I left my parents gave me some parting advice. “Especially observe the Japanese work ethic,” my mother had said. “Everyone gives their absolute best effort to any job they do, no matter how large or small. It’s a philosophy of hard work shared by everyone in Japan. And it wouldn’t hurt to have you learn some of those Japanese manners, either,” she added as an afterthought. “They have wonderful manners in Japan!” 

And indeed I had found this to be true everywhere I had been in Kyoto that summer. As we pulled in to a Family Mart to buy fresh bottles of water, I noticed the way the young shopkeepers scurried to restock shelves, mind the cash register, and re-arrange inventory, all while bowing politely and calling out greetings and farewells to customers in clear, bright voices. It definitely wasn’t something I saw very much of back home, if at all.

Pae checked his map and informed us that for the next hour or so we’d be winding our way up a mountain. “After round the top, we’ll be able to see the lake!” he said cheerfully. After two hours of pedaling my legs felt like something like jelly. The oppressive Kansai sun hung lower in the sky than it had when we set out, but still beat mercilessly down on the exposed parts of our flesh.

The quaint Japanese architecture of the surrounding villages whizzed by sometimes swiftly, sometimes ploddingly as we followed the ups and downs of the curving mountain road. Somewhere nearby I knew the historic Buddhist temples of Hiei Mountain hid in the deep recesses of the forest, but if we were to make it to the lake in time I knew we would not be able to spare the effort to go visit, at least this time. I remember finally being able to see the clear, crystal blue of the lake through over the top of a hill and excitedly pointing it out to my companions, who whooped and laughed as we followed the road down the mountain, our three-hour journey culminating in a triumphant arrival on the shores of the massive freshwater lake.

It seemed we’d only set our bikes down on the rocks and laid down on the shore for a brief moment before Henri noted that the sun was setting and we’d better get going soon if we were to make it back to the city before dark. I couldn’t believe it—we’d just gotten here!—but sure enough, the sun had continued its inexorable daily march across the sky, and it was precariously advanced in its journey.

I sat up, gazing out over the expansive blue water, listening to the sloshing waves and the cawing crows high above. And of course there were the omnipresent cicadas in the brush all around, tsuku-tsuku-boshi, tsuku-tsuku-boshi. It was utterly tranquil in its own unique way. To leave so soon seemed a tragedy—and to leave Japan, I mused, an even greater one.

I sighed, retrieving my bicycle and preparing to set off with the others back home—first to my dorm room at the I-House, and in a week’s time on a flight back to America. Before I went I cast one more glance over the rapidly darkening waters, resplendent in the way the setting sun was reflected upon the rippling surface.

I promised myself that someday I’d be back to Japan, this magical land where an incredibly deep and multi-faceted culture had arisen amidst scenes of such absolute beauty and tranquility. Until I have the opportunity to go back, I will remember forever what I saw as a young man staying in Kyoto—the incredible, genuine politeness of the Japanese people, the gorgeous scenery, the beautiful culture, and of course, the incessant chirping of the cicadas in the summertime.

 “Self Discovery Through Japanese Harmony” by Shariful Syed (Stony Brook University)

I yearned to study in Japan. I was drawn to their concept of “harmony”. Known as ‘wa’, it was the name of the country upon its creation. Because Japan can be said to be a nation built upon ’wa’, I wanted to gain a real sense of how harmony influences Japan’s way of life so as to enrich my own.  However, at the same time I still had to prepare myself for trying to gain acceptance to medical school. Neither goal could be compromised; despite the common wisdom being that if one wishes to pursue the field of medicine they must focus on pursuing extensive lab research and science courses, I felt that the experiences I would have in Japan would facilitate my growth as a person and understanding of harmony. I wasn’t willing to give up a chance to live in another country, totally removed from my normal way of life, and see how my response reveals things about my nature that I may not have ever known. 

In Japan, one of my immediate impressions was that I felt a strong sense of community and connection that undeniably seemed harmonious. Japanese society seems to emphasize the value of shared experience and group activities as vital in formation of social bonds. Attending the 60,000-population Waseda University, I felt humbled and recognized that there is a distinct world outside of myself.  I had to discover my place. After some research and exploration, I soon found an activity that gave me a sense of belonging. For a few months I led a weekly group discussion with Japanese students. It was a fantastic opportunity to discuss topics like societal pressures and social norms that Japanese were reserved about. Japanese often discourage voicing criticism. As the group leader, I encouraged the members to voice their opinions about any issue they desired. Having such an open atmosphere generated an air of trust and comfort between all of us. The process of creating strong bonds among people is a big part of what brings me happiness. As I found my place, I was grateful to be part of the group.

During the course of my studies in Japan, I read a major work of Fukuzawa Yukichi.  I consider his text, An Outline of a Theory of Civilization and Enlightenment to be the book that has influenced my attitude the most. What impacted me on a deep level was his idea that, civilization is the attainment of BOTH material well being and the elevation of the human spirit. I am someone that believes in the importance of introspection, and the reason I think I value it so much is that I believe that it is a tool that can facilitate the ‘elevation of the human spirit’ or at least my own spirit. The achievement of gaining an acceptance to medical school, I consider, to only have been possible because of my will power and focus. A big part of how I maintain a strong mental disposition is by a kind of meditation that I do outside while burning incense. To me it feels like a sort of mental cleansing, I clear my mind of all extraneous thoughts to the point where I am not thinking of anything. I then slowly start to think of life at the moment and what has been going on and consider the biggest weights on my mind. Branching out I find myself consistently needing to do this to not prevent myself from getting too far away from harmony. 

When I think of some of my behavior patterns, the two things that quickly come to mind are a metaphor from Ruth Benedict and a practice associated with Zen Buddhism. When presenting an interpretation of Japanese society and culture, Ruth Benedict, in Chrysanthemum and the Sword, put forth the idea that a self conception that Japanese have is that they view their human spirit as something akin to a brilliantly luster sword.  She described that while we have the ability to shine brightly we can also quickly become rusted and dull and if gone unchecked we may lose all semblance of our former selves. In the same way I think I need to make a consistent mental effort to maintain a stable peace in my own spirit throughout the trials and tough decisions I face in life. 

The other Japanese parallel associated with Zen Buddhism is the practice of Koan. How I relate the Koan to my own internal efforts is that just as the Koan requires one to take a very close look at themselves and make distinctions and connection between their behavior, ways of thinking, perceptual set and see how they have been affected by their personal experiences can then start to get some understanding of their core nature.  That is how I think introspection has functioned to facilitate my development into a very curious and questioning person. I find that it is compatible with medicine because it is the task of a doctor to understand the underlying mechanisms causing certain appearance of symptoms and illnesses.  For the same reason, I believe that this will help me become an exceptional skilled physician.

A meaningful experience I had in Japan occurred when I was volunteering at a local medical center. I met an elderly patient that was receiving help. I was assigned to sit by him. I just sat with him, listened to his stories, and kept him company. Even though I couldn't understand most of the things he was saying, I could hear in his voice an air of sadness and loss, the transparent look in his eye made me feel the sense of the void he was feeling internally. Slowly I put together the pieces, he had lost his wife in an accident, and was now did not have much reason to live. I don't know how long it was, but I stayed with him, and tried to show him my understanding and desire to support him. By sharing feelings and being empathetic I think is one of the most meaningful ways to make strong connections with others, and this idea that I came to hold in Japan is one that I carry with me always. 
But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. In the middle of my exchange program in Japan, I was immersed in the March 11, 2011 earthquake. In those dangerous moments, I willed myself to keep steady. Walking around the streets of Shinjuku I was struck by the level of calm that was maintained by the people. Going out to the local food stores I was very surprised to see stores were mostly cleared of all pertinent food supplies, a clear indicator that people were getting ready for the worst. To me it was a display of maintaining composure and doing the most within one’s ability to make best of a troubling situation. It really instilled in me a similar feeling as I no longer felt any extravagant fear and just accepted things for what they were and wanting to not allow it to negatively affect me.

On the night before my flight back to the U.S., I reflected on all these experiences and had the conscious realization that I was leaving with a different flow of thought. I grew to discover that all of my life experiences – from my time in Japan to my family life to my college studies – have shaped what I define to be harmony and its key importance in leading a fulfilling life. I feel that I have a clearer perception of myself and moreover, I see harmony as the foundation for the life I want to build as a doctor and a human being.    

Work Cited:

Benedict, Ruth. Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989. Print.

Yukichi Fukuzawa, David Dilworth. An Outline of a Theory of Civlization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

“Brooklyn Bonsai” by Jake Reiben (Brooklyn Friends School)

The day my mother stepped out on what little we have of a deck in the midst of Brooklyn to find that the one bonsai tree her son purchased but months ago had now multiplied into twenty others was the day I had to answer a hard question: why I had such an obsession with dwarf trees. In what was a reserved manner for a Catholic Italian, my mother fled my deck and its suffocating plants, burst into my room and demanded an answer. At this point, Japan and its culture came to my mind. I asked myself: “Would students in Japan be persecuted for their interest in bonsai?” I then recalled that my Japanese-American friend had laughed at me when I had told her I had a bonsai tree collection. In her opinion, the art of bonsai was reserved only for elderly Japanese men. My friends opinion aside, my mother had asked a good question, for I had never been able to create a coherent explanation as to why I had become fascinated with the ancient Japanese art of bonsai. I decided to embark on a quest to prove to my mom that I had not gone off the deep end, but also to clarify for myself why the Japanese art of bonsai seduced me. 

Probing the depths of my mind while staring at the trees in which I had invested so much time and money helped me create an answer. I began with putting the sensation I felt while working on bonsai trees into words. This feeling reminded me of the same sensation a rock climber experiences as he safely and quickly ascends a mountain while avoiding the distraction of irrelevant thoughts. Similarly, in the case of re-potting a bonsai tree, the vulnerable bare rooted state of the tree demands that I must concentrate and act decisively to pot the tree securely. Although the mountain climber analogy was a bit of a stretch, I had figured out that I enjoyed the Zen-like state I achieved while working on my bonsai trees. Nonetheless, I still felt that my answer was incomplete; I had yet to convey how the principles of the Japanese art of bonsai applied to my everyday life.


So great is the patience and dedication required to grow and style bonsai that it made me a more accepting person. In bonsai, a tree must slowly be sculpted and styled as not to cause its demise. After killing several trees from making hasty decisions, I learned that I had to slow down and respect them. With this acquired patience, I began to pace myself and properly do my homework, for the practice of bonsai had drilled into me that impulsive actions often resulted in the death of my artistic creations. Furthermore, bonsai helped me embrace the idea that individuals must adapt to sudden changes. This is due to the fact that branches often die in bonsai, yet the tree does not become utterly worthless. Deadwood or “jin” can be sculpted to create a dramatic contrast between the living and dead parts of the tree. I became inspired by this expansive approach as what could have been an unfortunate turn of events can be transformed into a deeper aesthetic experience.

After much deliberation I had finally achieved an answer to my mothers question. Working with nature in the depths of metropolitan Brooklyn, usually bare of but a patch of grass, was truly reviving. Rock climbing was the only other way that fed my addiction to experience a Zen-like state. My mother and I both know that it is difficult to find a mountain in Brooklyn. Thanks to this Japanese art, I have become more patient and accepting of change; I know there are always options. 

“Mottainai –Learn to Respect What You Have” by Natsuko Sato (Arlington High School)

“Gochisou sama deshita!” Full and content, I started to leave the table, but Grandmother tapped my shoulder and stopped me. Examining my bowls, she told me that I was not yet finished with my meal. I looked at her questioningly, confused about what she meant for I had eaten everything—or at least that was what I thought. Grandmother pointed to my rice bowl and said, “There is still some left.”  Peering in, I realized there were still some grains of rice stuck to my bowl. “Mottainai,” she said, which means, “what a waste.” She told me that I must finish every last grain of rice, or else I will go blind from wasting such a precious gift. I must admit, I was taken aback. Having grown up in the United States, I was used to the other children in my class throwing away food without any hesitation once they were full. It never occurred to me that in other cultures, even the last bits of rice could be considered something of such value.

Later on, this occurrence made me reminisce about a conversation I once had with my grandfather. I remembered the time when he explained to me the significance of the character, “rice.” He told me that if the three parts to the character were to be taken apart and rearranged, it would create the number eighty-eight. It symbolizes the number of days it takes for the rice to grow to maturity: from the day when the rice is planted to when it is ready for harvesting. Being a rice cultivator himself, my grandfather knew how much time and effort had to be put into growing them. This memory made me truly understand why Grandmother said “mottainai;” it would have been like throwing away the hard work that the planters put into growing the rice for us.

The Japanese concept of “mottainai” is based on the idea that nothing should be put to waste and that one must appreciate both physical resources and intangible objects, such as talent and time. This idea is already starting to impact the world in many areas. A prime example of its global impact can be seen in the Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai. Upon visiting Japan, she was impressed by the Japanese’s commitment to the conservation of materials and reduction of waste, and she was inspired to make a difference in her own country. By incorporating the “mottainai” ideal, Maathai began persuading people to shift from using thin, weak plastic bags to thicker, reusable ones in order to reduce the amount of garbage. Another instance where the Japanese’s “mottainai” concept impacted the world was in the 2011 Tohoku catastrophe. The nuclear disaster had resulted in the destruction of a major electricity source in Japan, and countless homes throughout the country were left without electricity. Planned power outages were deemed necessary, and citizens were requested to conserve electricity to compensate for the shortage. Numerous people acted immediately and showed their willingness to cooperate for the cause. Even in the summer, when temperatures rose to be over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit on some days, the Japanese continued to work hard to conserve electricity to the best of their abilities. Some went to public libraries to stay cool since they thought that turning on their air conditioner just for themselves was “mottainai.” Others took smaller actions, such as turning the lights off when no one was in the room. The Japanese proverb, “chiri mo tsumoreba, yama to naru,” which means when small things come together it can make a huge difference in the end, excellently describes how the Japanese cooperated to overcome their hardships. The small acts of conservation that the Japanese undertook to minimize the things they viewed as “mottainai” resulted in the commendable accomplishment of overcoming the mountainous impediment.

Currently, I am a member of my school’s science research team and our primary focus is to promote eco-friendly activities in our community. My experience with Japan’s “mottainai” culture has helped me realize that besides reducing, reusing, and recycling, respecting our environment and appreciating the things we have is also essential in making our world a healthier place and to preserve its beauties. I plan to continue advocating awareness about how everyone can make a difference to save our world by encouraging others to look to the Japanese example of their “mottainai” mentality and be thankful for even the smallest gifts in life.


"Wangari Maathai's Other Initiatives." The Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt

Movement International. Web. 02 Jan. 2012. <http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/w.php?id=40>.

"What We Do." MOTTAINAI. MOTTAINAI. Web. 02 Jan. 2012. <http://mottainai.info/english/what.html>.



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