Sixth Japan Center Essay Competition (2010-2011)
High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place: Jessica Goldman (North Shore Hebrew Academy)
2nd Place: Spencer Kirsch (Lynbrook Senior High School)
3rd Place: Aya Terki (East Meadow High School)
College Division Special Award
Special Award A: Eric Andrew Engoron (Stony Brook University)
Special Award B: Manami Ogami (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan Special Award
Jessica Goldman (North Shore Hebrew Academy)
Megan Yuan (Staten Island Technical High School)
Paul Hart (Bronx High School of Science)
Azequay Rice (Frederick Douglass Academy I)
Dakota Blackman (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School)
Joyce Yoo (Townsend Harris High School)
Elizabeth Whitcher (Huntington High School)
Alex Wallach (Townsend Harris High School)
EmaadKhwaja (Huntington High School)
Anqi Wei (Brooklyn Technical High School)
I walked down the hallway of the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Japan to find a room full of televisions. I sat down and watched a woman share her first-hand testimony of August 9th, 1945.
“We couldn’t just leave all the bodies there,” the woman spoke. “It was a pile of corpses down the street, so my mother and I piled them up to cremate them. Just as we were about to light the match,” terror brimmed in her pupils, “one man in the pile started yelling as hard as he could: don’t burn me! I’m still alive.”
I trembled in my 16 year-old spoiled American body.
I learned about the atomic bomb in ninth grade. I learned that the United States invented it. I learned that Truman dropped it. I even learned about the political motives; however, I never learned about the personal stories of ruined lives or extent of human suffering. “A few days after the bombing,” the survivor continued, “my mother found something on the floor in the kitchen.” Streams of tears ran down her cheeks as well as my own, “It was my brother’s skull, just sitting there in the kitchen.” While listening to her harrowing story, it paralleled in my mind to the other mass killing that I’ve been taught about throughout my life— the Holocaust. Raised in a Jewish home, my grandparents have constantly told me about the pain of growing up in Eastern Europe in the 1940s.
A couple of weeks after my trip to Japan, I met a man named Makoto Otsuka. Just the sight of him was unusual: a Japanese man wearing a yarmulke and speaking fluent Hebrew. He told me about his trip to Amsterdam many years ago where he coincidentally met Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, who opened his eyes to the tragic genocide. Before that moment Otsuka knew virtually nothing of the Holocaust or the six million Jewish people who had perished. From that day on, Otsuka dedicated his existence to the commemoration of the Holocaust. He opened the first and only Holocaust Education Center in Japan. While speaking with him, I realized the sensitivity he had for the Holocaust as a result of his own difficult life growing up in Japan during World War II. Each of these catastrophes was a result of unconscionable hatred. Mr. Otsuka passionately challenges this attitude with his philosophy of tolerance, “Just as you can hate for no reason, you can love for no reason.”
While it is my responsibility to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust and uphold the legacy of my people, it is equally important for me to educate myself and connect to the histories and suffering of those people around the world with whom I do not share an ancestral connection. As a global citizen, there is no bond stronger than the human connection.
I remember walking outside of the museum in Nagasaki. I was incredibly moved by a display of thousands of paper cranes, a symbol of longevity and peace in Japanese culture inspired by a twelve year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki. Sadako developed leukemia as a result of the radiation from the atomic bombing. While sick, her goal was to create 1000 paper cranes because there is a Japanese saying that one who folds 1000 cranes is granted a wish. Sadako only lived to fold 644 paper cranes. However, Sadako’s legacy lives on through displays of paper cranes throughout Japan. There is even a peace park with a statue of Sadako in Seattle, Washington. Paper cranes threaded on long strings are draped over the memorial.
Outside the museum, ground zero was surrounded with beautiful, vibrant trees. They stood tall in the face of combat. The trees grew back after the devastation, I thought, but the lives that were taken by the hands of war will be tragically lost forever. I continued walking only to discover a plaque etched with the lyrics of a John Lennon song, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”
I can imagine it.
John Lennon imagined it.
Sadako Sasaki imagined it.
Makoto Otsuka imagines it.
And it is a beautiful wish.------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1. “Narratives of A-bomb Experience.” Video Room. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. 20 Sep 2010.
3. Otsuka, Makato. Personal Interview. 8 Nov 2010.
4. "United Nations: On the wings of paper cranes, UN staffers aim to spread message of peace." M2 Presswire 9 August 2010 ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 30 Dec. 2010.
5. “Peace Park.” Seattle Park and Recreation Web. 30 Dec 2010. <http://www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?ID=4029>.
“About the Holocaust Education Center.” Holocaust Education Center, Japan. 2007. Web. 30 Dec 2010. <http://www.urban.ne.jp/home/hecjpn/indexENGLISH.html>.
“Narratives of A-bomb Experience.” Video Room. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. 20 Sep 2010.
Otsuka, Makato. Personal Interview. 8 Nov 2010.
“Peace Park.” Seattle Park and Recreation Web. 30 Dec 2010. <http://www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?ID=4029>.
"United Nations: On the wings of paper cranes, UN staffers aim to spread message of peace." M2 Presswire 9 August 2010 ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 30 Dec. 2010.
“Japan--An Own World of Peace” by Spencer Kirsch (Lynbrook Senior High School)
The grandmaster’s smile that resulted from everyone finishing his or her tea revealed the importance of respect in the Japanese culture. Kei (respect) relies on the notion that it is achieved through sincere thoughts and gentle words. Though all are equal in the tearoom (represented by every person, no matter rank or wealth, crawling through the doorway), the practice of bowing and the ritual of turning the utensils help to foster respect and minimize potential for conflict. The hospitality of the grandmaster and the caring of the guests for one another aids in promoting this principle. Wa (harmony) corresponds to the harmony between people and also refers to the relationship people have with nature. Greeted with a beautiful garden directly after crawling into the teahouse, one is expected to feel a special connection with and appreciation for all nature that exists in the world. Sei (purity) represents orderliness and cleanliness, both spiritually and physically. The host of the ceremony cleans all utensils and the tearoom itself before they are used, also cleaning his spirit. Through calm insight, it is thought that the true reality and purity is only perceived in a life where everything is “clean” and “in order.” Lastly, jaku (tranquility) is identifiable with one’s enlightenment, bliss, innocence, and a state of total calmness. These four characteristics that I experienced in the tearoom are ones that I constantly try to display to others through my daily actions.
In today’s world, violence and crime is undeniably present, and continues to exist. Through events as small as robberies or as large as world wars, people often choose to promote characteristics that are directly opposed to the four characteristics included in the Japanese way of tea. In only a dream can one imagine a world in which respect, harmony, purity and tranquility exist in all people and take precedent over the will to do evil. Personally, I live by the four principles of the Japanese people by doing my part to put a smile on others’ faces. I am the co-founder of Pink Ribbon Teens, a charitable initiative that provides free in-home babysitting/tutoring services to families experiencing illness. By providing safe and compassionate care for their children, parents who are ill have an opportunity to rest or recuperate. For those parents who have children with special needs, my initiative allows them to focus their attention on that child while their other children are being cared for. Through this service, I am able to bring harmony to children whose lives are otherwise disrupted. Stress for these families is replaced by a new sense of calmness.
To most of us, the rituals the Japanese people practice to show their beliefs may actually be thought of as “out of the box.” For instance, believing that the way they set their utensils on a table contains a respectful meaning in spirit may seem unusual to those of us from different cultures. However, it is perhaps that very sense of ritual and belief that if followed by others, would lead to a world that is less violent. Perhaps we should ask this question to ourselves; Would one rather live in a world with people whose thoughts are out of the ordinary or would one prefer a world filled with chaos and a lack of respect?
“R.E.S.P.E.C.T-- Find Out What It Means To Me” by Aya Terki (East Meadow High School)
Respect for the environment is another quality that is emphasized in Japanese culture. Streets, subway cars, train stations and even public toilets are clean and garbage cans are easily accessible in busy areas. During a recent trip to Japan, I went to Tokyo DisneyLand with my family. A young child in front of me was eating a piece of candy and dropped her wrapper. Immediately, another guest at the park picked up the wrapper, and threw it away into a nearby garbage can. Witnessing that took me back to my studies in a Japanese elementary school. Everyday, we had “osouji no jikan” , or clean up time, and we rotated shifts to clean the floors of the classroom, wipe desks and clean the bathroom. By doing so at a young age, we learned to take responsibility not only for our own actions, but for others’ as well. It was an important lesson for me to learn because back at home, I selfishly depended on custodians or sanitation workers to pick up my garbage later. Being put into their shoes helped me realize that I should at least be accountable for my own things, and I think many Japanese students also realize that and apply it in their daily lives. For example, many public bathrooms do not provide paper towels because it has become customary to carry around a handkerchief. Also, a popular movement called “My Hashi” makes it trendy to carry around your personal pair of chopsticks. This is in place of using disposable wooden chopsticks called waribashi. These trends encourage all kinds of people to participate in a team effort to be more eco-friendly in order to help out and give back to the environment.
Though respect is a universal concept, why is it applied differently in other cultures? It seems as if in American culture, respect is something we only give to people. In Japanese tradition, respecting others is something that is shizen, or natural, but in addition to another form of respect: Respect with their surroundings. Right now, the entire globe is facing an environmental crisis due to overuse of our natural resources and the tremendous amount of pollution. We use things and then throw them away mindlessly, without thinking of the consequences. Through my experiences in Japan, I’ve made a conscious effort to be more eco-friendly myself. I use a reusable bag for grocery shopping, and I use a handkerchief instead of paper towels. If we all learn to respect and appreciate our surroundings like the Japanese, I believe it will be easier to help preserve
our planet and keep it healthy to sustain future generations.
“Doumo Arigatou Mr. Roboto” by Eric Andrew Engoron (Stony Brook University)
It isn’t easy living independently when you have a physical disability rendering you unable to walk. Tasks as easy as making your bed become impossibly difficult. You are unable to reach things in high places, or even change light bulbs. It is unfeasible to take showers without the proper equipment at your disposal, and even to use the bathroom if the proper facilities aren’t available to you. Taking these unworkable tasks into consideration, I had always wondered how I could manage life independently. I would lay awake at night, thinking of ways I could manage my daily routine without the help of my family, and the problem was, I could not come up with anything. I began to think I was destined to live at home forever; I could never live independently. However, that thought could not be further from the truth.
A few months after my realization, I was still feeling down in the dumps; the world never seemed less handicapped friendly than it did to me then. Around that same time, I made a new friend in school. His name was Taisei Chiba, and he was an exchange student from Tokyo, Japan that had just moved to the United States because his dad’s job was relocated. He understood written English very well, but his listening comprehension was less than serviceable. Every day afterschool, I would sit with him and help him with his listening and speaking, while I conversely learned a plethora of Japanese. Culturally, he was very different than most of the people I had to deal with in my school. He was respectful, kind, and most of all, he did not think of me as “that disabled kid,” as everyone else did. He chalked it up to the fact that I was not different from anyone else, but I chalked it up to the respectful aspect of the Japanese culture that is not stressed in America. Along with restoring my faith in my peers, and the people around me, Taisei also helped me more than he could ever realize, he helped restore my hope in becoming independent.
One snowy winter Monday, when Taisei and I met afterschool, he asked me to help him understand an article that used complex English that he never learned while in Japan. Upon reading the introduction, I could tell that the article was about a bipedal robot that was being developed in Japan named ASIMO. However, as I read more and more of the article, I started to fall in love with the driving force behind ASIMO’s development, artificial intelligence. The article that Taisei gave to me talked about the possibilities of integrating ASIMO in the home to help families go throughout their daily lives without having to do quite as many chores. After I helped Taisei comprehend the article, and we went our separate ways, I spent hours and hours in my room on my computer researching artificial intelligence and robotics; particularly robots that originate in Japan.
That night, I stumbled upon an article that changed my life’s goal forever. The article, by Dennis Normile spoke of Japan’s former Prime Minster Abe’s Innovation 25 plan, which stated that by 2025, robotics would be integrated into many Japanese households to make life easier for humans (Normile 186). As Abe stated in his speech, “…such an innovation will set the Japanese society ahead for years to come,” (Abe). Prime Minster Abe’s innovation made my hopes of living independently rise exponentially. If Abe’s innovation succeeds, I would be able to live on my own with the help of the robots that would be integrated into my household. These robots would be able to make my bed, change light bulbs for me, reach things in high places, and even do my laundry, if I was lucky enough! Life would be ideal for me to be independent. During that night, and many nights to come, I sat on my computer and researched robots being developed that would one day make me self-ruling. The robot with the most articles written about it was ASIMO, the robot that Taisei introduced to me during that afterschool session. ASIMO is Honda’s brainchild; it is the most advanced bipedal robot developed thus far. According to ASIMO’s chief engineer Masato Hirose, ASIMO is designed “to improve living in human society without modifying the human living space,” (Hirose and Ogawa 11). Such a robot sounded ideal to me. ASIMO would be able to operate in an unmodified house, and would help me with my daily routine.
Day in and day out I would bring Taisei Japanese articles about robotics to translate for me, and the help I was giving him soon became mutual, as I learned from him as well. While ASIMO sounded like the perfect robot for me to have in my household, there was another robot that I researched that truly made my jaw drop. Its name was the Hyper Assistive Limb-5 (HAL-5). The HAL-5, developed by Japanese company Cyberdyne, is designed to help the disabled and the elderly walk. It is an exoskeleton robot that you wear to amplify the strength in your muscles by five allowing you to be more stable while walking (Cyberdyne Mission Statement). The first thought in my mind after reading about the HAL-5 was, “If I wear this, I could walk and be just as able-bodied as everyone else. My weak muscles would no longer be a problem, and I would finally be stable enough to walk. My life would be perfect.” However, as of now, the HAL-5 is still in the testing stages, and is not yet safe for commercial use.
The more and more I began to research these robots and the companies making them, I noticed one common thread between all of them. I noticed that all of the chief engineers designing, building, and coding these robots were not disabled. While it is important that these robots are being developed in Japan, I would have thought it would be common sense to have a disabled person’s input on the technology being built to assist them. This common thread is what started me down my current path, the path that will allow me to live my life to the fullest. I know what it is like to have your life changed by a disability, to not be able to do most simple tasks on your own, and most of all what the physically disabled need help with the most in order to be independent. I want to be part of the team that produces these robots; I want to create the robots that will allow millions of disabled people live successful and independent lives without being hindered by their disability. I want to help disabled people level the playing field.
At first, even my dad was unsure if I could live independently, he thought I depended on him too much to be successful. We often got into heated debates as to whether or not it would be plausible. It used to be the case that I would be defeated in these debates, and not know how to answer his questions, but now armed with my new knowledge of Japanese robots, I could finally fight back. “Well son, how would do simple things such as clean, make your bed or even change light bulbs?” I responded, “Dad that’s ASIMO’s job.” He then proceeded to ask me about cooking to which I responded with the Motoman SDA10, a robot that is designed to be a personal chef (Daly). With robots by my side, I could finally convince my dad it will be plausible for me to live alone.
The language barrier was the only problem standing in my way of reaching my newfound goal. All the robots that would help me live an unhindered life are being developed by Japanese companies. I needed to learn Japanese in order to be truly successful. Thus, I began asking Taisei for help, and while I was helping him with English, he was helping me more and more with my Japanese, and gradually I began to fall in love with the beauty of the language and the complexity of the Kanji. Now, I am a Computer Science major and Japanese minor at Stony Brook University ready to program robots in Japan that will help the disabled live normal lives. If it weren’t for Taisei and the Japanese companies developing things such as the SDA10, ASIMO, and the HAL-5, I would be destined to feed off my family. However, now the world is my oyster, and it is only appropriate that I quote the band the Styx and say, “Doumo Arigatou Mr. Roboto,” Thank you Mr. Robot, for allowing me to live freely.
Abe, Shinzo, “Innovation 25.” 26 Feb 2007. Web. 1 Dec 2010.
Daly, Ian. “Just Like Mombot Used to Make.” New York Times. New York Times. 23 Feb 2010. Web. 1 Dec 2010.
Hirose, Masato and Kenichi Ogawa. “Honda Humanoid Robots Development.” Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society A 365 (2007): 11-19. Print.
Normile, Dennis. “Japan Picks Up the Innovation Mantra.” Science 316 (2007): 128. Print.
“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive “- Mahatma Gandhi. Those words proved to be true when looking back at my transition from Kyoto, Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii. Looking back at my childhood, my memories are filled with what most would consider typical memories. However, there is a distinct difference between most children and myself because at the age of four I was forced to leave my home in Japan and embark upon a new life in Hawaii.
As my seat vibrated from the roaring engine, my mother fumbled with the clasp of my seat belt, the belt clenching tightly into my stomach. Gazing out the window, my home became smaller and smaller as the plane gained height, leaving behind my friends, family, home, pets, and quite essentially my life.
Landing in Honolulu, Hawaii, tourists clamored to baggage claim excitingly chattering about the beauty of the islands. In a matter of hours, I had lost everything I had known. I was forced to reside in a place where Japan was identified with three things; Hello Kitty, Sony, and chicken teriyaki. When most imagine residing in Hawaii they envision pristine beaches that line the land of Hula dancers and surfers. However, there is a distinct difference between starting a life in Hawaii and a vacation to Hawaii- and this was no vacation.
My dad had to remain in Japan due to his work, so it was only my mom, my cat and myself who moved to Hawaii. So there we were, with no job, no car, hiding away my cat in a no-pets one-bedroom apartment. Not an ideal situation compared to my home in Japan that held my toys, books, and of course my father.
Fortunately, my mother found a job and I was soon placed in pre-school. Aside from dance classes, this was the first time I ever attended any type of school. Unfortunately, I felt unrelatable to my peers, unable to communicate any of my interests or feelings. The other children whispered about me in hush tones, fearing the unknown. After all, what do you do with a girl that seemed to be mute? My teachers faced much difficulty, trying to communicate through elaborate gestures and hand movements. I felt frustrated at the fact that I was unable to communicate even the simplest of tasks such as “Can I go to the bathroom?” It worsened as we delved deeper into the curriculum. While other children began to read, I was learning to speak. How could I be expected to read a language that I didn’t even understand? When I was given assignments, I was more than capable of doing the work; I just simply could not understand the directions. My instructors recommended ELS classes, but as we were already bombarded with pre-school fees, we were unable to afford any other activities. As a child I envied those who could keep up with school effortlessly. I felt as though I was cheated by being moved to a foreign land where everything was more difficult for me.
Something I didn’t initially realize when I first moved to Hawaii was that I wasn’t just leaving my friends/family behind but also the mundane every day things such as television, books, games, and conversations that most of us take for granted. Hello Kitty was now replaced on the screen with a purple dinosaur that spoke in a foreign tongue. Books were written in strange scriptures that seemed to represent stories I have never heard before. Where were the tales of Momotaro (the peach boy) or Urashima taro? Everything I had grown accustomed to disappeared within a single plane ride, and I felt very lost in such an unfamiliar land.
One day as my mother was reading the Hawaii Hochi, a local Japanese newspaper, she noticed an add for an upcoming Bon dance. Bon Dance, a Buddhist festival that commemorates the deceased, is a cherished Japanese tradition. Thinking it would be fun, we decided to go. Dawning my yukata (a summer kimono), I arrived and was shocked. Japanese stores lined the street, with almost everyone speaking Japanese, as the aroma of yakitori filled the air. As I tried to scoop goldfish, eat yakisoba, and danced around the yagura, I momentarily felt as though I was back home. I found kids who spoke Japanese and shared similar interests of Japanese anime and played games such as Shogi. It was as if I found a little part of Japan on this island.
Soon after I found other Japanese activities I could partake in right here on the island. Both my great-grandmother and grandmother were both tea masters in Japan; therefore I started to take tea ceremony lessons in Hawaii. I learned how to sit on my knees, bow after receiving the drink, turn the cup clock-wise twice, and the delicate stirring motion of the kabuki brush when making the tea. I was trained in the mannerism of drinking tea and all that goes along with it. My teacher taught five others and myself how to respect the tea and the tearoom. Respect is crucial in Japan (often shown in the form of a curt bow) and it was stressed that we must show respect to our sensei, the tatami room, and all those who attended the ceremony. Although I did not reach the mastery level, I still learned many skills that I find vital for children of that age, such as respect, discipline, and mindfulness.
Despite not being in Japan, when I was seven I still celebrated my shichi-go-san. Originating from the Heian period, Shichi-go-san, is viewed as the right of passage for children in Japan. As the obi held up my traditional kimono, I visited a nearby Japanese shrine in Hawaii. After, we ate at a Japanese restaurant where we indulged in some appetizing Japanese cuisine. I found comfort in the fact that I had the opportunity to engage in Japanese traditions in my new home.
Soon after, I befriended Maria, a girl at my pre-school who spoke not only English but Japanese and Spanish as well. She became a friend, translator, and the ultimate confidant. Maria had the best of both worlds, knowing both Japanese and American culture. She introduced me to many American phenomenons, ranging from Doritos to Clifford the Big Red Dog. I became more open-minded towards new cultural aspects, and started to educate my family on the “American Way”. I began to merge both cultures and started to experiment with various social phenomenons. I had always prided myself with my Japanese heritage but I didn’t want my pride to become ignorance towards other cultures.
One of those “American” customs I had to be accustomed to was sitting cross-legged at school. My teachers taught us to “criss-cross applesauce” our legs and sit still. One day I was sitting in this position when my visiting grandmother from Japan walked in. Appalled at the sight of seeing her granddaughter sitting in such a distasteful manner; she said I was bringing “shame” if I were to sit like this in front of company. Calling it “agura kaku”, she explained it was something that only men do, and that ladies must sit properly on their knees. It was interesting that my grandmother reprimanded me for something that my teachers taught. Something that in Japanese culture was considered a disgrace was encouraged to American children. However, what I came to realize was that it was more comfortable to sit cross-legged. After all, if you are relaxing in your own home why must you force yourself to sit in an uncomfortable position? I found a fault within my own culture and realized that anothers is more practical. As important as it is to cherish your own culture, exploring other cultures is also crucial if you want to be educated and open-minded.
Today, I have incorporated a nice blend of both American and Japanese culture into my lifestyle. For example, on New Years, we always spend New Years Eve the traditional American way, by going to the count down and playing with sparklers. However, on New Years Day we celebrate in traditional Japanese fashion with my grandmother cooking the traditional osechi cuisine alongside the ozouni soup. Afterwards we go to the shrine, purify our hands, ring the bell twice, clap our hands, and pray for another good year. Even on daily activities, I have found a nice balance of both cultures. I speak Japanese at home but speak English when I am at school. I eat Japanese food when I’m home, but when I eat out with my friends I typically dine at an American diner. In the dining room we have a dining room table but in the living room we have the kotatsu table. I have found that regardless of where I reside, I can still keep my heritage alive if I continue to partake and cherish my Japanese culture.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook