2007-2008 The Third JCSB-Canon Essay Competition

High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place: Samantha Dupler (South Side High School)
2nd Place: Mari Iwahara (The Dalton School)
3rd Place: Elizabeth Morgan (Bronx High School of Science)
College Division Best Essay Award
Lauren Phillips (Stony Brook University)
Consul General of Japan Special Award 
Samantha Dupler (South Side High School)
Honorable Mention
Caresse Rose Correa (Longwood Senior High School)
Matthew Auster (Columbia Prep School)
Omena Ejekpokpo (Aquinas High School)
Lisa Kawamoto (Columbia University, Columbia College)
Michael Behan (Bronx High School of Science)
Caitlin Etri (Huntington High School)
William Fechter (Longwood Senior High School)
George Hull (Hunter College)
Allison Kade (Columbia University)
Ashleigh McDougall (Longwood Senior High School)
Samantha Palmer (Longwood Senior High School)
Tracy Soto (Stony Brook University)
Ashley Thompson (Queens Gateway to the Health Sciences Secondary School)
Iris Yu (Shoreham-Wading River High School)

Selected Essays

"His Greatest Wish" by Samantha Dupler (South Side High School)
The colors and sounds were everywhere, vermillion archways stretching over speckled pavement, the foreign shouts of vendors over the music of street performers, paper lanterns hanging from above merchants’ huts. This, in a nutshell, was the street of Nakamise-dori on a certain spring day. 
It was my fourth day in Tokyo of a two week trip to Japan, and so far, I had found the entire country’s culture juxtaposed within itself, a fascinating and sometimes dizzying blend of old meets new, a mix of kimono-clad women and gelled-hair business men, both types different, yet the same, in the sense that they could all call Japan their home.
With these heavy thoughts resting on my mind, I made my way through the crowded shopping street, past the doll shops and fan stalls, through the crowds of bargain hungry shoppers. At last, I found myself at the end of the street, standing before a statue of Buddha, smooth and glowing bronze from where thousands of hands had rubbed it for luck. The air here was quiet, the people possessed a serene disposition, and the loudest sound was that of the rustling of paper scraps, each scrawled with a wish tied to a small tree, in hopes that they may come true.
I stood before the statue, taking it all in, when I noticed a small table nearby, where an old Japanese man sat folding paper. I wandered over to the table. It looked like a type of cultural station, designed for visitors to indulge in the Japanese art of origami. On the table, there were stacks and strips of brightly colored paper, and laminated, yet
battered, instruction sheets in both English and Japanese on how to create paper cranes. So I sat down at the table and tried to make one of my own.
The cranes were much harder to make than they appeared, and in a matter of minutes, I had accidentally decimated at least six sheets of paper. The old man at the table noticed my arduous attempts, and came over to me with a smile. “No, no,” he said gently in English. “Like this.” He picked up the paper and folded it with ease, and soon held a small red crane in his wrinkled hands. The old man set the crane on the table and looked proudly at it. “Thank you,” I said with a smile. 
His smile stretched farther when he heard my voice, and he gathered up more paper. “Ah, American?” he asked excitedly. “Yes,” I said. “I’m from New York.” I studied the crane on the table as the old man continued to fold more. Picking the bird off the table, I turned it over in my hands, admiring the delicate folds. “Like this,” said the old man, taking the crane back. He pulled the tail gently, and the wings elongated gracefully, the crane’s paper neck extending just so. He then set the crane back down on the table, waiting for my reaction.
I leaned over across the table, to where a rainbow of paper strips lay stacked. I then smoothed the strip out and began folding it over and around itself, forming a little pentagon. The old man watching with amazement, I pinched the corners of the shape, puffing out its sides to form a tiny star. “For you,” I said, and placed the star on the table.
The old man’s smile became so large, it almost seemed to split his face in two. “A star!” he exclaimed. “An American star!” He got up and began showing my star to each and every person at the table. In the distance, the wish trees whispered. I smiled at the old man, and began to get up from the table, but he came back to my seat with a few parting words. “Tell your American friends; visit Japan, visit here,” he said, hope etched into the lines on his face and buried deep in the soul of his voice. “Spread my culture,” he said, holding my crumpled star. “For I fear it is fading fast.”¬
I nodded, and picked up the crane off the table, cradling it in my fingers. He nodded back to me quickly, and then walked back over to the other side of the table, to help others with their cranes.
I turned away from the table, and made my way back to Nakamise-dori, the paper wish trees swishing like a thousand matches striking, each lighting a fire of hope and passion.

“Initiation With a Washcloth” by Mari Iwahara (The Dalton School)
“Ittekimasu!” I called back to my mother as I hurried out the doors and into the small streets. I readjusted my white button-up blouse, navy pleated skirt, white socks and Nike sneakers, specifically picked out to imitate the basic Japanese middle school uniforms. This was the first day of my fifth grade taiken-nyuugaku, a two-week school experience at a middle school in Kanazawa, Japan. 
The inside of my matching navy backpack consisted of a notebook, pencil case, tissues, handkerchief, and washcloth. My mother had hand-sewn the washcloth, telling me that I would need it for souji no jikan, “clean-up time”, during school. “Clean-up time” sounded like a preschool activity and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but since the cloth was clearly listed on the supplies list, I didn’t bother questioning it. The handkerchief and tissues were to be with me at all times for sanitary means. I was also given a pair of brand-new shoes that I was supposed to change into once I got to school. “You need two pairs of shoes,” instructed my mother the night before. “One for indoors and one for outdoors. That keeps the dirt from getting inside the school.” 
Once I got to school and changed into my indoor pair, I saw exactly what she meant. There wasn’t a single piece of trash on the floor or a single spot on the wall, and every child was changing into his or her clean pair of shoes, making sure not to dirty the wooden floors. The whole environment was unbelievably clean, a complete shift from the careless, chaotic school hallways back in New York City. As I walked down the hallways to find my classroom, there were posters on the walls that reminded the students to “keep the school clean”, “clean up after your own mess”, and “respect the environment”. No wonder this place was so clean. There was no graffiti smeared on the posters. Even as I sat through classes and moved from classroom to classroom, the neatness of the school was impressive. “The janitors must be excellent here,” I casually thought.
The surprising truth was that there weren’t any janitors taking care of the place. I learned this the period after lunch, when suddenly, lively music started playing from the intercoms. All at once, as if on cue, the children got up and scattered. Confused at first, it quickly occurred to me that this was souji no jikan. Numerous brooms and mops emerged from the closets, children carried water-filled buckets, desks and chairs were moved around, and trash was taken out with factory-like efficiency. Some girls invited me to clean the hallway with them. “Mari-chan, come help us wipe the floors clean,” they said. “You do have a washcloth with you, right?” I saw that all students had their own washcloths, each hand-sewn by their mothers from old clothes or towels. I had never used a broom, mopped bathroom floors, taken out school trash, or raced down a hallway on all fours while pushing a washcloth with my hands to scrub the floor. I managed to accomplish all of that during these two weeks at school. “Clean-up time” was more like chore-time, but I noticed how nobody objected and everyone did their part. There were set rules, reminders, and jobs, and everybody cooperated. 
Six years later, I realize that this applies not only to schools but to Japanese society in general. Even the busiest city streets, train stations, and parks are spotless because of the country’s successful waste management and recycling systems, enabling the nation to rank as one of the top “green” nations in the world. Sanitation is an important priority in the lives of the Japanese, deriving from the old Japanese ideal of respecting and being a part of nature, preserving it for the people’s enjoyment during all seasons of the year. Another component that creates this success is the cooperation and full commitment of the people who are educated early as students to develop a sense of social responsibility. Those two weeks were the only times that I went to a school in Japan and I have not used a washcloth since, but the importance of souji no jikan still leaves a profound impression on me. Their tradition of cleanliness, sense of cooperation, and respect for nature are exemplary of the spirit of Japan.

“Hidemi-san” by Elizabeth Morgan (Bronx High School of Science)
My connection to Japan is direct. It is visceral and practically umbilical. Once a week since I was five years old, I have sat hip to hip with my piano teacher, Hidemi Kitajima. Hidemi is a mentor to me, and my personal ambassador of Japanese culture. As Commodore Perry exposed Japan to Western Culture, Hidemi has enlightened me with Eastern thought and culture. I have been raised exposed to her Eastern ideals, which value perfection through hard work and practice. 
Hidemi describes herself as upholding old fashion Japanese values. These ideas stem from an ancient tradition of living with a highly structured society that emphasizes respect, honor, and discipline. The code of the samurai, the bushido, stresses the following virtues: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honor, loyalty, honesty, filial piety, and wisdom. Hidemi is aware of how she behaves in society, and prefers to deal formally with those that she feels deserve respect either because of age, social standing, or accomplishments. Though she has adopted contemporary American fashion, she rejects more informal manners of young Japanese as well as American youths who have no respect for tradition. 
Hidemi’s teaching techniques incorporate the Japanese belief in a resilient mental strength. When I played my first recital at the age of five, Hidemi made a list of things to do to prepare me for the performance. The list included no sugar for one week before the performance, eat plenty of fish, get sufficient sleep, and remain focused from first strike until the last note is played. Steeped in these principles, her Japanese rigor demands focused practice. This technique is similar to the principles of martial arts. This Japanese practice of fitness and self defense encompasses meditation, mental discipline and character development. It also encourages self confidence. By applying Japanese elements of martial arts to my music, I am able to master the complexities of Schubert. 
In middle school, Hidemi wanted to share her culture with me; she took me to lunch at a Japanese restaurant that offers the highest example of Japanese cuisine. The restaurant was decorated with traditional Japanese art and artifacts. She pointed out the rice parchment lamps (washi), and lacquered (urushi) plates, and described the process of how these items are made. Though simple shapes and patterns, these adornments impressed me by their beautiful subtleties and perfect constructs. The fineness and beauty of these crafts are the part of the Japanese culture embodied in Hidemi. She is not of the high-tech Japan which produces complex equipment and leads the world in technological production for cutting edge audio-video equipment, cameras, automobiles, and robotics. 
While discussing Japanese architecture, Hidemi related how she brings tourists to the flashy Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji). Visitors are immediately impressed by the top two stories of this pavilion which are covered in pure gold leaf. But in contrast, Hidemi describes that the spiritual beauty of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) is often lost to Western visitors. This Zen Buddhist sanctuary is not constructed of silver, but the elements blend to make a peaceful and harmonious whole, it is a place for rest and solitude, far removed from the hustle and bustle of New York City life. Behind the temple is a magnificent two part garden made of rocks and sand. The temple stresses the importance the Japanese put on peace and harmony. I think Hidemi’s nature is similar in beauty to that of the Silver Pavilion; it is a bit like a Japanese secret. But someday I would like to experience both pavilions in person.
Embodied in Hidemi is the ideal of total health in body, spirit and mind. She is well versed in traditional Japanese exercise and massage. Hidemi has helped my mother with her arthritis by teaching her Tai Kyoku Ken. Her exercises stress slow movements executed in a harmonious way to maintain joint flexibility. If my fingers are cold, she will rub them to increase circulation, focusing on specific pressure points. She has learned these healing techniques from her grandmother and shares them with me.
Hidemi is an international concert pianist. Her piano playing reveals aspects of her Japanese culture as well as what she has adopted of American culture. Japan reminds me of my petite, talented and wonderful piano teacher. Her Japanese spirit fills our home whenever she comes. She is a true blend of traditional Japanese virtues as well as contemporary style. I am fortunate to have had the benefit of her instruction and this special cultural exposure.

“Becoming the Universe: Zen in Japanese Culture” by Lauren Phillips (Stony Brook University)
Japan is a country often characterized in two distinct ways: mythical and seeped with tradition or a high-speed technological powerhouse. It is therefore difficult sometimes to see a common feature between Japan of old and modern day Japan; however, the spirit of Japan is still alive and thriving. This spirit is found within the philosophy of Zen from the Zen Buddhism religion of Japan. While not all the citizens identify themselves as Zen Buddhists, this philosophy is still present throughout their lives.
The spirit of Japan is actually one from a surprising origin. It was not originally from Japan, but was rather introduced to Japan by Chinese Zen Buddhist monks. Even though the philosophy is not purely Japanese bred, the people of Japan have taken the concept and formed it into their own, uniquely Japanese philosophy. Zen is the practice which gives one the discipline to destroy self, or more simply put, to destroy any desires, in order to create empty self. Once a person has reached empty self, he or she is enlightened and becomes a Buddha. In order to reach this state, one must practice sabi and wabi. Sabi essentially means loneliness, though not in the sense of how westerners interpret the word. In this case, loneliness is time by oneself wherein one reflects upon oneself and anything that individual can think of is not the person and therefore must be destroyed in order to reach enlightenment. This refers to thoughts such as fame and the desire for fame must be destroyed; otherwise, the attachment to this goal would prevent one from achieving empty self. Wabi deals with an appreciation of poverty. In this ideal one is not dependent on worldly things and wants for nothing, for anything one could want, one already has. This concept of Zen Buddhism instructs one to appreciate what is around oneself. The concept of Zen may sound a little intangible, and may initially seem that to have no application outside of someone studiously practicing Zen Buddhism; however, this is not at all true. Within Japan, the concept of Zen has infiltrated every part of the culture.
The presence of Zen is most obvious in the arts of Japan. While growing up I would wonder about the Japanese style of art. Since I was thinking in a European influenced mind set, I was unable to truly grasp what the art of Japan was expressing. I knew it was beautiful, but the truth it conveyed always eluded me, and instead settled on the corners of my mind, just out of reach of understanding. When other countries, particularly those of the west, create a piece of pottery they glorify it if it is perfect. The piece must be perfectly glazed, and perfectly crafted with no change in thickness and possessing a uniform shape. In opposition, the great artisans of Japan often will purposely make an imperfection in the pottery, such as inconsistent thickness or a deliberate mistake in shape, for when a piece has rustic unpretentiousness or antiquated imperfections it is said to contain sabi and is therefore a true piece of artwork. 
The concept of art also differs with paintings between western countries and Japan. Unlike the paintings of western countries, which cover the entire canvas in paint, the Japanese employ a one corner style of painting. Only one corner of the canvas actually has paint on it while the rest remains clean. If one discards this empty space when viewing the painting, one misses the entire point of the painting itself. The blank void in this case represents the abyss which encompasses the universe. Though a bird on a branch may be painted in the corner and nothing else is painted, the world still exists beyond that bird. This world beyond the single subject of the painting is the universe itself, making the blank area of canvas just as important as the painted subject. This minimalist style to art is also present in the traditional Japanese poetry of haiku. Many westerners are incapable of understanding the significance of haikus when they are initially introduced to them, and I must admit that I, too, was confused by the style. With only seventeen syllables used, it would seem as though nothing of great importance could possibly be expressed. However, haikus are not saturated with description in order to leave room for the unknown, for without the unknown no art exists, just as with the one corner paintings. In truth, the haikus in their short meter express something of the utmost importance; it is an expression of temporary enlightenment wherein one sees into the life of things. 
While studying haiku this past fall, I was struck with a shocking realization. The moment of temporary enlightenment, the Zen utterance, I had experienced once before. When I was fifteen, my mother would still drive me occasionally to my high school. One day as I walked from the parking lot towards the building, something shimmering caught my attention. It was spring then and as it often does it had rained lightly the night before. As I glanced up to see what was glistening I spotted a spider’s web masterfully created, nestled delicately against the pink new petals of the crab apple tree. As the morning sun shined down on the tree, it made the rain droplets that hung to the spider’s web and that laid on the petals sparkle in an almost ethereal way. In that moment, everything in the world became beautiful to me because the glistening spider’s web was everything. I felt as though nothing outside that single damp spider’s web mattered and nothing existed outside of it, not even myself, because everything that existed was already within that one spider’s web.
The moment was achingly brief, but it was real and even the memory of it, though I am sure the scene I recall is faded in comparison, still has the power to make my heart clench at how insignificant humans are when a common spider’s web can humble us. It was not until years later I understood what had happened in that moment. Without knowledge of it or any training in Buddhism, I had somehow experienced the Zen Buddhism mystery of becoming-being and being-becoming. This mystery exemplifies the Zen Buddhism philosophy that all is one and one is all, wherein the universe is the all and a single entity is the one, and whether that one was the sparkling spider’s web or whether it was me, does not matter at all, for the spider’s web was me and I was the spider’s web in that one moment. This mystery is implied in several places within haikus as well as other Japanese art forms. I don’t know if I will ever feel that sort of sincere peace again, I can only hope that one day something seemingly insignificant will catch my attention once more and become the universe in my eye.

 © The Japan Center at Stony Brook


3rd Competition Announcement

3rd Competition Award Ceremony Program

Photos (under construction)


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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