2007-2008 The Third JCSB-Canon Essay Competition
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)
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)
"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.
© The Japan Center at Stony Brook
Photos (under construction)