Japan Center Essay Competition
The aim of the JCSB essay competition is to provide young Americans with an opportunity to think creatively and critically about their lives by relating them to some aspect of Japan to help them broaden their horizons and develop global citizenship.
Contestants should write, in English, one or more aspects of Japan including art, culture, tradition, values, philosophy, history, society, politics, business, and technology in relation to their personal views, experiences, and/or future goals. (Contestants do not need to have any experience in visiting Japan or studying Japanese.)
The 16th Essay Competition (2020-2021)
High School Division Best Essay Award
1st Place Best Essay Award and Consul General of Japan Special Award ($3,000)
“Kaka Murad: A Tale of Ikigai” by Faiqa Ali (Hicksville High School)
2nd Place Best Essay Award ($1,500)
“A Kintsugi Life” by Jessie Boshnack-Roth (Professional Performing Arts High School)
3rd Place Best Essay Award ($750)
“The Way of Hanabi” by Yucheng Yang (Syosset High School)
College Division Best Essay Award ($3,000)
“Space” by Lucy Yin (Stony Brook University)
Uchida Memorial Award ($1,000)
“The Hidden Secret of the Sky-blue Chawan” by Wenting Li (Binghamton University)
Eliseea Faur (Manhasset Secondary School)
Salina Huang (Staten Island Technical High School)
Mozen Kalefa (Stuyvesant High School)
Joyti Nath (Stuyvesant High School
Michael Shamouil (Stony Brook University)
Jingxuan Sun (Brooklyn Technical High School)
Arjun Chadha (Syosset High School)
Isaar Chadha (Commack High School)
Linjing Feucht (LaGuardia High School)
Ryan Geusele (Stony Brook University)
Tina Giallias (Manhasset Secondary School)
Rina Hisajima (Cornell University)
Ella Rose Hugo (Dominican Academy)
Anya Jiménez (Professional Performing Arts School)
Simona Letizia (John F Kennedy High School)
Brenda Liang (Stony Brook University)
Esther XinYi Liu (Townsend Harris High School)
Lesley Lo (Stuyvesant High School)
Jasmine McGreen (Stony Brook University)
Emily Prasad (Townsend Harris High School)
Michelle Shiu Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts)
Melanie Unger (Hicksville High School)
Kevin Zou (Staten Island Technical High School)
Sponsor: Canon U.S.A.
Supporter : Consulate General of Japan in New York
Honorary Judges: Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi and Canon USA President Kevin Ogawa
Canon U.S.A. Representatives in Charge: Dawn Shields
JCSB Board Member in Charge: Yoko Ojima
Organizing Chair: Eriko Sato
Chief Judge: Sachiko Murata
Awardee Liason: Atsuko Oyama
Technical assistant: Hiroko Matsuzaki
High School Division 1st Place Best Essay Award and Consul General of Japan Special Award
“Kaka Murad: A Tale of Ikigai” by Faiqa Ali (Hicksville High School)
Vision still foggy, I stumbled out of my room far before the sun had risen, to the sound of my mother’s prayers. My mother, despite being a devoted, hijabi Muslim, only prayed on special occasions. It was December 4th, a day that I couldn’t find any meaning in at the time. Perplexed but knowing better than to disturb her, I waited until she had folded her janamaz (her prayer mat) to ask about the occasion.
“Today is the death anniversary of Kaka Murad.” my mother answered solemnly.
She gestured for me to come sit with her, and she told me the story of Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese physician and humanitarian, who was given the nickname Kaka Murad by Afghani locals. Kaka Murad was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1946, and worked in Japan as a physician until he became aware of the situation of his patients, who were largely Afghan refugees. He sacrificed his career in Japan and moved to Afghanistan to build medical clinics, canals, and dams for Afghan citizens living in poverty, and Afghan refugees fleeing from war.
My mother had grown up during the time of the devastating Soviet-Afghan War, and though she was born in Afghanistan, she and her family were constantly seeking refuge in their neighboring country, Pakistan. She’d only spent about the first four years of her life in Afghanistan when war struck.
“Even when I was a child, I knew about Kaka Murad.” When my mother was around 9 years old, she, her mother, and her three siblings, sought refuge in Peshawar, Pakistan. Coincidentally, Kaka Murad was heading to Peshawar at the very same time, to help treat Afghan refugees in Peshawar Mission Hospital. It was more than a coincidence for my mother, however. It was a miracle. Her younger sister, Olia, was always a thin, sickly child, and on the route to Peshawar, she suddenly caught an alarmingly high fever, and stopped eating altogether. The family was terrified that she wouldn’t survive. They even began preparing for her death. Not a single medical clinic was in sight, and with every step they took in the blistering heat, they lost more and more hope. With incredible luck, they stumbled upon Peshawar Mission Hospital, just where Kaka Murad was working at the time. Olia was diagnosed with typhoid fever, but was treated almost immediately with the help of Kaka Murad.
The nickname Kaka Murad translates into English as “Uncle of Wishes,” or “Uncle of Dreams.” Kaka Murad answered the hopeful prayers of my mother and her family as they watched Olia suffer, and he granted the wishes of the citizens of Afghanistan who lived in devastating conditions, without medicine, food, or water. On the heartbreaking day of Kaka Murad’s death, December 4th 2019, the name Kaka Murad was heard throughout the streets of Peshawar, of Jalalabad, and in every household of every city that had experienced the miracles of Kaka Murad. Neither I nor my family will ever forget Kaka Murad, a Japanese doctor who had sacrificed his career and left his home to devote nearly 30 years of his life to people who he’d never met, to reforming a country that wasn’t his own, and to changing the lives of poor, Afghan citizens and refugees.
Kaka Murad’s actions illustrate his Ikigai, a Japanese word meaning “a reason for being.” The Persian word for Ikigai is Hadaf. Hadaf is one’s purpose in life, or one’s reason for existence. Kaka Murad’s Ikigai, or Hadaf, was to bring poor Afghan cities back to life, and to help people in poverty. Kaka Murad’s story taught me about this shared concept between the Japanese and Persian cultures, and has inspired me to search for my ikigai, my hadaf, and fulfill my own reason for being.
High School Division 2nd Place Best Essay Award
“A Kintsugi Life” by Jessie Roth (Professional Performing Arts High School)
Cracked. I sit there, hands folded over my face, a continuous flow of hot tears streaming down my cheeks. Scared to open my arms and re-enter the world from the dark shell I've created, I brave the unknown and lift my head. My eyes open and I start squinting from the newfound light, but I'm able to make out the shape of a small hand through the blur I see. I grab onto it for dear life. Now wiping my eyes I find that the person I’m embracing so tightly is my little sister and at that moment I knew I would be ok. We walk out of the cluttered room filled with frames lying on the floor and old letters scattered about to see my mom with her arms open wide. I say my final goodbye.
Rebuilding. “Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, and life goes on.” Is eagerly waiting for someone to come through the door and embrace you, well knowing they won't be back for a long time really living? Is that really what it feels like when life goes on? No matter how many times I asked myself this question there was no way I could know if I didn't get up and try to live my life and put the pieces back together. I slowly started to make an effort in the things I let slip away when I was occupied with the absence of my mother. I began to eat proper meals, started caring about my schoolwork again, and threw myself into my dance. It felt really good to have a purpose again. The first time I got a good test grade back, I remember distinctly it was a 97%, I then knew what it felt like for life to go on.
Decoration. For the first time in a while, I started to feel like me again. I was giggling in the middle of my dance class as my friends made faces at me, I started to color coordinate all my class notes again, and I even made an effort to rekindle old friendships. Yes, these may seem like little things, but for me, they were signs of my world returning to normalcy. This experience was just another beautiful scar I could decorate myself with. Something healed to the point where it is no longer painful, but still tender enough to remind me it's there from time to time when it may brush against something sharp. I've learned to embrace my emotional scars and recognize that they are simply decorations and that as a person, I'm much more beautiful with my past than without it.
In this story about my mom leaving for rehab, I realized that I had taken my shattered spirit, rebuilt it with the glues of friends and family, and then decorated it with all the newfound love I received from the experience. I love to relate my experience to the Japanese art of kintsugi. Kintsugi is where a broken bowl or plate is taken, glued back together, and then painted with gold finishing along the cracks to highlight them. What's so amazing about kintsugi is that it takes something broken, puts it back together, and then instead of concealing the scars and cracks of the piece, spotlights them. Thinking about kintsugi and how it is even more beautiful with its scars helped me get through this tough time in my life. After this experience and relating my story to the art of kintsugi, I've learned to appreciate Japanese culture so much, and I’m forever grateful for the experience.©JCSB
High School Division 3rd Place Best Essay Award
“The Way of Hanabi” by Yucheng Yang (Syosset High School)
The unique way the Japanese embrace different seasons and infuse metaphysical significance into them is magical to me. The symbols that relate to specific seasons, called fuubutsushi, such as sakura in spring, momiji in autumn, and yuki in winter, all seem fraught with meaning. These fairies of nature illuminate across the vast mountains and deep valleys of Japan, producing blasts of colors that dye the earth, and gradually dissipate upon winds and rain due to fragileness. Among fuubutsushi, what I like most is the gigantic flower which shines in the summer sky; it blossoms zealously like a thunderclap, and vanishes into the indigo firmament: It is hanabi, fireworks.
In most places, fireworks are used for celebrations on National day or New Year. However, in Japan, Hanabi sometimes can carry a deeper meaning for memorial and longing for peace. In Nagaoka Hanabi Taikai, the most popular fireworks festival in Japan, Hanabi masters endow their fireworks with significance. The white chrysanthemum hanabi, the tremendous white flower with dense petal, is used to commemorate war victims; the gold senrin hanabi, a huge burst from nothingness to hundreds of small golden flowers represents the idea of restoration from nothing to the sudden burgeon of millions of hopes; nishiki kamuro hanabi, colossal gold brocades featuring colorful small flowers, stands for the wishes for the prosperity of the city and maintaining peace.
I have dreamed about visiting Japan and watching Hanabi Taikai since I was 8 years old. The jollification of the crowds and chroma of lights in the summer sky is unparalleled compared to pale dots presented on the computer screen. Perched atop my father’s shoulder one summer visit to Japan, I could sense the unprecedented affection of Japanese to fireworks: the unanimous impulsion to laugh, to cry, to love, and to live under the beautiful firmament. I was not able to fully understand the emotion then, but it sparked something in me to want to embrace the culture and the language.
The impression of Hanabi constantly varied as I grew up. I started to appreciate watching fireworks alone: to savor every piece of spark emitting from its tip then falling to the ground with sincerity. Even a slow-burning sparkler can create a unique feeling within the quietness. The warm glow of fire that shines tenderly into your eye, the soft sizzling sound of the spark fondles your ear, and the power of the stars leaping from the metal rod will produce a gentle massage to your hands. It is this fragile, delicate gleam that beats the darkness intrepidly. Our life compared to the longevity of the universe is no more than a speck of milliseconds, but our power can often conquer ferocious beasts. Similarly, the petal of the sakura is lighter than a feather; but when it blossoms, the weight of the sakura can even bend the tree. A gust of wind may carry thousands of petals off its flower; but falling petals will swirl, whirl and drift with the wind, creating the scenery that is even more beautiful than the tree itself. This is the beauty of self-sacrifice that has existed in Japanese culture from long ago: the more beautiful a thing is, the quicker it vanishes. I realize this idea is similar to hanabi: it climbs up into the ether; and when it’s time for it to say farewell to this world, it uses all its energy to burn and lighten up the entire sky with all of its effulgence and radiance, before dissipating into a tiny wisp of smoke. Later, another hanabi will burst with all of its energy and vigor, and so on. It’s the circle of life, the evanescence of creatures, the newborn and the dead; a reincarnation of lights that excites every single person in the audience to cheer, to applaud; to wish they can be as glorious as fireworks in the sky.
There’s a Japanese word in tea culture called ichigoichie: meaning the encounter of two people in one’s life can be temporary, and the farewell will be forever; therefore, one must present his best to treat others. That is also what hanabi presents to us: weep not for the road untraveled, weep not for the time beyond, but live your life, living in the moment, and shine yourself to the world using full force.
I am inspired.
College Division Best Essay Award
“Space” by Lucy Yin (Stony Brook University-SUNY)
Shrouded amongst people gathering towards the temple at Asakusa, I felt the intense liveliness and energy with each step I took towards the main shrine. As I was close to approaching the doors, a gust of incense brushed past me as I inhaled the smoke which had calmed my thoughts among the sea of people around me. I headed towards the priests standing near the incense sticks as I wanted to cleanse myself as well as my thoughts before I entered a sacred and pure place like the temple itself. As I lit my incense, I was reminded of the space I was about to enter, and how it felt as if the environment was alive.
One of Japan’s famous Buddhist priests, Dogen, had mentioned that the space one cared for or practiced within would come alive. While I didn’t think much of how an environment or space could be alive, since I thought it was the people within the environment that determined the space/ atmosphere, I couldn’t be more wrong. The sacred tree standing outside the temple surrounded by the caretakers and Buddhist priests of the temple showed how much this space was actively cared for and how much spiritual presence there was enveloping the whole temple. Even though the temple had many tourists and visitors, the strong faith in Buddhism was what allowed the space itself to feel alive and cared for.
As I left the temple, I have come to understand a bit more about what Dogen meant by space and how space was not just something physical. Rather it included physical and spiritual existence within that space. I was reminded of how the space in even an empty temple I had visited a few days before had also been alive.
I had walked towards the small temple as dusk approached and only a few priests were cleaning the courtyard. The atmosphere was quiet and calm, but even seeing how clean and actively cared for the temple was, the spiritual space felt alive. Even though the physical space was the complete opposite compared to the Asakusa temple, the small lights and few Buddhists entering the temple felt as if the spiritual flame came alive as the environment was still yet very much alive. While the experience I had with this temple differed greatly from the main temple in Asakusa, the awakening space and spiritual space were very much alike. I could see how Dogen saw space as not just an objective and external container of the physical environment, but space was truly the presence and power that arose from the people caring for the space. As I entered both sacred temples, I could feel the relaxing and peaceful atmosphere the temples were meant to uphold. Despite the vast amounts of people from the Asakusa temple, I was amazed at the idea that the space here compared to the smaller temple’s space was closer than I might have imagined. I have come to see the concept of “space” the way Dogen has presented it. Space is not just emptiness or vacancy, but rather a spiritual entity that takes the compassion and dedication of the people’s nurture, and molds it to the presence and power of that place.
Leighton, Taigen Dan. “Dogen's Cosmology of Space and the Practice of Self-Fulfillment.” Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, 2 Mar. 2019, www.ancientdragon.org/dogens-cosmology-of-space-and-the-practice-of-self-fulfillment/.
Uchida Memorial Award
“The Hidden Secret of the Sky-blue Chawan” by Wenting Li (Binghamton University)
Among my father’s extensive collection of expensive jade antiques and elaborately painted china, there was a plain ceramic chawan. It was blue, the kind of blue you’d find yourself immersed in when looking up on a clear sunny day. There was a golden streak running down the side of the bowl to its kōdaiwaki, resembling a sudden lightning bolt striking across a cloudless horizon, but otherwise it was just an unremarkable collectible that didn’t compare to the extravagance of the rest of its peers. Yet for as long as I can remember, this piece always belonged to the center of the top shelf, bathed in all the praise and spotlight of every single person who entered our house.
When I was younger, I remember carefully inspecting every inch of the bowl in search of the hidden secret behind the surface of its mundane facade. Pointing at the lightning bolt, I asked my father, “Doesn’t this look like a crack?” He answered with pride, “Yes, this bowl was broken a long time ago, and this crack is what makes this pottery so valuable and beautiful. That’s why they used gold to line these scars.” I didn’t know what he meant back then because, to me, a boring, damaged antique certainly could not be worth more than the fancy golden potteries that always drew my attention.
Later on, when I first came into contact with Japanese culture, I discovered that the art of mending broken pottery with golden lacquer is a long-standing tradition called kintsugi. The philosophy of this art form highlights flaws and embraces imperfections, and breakage and repair is treated as part of an object's history and adds uniqueness and story to an otherwise inanimate object. Baffled and intrigued by this conflicting idea that something could be more beautiful when it is broken, I opened myself up and began to explore this foreign and humble form of beauty that was so vastly different from what I grew up with.
The philosophy of kintsugi is closely related to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, another idea that piqued my interest during my Japanese studies. Wabi-sabi finds beauty in naturalness and genuity, in simplicity and practicality, and in rawness and beauty without processing. What I lacked and my father possessed at the time was a certain modesty and vulnerability for appreciating the quiet, undeclared beauty that comes with time and takes patience to feel for and discover. I often find it hard for someone like myself, who has been saturated with the Western standard that rich and extravagance translated to beauty and who grew accustomed to the constant need to outwardly display beauty for it to be worth something, to settle down and truly feel for the intangible soul within everything in nature.
My father fell in love with the untold stories buried between the golden crack that I was too young to appreciate back then. Yet, despite how difficult it still is to fully understand what my father saw in his antiques, my journey till now bore fruit through transforming how I see the world. The wabi-sabi aesthetics embedded within every aspect of Japanese culture taught me to carefully savor and cherish the imperfections in each thing and person around me. I’ve learned to be patient when finding beauty in the natural and normal existence and to listen to time slow down as it breathes its ancient tale. I can see beauty in the yellowing, cracked paint in my old house, in the wrinkles on my parents’ face, in the impermanence of cherry blossom flowers that bloom for only two weeks in a year, and in the silhouette and curvatures of that boring bowl on my father’s shelf. I know I will continue to search for the hidden secret of my father’s sky-blue chawan in the years to come.
Committee members: Carolyn Brooks, Roxanne Brockner, Peg Christoff, Marlene Dubois, Makiko Fukaya, Akie Naito Gearns, MaryAnn Hannon, Tiara Hess, Feng-Qian Li, Hiroko Matsuzaki, Ann McNulty, Jane McNulty, Patricia Marinaccio, Eva Nagase, Francesca Nakagawa, Chikako Nakamura, Mitsuko Post, Atsuko Oyama, Gerard Senese, H. Mae Sprouse , and Yvett Vetro.
"Heart of Japan” was published in 2016. It is a collection of 70 essays selected from 1,992 essays submitted through 169 local colleges and high schools during the first ten annual essay competitions. This essay competition was launched in 2005 with generous donation from Canon USA. The aim of this program is to encourage young Americans to think outside the box and find a connection to Japan, a culturally very distinct country. They often reflect on their personal experiences and their future goals and come up with unique and original thoughts, some of which make us in tears and fill us with positive spirit. The essays are screened by the Japan Center’s committee members and a panel of judges that consist of Stony Brook University’s faculty members. The winners are formally recognized at the award ceremony that takes place at the Wang Center in each spring and the top winners have been invited to the Japanese Ambassador’s residence for a formal luncheon with the ambassador, which has been creating once-in-lifetime memories for young writers.
Book cover photo © Yvette Vetro
Past Award Winning Essays: