A delegation of over thirty Japanese college students visiting the US this past summer enjoyed the typical American pastimes of a barbeque cookout and trip to the ballpark, but it was no ordinary sightseeing tour. These delegates, along with an equal-sized contingent of American students, were participating in the 64thJapan-America Student Conference, a month-long program that brings students from both countries together for in-depth study and discussion of US-Japan relations while building cross-cultural understanding and personal ties. Held in the US and Japan in alternate years, delegations travel together to several diverse locations in the host country. The 2012 cohort started in at Dallas Texas, before going on Madison, Wisconsin, San Francisco, California and Seattle, Washington.
JASC is unique among exchange programs in that it is entirely student run and has a long history. The first conference was established in 1934 by Japanese and American university students, concerned about the deteriorating relations between their countries in the years before World War II, to encourage “mutual understanding, friendship, and trust between our important nations.” The inaugural program in Japan, which took students through the country and to Japan’s pre-war colonies in Korea and Manchuria, was so well received that one of the American students suggested bringing it to the US the following year. The conference was held annually until the eve of the war in 1941 when the Japanese students could not get US visas. It resumed as early as 1947 with participation limited to American students already in occupied Japan. After another brief lapse in the mid 1950s, JASC has been held annually for nearly 50 years. Now entering its 79th year, it is the oldest student exchange program between the US and Japan.
The diversity of communities and institutions that host JASC is also a unique feature. In addition to Washington, DC, and Tokyo, the famous campuses of Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and their counterparts Tokyo University, Waseda, and Keio, the majority of sites reflect the cultural and geographic range of the host countries. Locations off the beaten path of most tourists such as Fukui and Montana and the smaller institutions of Akita International University in Japan and Berea College in Kentucky, and even the far flung regions of Alaska, Hawaii, and Okinawa have been among the nearly 240 host places visited by the conference over the years. This has allowed for a deeper experience of each other’s countries beyond the famous urban centers.
It is the organization and substantive content of the conference, however, that sets it apart from most student exchanges. Rather than swapping student groups as many programs do, the Japanese and American delegations participate together in an intensive program that can include site visits and talks with prominent business, government, and civil society leaders, and participation in volunteer projects. The cornerstone of a JASC program are the Roundtable (RT) sessions, where subgroups of five Japanese and five American students meet throughout the conference to discuss prominent topics in the US –Japan Relationship; topics this past year included Business and Ethics in the Modern World, Cooperative Security in the 21st Century, and Personal and National Identity.
Kuni Shimoji, an Okinawan international student at St. John’s University in Minnesota, was part of the American delegation to the US-hosted 62nd JASC in 2010. In an interview for Japan Matters for America, he explained that he strongly believes participation in JASC, and the RT particularly, helped all the delegates develop a better understanding of each culture. He noted that this was only possible because of the candid, and sometimes heated, discussion throughout the conference. “There were a number of occasions I saw delegates even scream at one another because of their disagreement on their opinions,” he recalled. “However, we were friends again at the end of the day.”
At the end of the conference, Shimoji was elected as one of eight US students to the 16-member executive committee charged with the task of putting together the next JASC “from scratch.” The entire program is planned, prepared, and executed by students, with only limited guidance and assistance in the US from International Student Conferences, a non-profit organization that helps facilitate JASC and recently the Korea-America Student Conference, and the International Education Center in Tokyo. For the next several months via Skype and email, the American and Japanese executive committees set the conference agenda, made logistical accommodations, arranged speakers and site visits, and reached out to companies and JASC alumni for fundraising. The student executive board even selects the delegates from among hundreds of applications and runs every detail of the conference on the ground, including chairing the RTs. “We don’t have any adults with us, we coordinate everything,” Shimoji explained.
The March 11 disasters occurred in the middle of their planning for the Japan-hosted 63rd JASC, which caused companies to become hesitant to support the program in the midst of relief efforts. However the student leaders persisted, and even resolved to take the group to Niigata for a tour of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station and a forum with officials and locals to understand the significance of the nuclear disaster in nearby Fukushima. They convinced supporters that this was the most important time to go to Japan, and that the students participating are going to be the future leaders of Japan and the US.
A number of JASC alumni have risen to prominence in their respective countries including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Prime Minister of Japan Kiichi Miyazawa, who described JASC as “one of the formative events of my lifetime.” Participants as far back as the very first JASC in 1934 have pointed to the paths it opened as the pivot point for new career headings.
The heart of the program’s impact, though the most difficult to quantify, are the strong people to people ties developed among the student delegates, members of the host communities, the growing network of alumni, and ultimately between Japan and the US; ties that have kept the dream of JASC’s student founders alive for nearly 80 years.
International Student Conferences is accepting applications for the 65th Japan-America Student Conference, which will be hosted by Japan from July 29th-August 24th 2013. The participants will travel to Kyoto, Nagasaki, Iwate, and Tokyo. The deadline for application submission is March 1.