In late July of this past summer, Hiroshima Kenjin Kai of Southern California (HKSC) sent a delegation of four youths to Hiroshima to participate in the 19th International Youth Exchange in Hiroshima program.
This program was started in 1995 and is held every summer under the auspices of the Hiroshima Prefectural Government International Division. It assembles representatives from overseas Hiroshima Kenjin Kai organizations located in various parts of the Americas (including Hawaii).
The participants, all in the 15-18 age group, interact with each other and Hiroshima-area youths – mostly local high school students – during their ten-day stay in Hiroshima, as well as partake in sight-seeing, participate in various cultural and social events, and experience home-stays.
All expenses for participating in this exchange program are paid by Hiroshima Prefecture. In recent years, HKSC has been allotted three to four delegates each year. The program is generally held in late July to early August, and the selection is competitive. Each applicant must be in the 15-18 age group (high school), a member of the HKSC family, and a descendant of Hiroshima immigrants.
Any family with a Hiroshima immigrant past — regardless of how many generations they have been in America — is eligible to join the HKSC. The annual membership dues are $10 per family. Any interested party should contact Hiroshima Kenjin Kai of Southern California, 712 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or Dr. Charles Igawa, HKSC secretary, at (562) 402-4315 or email@example.com.
Below are essays written by the 2014 HKSC delegation members about their experiences.
Michelle Imamura, Group Leader
Sophomore, El Camino College
Parents: Traci Toshiyuki Imamura (Yonsei) and George Joji Imamura (Sansei born in Japan, son of Kibei Nisei)
Four years ago, the summer before my junior year in high school, the Southern California Hiroshima Kenjinkai presented the opportunity for me to visit Japan for the first time. Being in Japan, not just reading about it, cultivated in me an emotional attachment to the people and culture of Japan. The memories are unforgettable and the experience made an everlasting impact on me.
The Hiroshima Government’s International Student Exchange Program is a unique and special opportunity to showcase not just the usual tourist attractions but the people, customs and industries that are distinctly Hiroshima. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in the same student exchange program but this time as an adult leader accompanying three high school students, Brandon, Morgan, and Sidney, to Hiroshima.
During this ten-day experience, I did many things, from participating in and learning about the elaborate, refined Japanese tea ceremony to strolling through Miyajima with a newfound family member.
Upon arriving at the Hiroshima Airport, we were warmly greeted by Sugihara-san and Ota-san, who drove us to the Hiroshima International Plaza, where we stayed for a majority of the trip. The first couple days of our stay were filled with presentations on Hiroshima, Japanese cultural experiences, including tea ceremony and calligraphy, a tour of the Hiroshima University campus, and visits to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the Prefectural Government.
I enjoyed learning the graceful brushstrokes of proper Japanese calligraphy and feeling the peaceful calm of the tea ceremony; they are both important Japanese traditions that reflect the beauty and finesse of the culture.
Although I had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum twice before, I felt extremely heavy-hearted as I walked through the museum and saw the different artifacts and read the heartbreaking stories. Many students learn about this horrific incident by reading history books for school, but being able to travel to Hiroshima and feel the emotion sheds a whole different light; a light that textbooks and lectures cannot provide. It is an eye-opening experience that we are extremely grateful for.
We spent the next couple of days at the prestigious Hiroshima Prefectural Hiroshima Senior High School. I believe this was a once-in-a-lifetime, valuable experience that many people do not get. It is neat to witness first-hand the similarities and differences between the American and Japanese education system.
The most apparent difference was that all Japanese students are required to wear uniforms. They even have four different uniforms for the different seasons. Also, they seem to have more demanding schedules than the typical American high school student. Some students travel hours by train to get to school and almost all students are active participants in a number of clubs and other after-school activities.
All of the students, including those that we passed by in the hallways, were respectful and kind, and despite the language barrier, we were all able to interact and get to know each other.
The next day, we went on a tour at the Mazda Museum and then traveled by bus then ferry to the island of Itsukushima (Miyajima). Miyajima has always been one of my favorite places to visit in Japan. There we visited the Itsukushima Shinto shrine, a World Heritage Site, and also had two hours of free time to explore.
I enjoyed this day because Sugihara-san arranged for me to meet with one of my relatives, Tomikawa-san, who lived nearby. After meeting for the first time, we walked around and stopped to eat anago (conger eel) for lunch and delicious momiji manju for dessert. It was a beautiful, rainy day spent with wonderful people.
Then, it was time for all of us to go our separate ways and meet our homestay families! I along with two others traveled to Fukuyama to meet with our families. Sugihara-san also arranged for me to stay with my relatives. This was my favorite part of the ten-day trip because I had the opportunity to meet family members I have never met and learn about my ancestral roots. I was able to learn new information and share it with my family members back home.
It was difficult having to say goodbye to my family at the farewell party, but I truly enjoyed my stay with them and I am so grateful that I was able to meet them while I was there. I look forward to continue building strong relationships with my family members in Hiroshima.
On our last day in Hiroshima, we visited the Wood Egg Okonomiyaki Museum. There we learned how to make okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese dish. After this experience, we had a few hours of free time in downtown Hiroshima (Hondori street) to go shopping for omiyage, eat, and explore! Although it was raining (because a typhoon was on its way), it was a great way to end our trip.
This trip was truly a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget. Not only did I meet people who will be my life-long friends, I got to do so in Japan. I am so thankful for this opportunity to learn first-hand about the history of Hiroshima, participate in the different cultural practices, and experience life in Japan.
Because of this opportunity, I have a newfound appreciation for my heritage and the Japanese, specifically Hiroshima, culture. I hope to go back and live in Japan.
Junior, Mark Keppel High School, Alhambra
Parents: Richard Chung and Christine Takatani (Christine’s mother is a Nisei; her father is a postwar transplant who came to the U.S. in 1955 at age 16)
They say that no matter how many times you look at the same picture, each time you will always notice another impeccable detail. My visit to Japan was no different.
This was my third trip to Japan, and I learned just as much as I did here as I did on my other two. It wasn’t just historical knowledge that I picked up, but also cultural insight into the daily lives of the Japanese. I came away with a further understanding of the vast difference between Japan and America.
One of the biggest differences I noticed was that people in Japan were much nicer. As Tom Cruise stated in “The Last Samurai,” “Everyone is polite. Everyone smiles and bows.” For a foreign visitor, this is evident almost immediately. Everywhere, in every shop and building, the first step inside is often greeted by an “Irasshaimase!” and a warm smile. The Japanese will often go out of their way to ensure maximum satisfaction from their customers.
On our first day in Hiroshima, my delegation went shopping at the Fuji Grand mall near our hostel. While there, I bought something for one of my friends as a souvenir. When I brought it up to the register, the cashier asked me something in Japanese. Not understanding, I looked at her in confusion.
She smiled and, with obvious effort, asked me in broken English if it was a gift. I nodded and said yes, it was. She then proceeded to take the item out of the bag, and then, to my surprise, actually began to gift-wrap it for me. It was really something, because everything she did then was in stark contrast to Americans, from the deft yet precise way she wrapped the box, to the way she neatly folded up the unused bag and carefully set it aside.
It was astonishing to see the amount of effort that she gave in order to make her customer happy. She wrestled with the sturdy barrier called language between us, and wrapped the gift so that I would not have to do it myself.
Six days later, on Miyajima, I would witness another act of kindness seldom found in America. After our tour of Itsukushima Shrine, we were given three hours to walk around the island and see what there was in the shops. On the street next to the main street, I came across a small little shop with an antique sort of feel. Interested, I walked in.
What followed next was an “Irasshaimase,” which was customary for shop workers. The reason I remember this so clearly, though, was because there was only one woman in the shop. Now, Miyajima’s business is composed of a conglomerate of small shops, most of which are run by only a single person. This lady clearly had dwarfism; she barely cleared my waist. I was shocked because she looked so happy. She ran the store all by herself, probably six or seven days a week, and she looked happy.
Seeing that, I felt that I should buy something from her store as a courtesy. I spent a few minutes browsing, and finally decided on a fan. I called her over and asked her how much it was, since I didn’t see a price tag. She looked at it, and then began trying to reach for it. The fan was at least six or seven inches above her outstretched hand, yet she continued to try and get it for me. It was touching to see how hard she worked for her customers, even when the task was physically impossible for her.
The Japanese education system is much different from America, as well. Nowadays kids complain about the amount of homework that they have and how hard their teachers are, or how hard their sports coaches work them. Apparently, these kids haven’t been exposed to what Japanese school life is like.
Their average school day is from 8 to 4, with three hours of club activity after. On top of that, they have homework. In addition to that, some students live an hour away from their school, and others are forced to dorm at the school. One of the boys at Hiroshima High School, Taisei, lived on campus because it cost him $100 to go and see his family; he only saw them about once a week or so.
It’s the same for some of the adults, as well. At my homestay family, the father, Shinji, was an assistant principal at a school in Fukuyama. However, his family lived in Higashi-Hiroshima, which is an hour away. There is a custom that when a family member lives that far away for work, he lives in that city during the week, and come home to see his family during the weekend.
Referring back to the Tom Cruise quote earlier, there is a second line: “They are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake, they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue.” This sums up the whole of the Japanese ethos in a nutshell. Everything that the Japanese did was with care and meticulous precision.
At the Mazda manufacturing plant, every piece was carefully examined to ensure optimum quality car performance. At the okonomiyaki sauce factory, each ingredient was carefully selected and painstakingly prepared to bring out the full flavor and make okonomiyaki taste even better than it already does.
At Hiroshima High School, we watched the kyudo (Japanese archery) team. Everything they did, from the way they held their bows to the way they knocked them, drew their bows, and fired, was carefully controlled.
On Miyajima Island, you could watch the making of momiji manju through the window. They were carefully baked and structured so that the custard would be right in the middle.
Last year when I went, I wondered briefly why the Japanese would go to all that trouble in order to elevate a small detail – maybe move something a fraction of an inch of something to the left, or add a single extra green onion to the ramen broth. Now I understand why the Japanese are so meticulous; in order to achieve the absolute highest level of perfection, they have developed a culture unlike no other in the world, where every move of the hand, every twist of the screw, every inch of car frame makes that almost unnoticeable difference between an object of high quality and the object of best quality.
Someone else may wonder, “Why all the work for such a small detail?” But the end result is obvious everywhere in Japan’s culture: their food, their cars, and their work ethic. Everything is a step above the ordinary, because the Japanese are not simply satisfied with a good product. It’s either the best product or nothing at all.
For everything that I experienced in Japan this summer, I know that what I saw was almost nothing, maybe a spoonful of the broth that is the Japanese culture. I definitely haven’t seen everything, but what I did see opened my eyes a lot more to what the Japanese culture is really like.
In addition to picking up on all the language skills, I witnessed many of the small household habits I thought were confined to my family alone, and now I have a better understanding of where my cultural habits come from.
10th Grade, LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies)
Parents: John (Sansei) and Maria Vanessa (non-Nikkei)
Residence: Culver City
The vibe of the room was calming and at peace. Everyone sat along the walls of the room and watched the woman in the center in wonderment. She was the core that kept us all intact and everyone’s eyes were set on her.
She wore a faintly green kimono, with freshly white socks and hair sleeked back into a bun. From just the look of her face, I saw purity and gentleness that emitted from within. She had all the materials she needed in front of her and all she had to do was make one move. One move that had me eyeing every movement she made like a hawk.
With her gentle hands, she folded the cloth in a certain way, picked up the tea scooper in a certain way, sat a certain way, and bowed a certain way. Everything she did was in a certain way and I was completely mesmerized. Right then I learned that the Japanese tea ceremony isn’t just an activity, but an art that takes several years to master.
I remember walking in to the tea room feeling like I had entered a completely different world. It was like I was no longer in the hotel. I also remember how quickly my demeanor went from loose with excitement to composed with awareness. The sight of the room was like an alarm to my mind that told it to “calm yourself, you must be respectful.”
The first thing the woman taught us, with the help of a translator, was the proper way to bow. It’s different for both men and women. We all had to start by sitting with our ankles directly under our rear ends with our knees together. For women, the distance between our knees had to be a fist apart, and for men, two fists apart.
As for bowing, women had to have their arms at an angle, with just the tips of their pointer and middle finger touching. They then placed the tips of their fingers on the floor directly in front of then and came to about a 45-degree bend. For men, they had to have their hands in a fist beside them, knuckles on the ground, and then bend.
Bowing is the most essential aspect of this ceremony that must be executed every time a dish is brought to you. I remember how painful it was for my legs because they had never been in that kind of position before. I was amazed at how easy it was for the instructors, but I had a sense that they had put years’ worth of time until that position became natural to them.
It’s a must to know the proper etiquette and way to conduct yourself in the Japanese tea ceremony in order to be able to even receive the tea. Doing otherwise would be disgracing the whole ceremony.
I learned that in this ceremony, the tea comes after the sweets, or omogashi, is consumed. Just from the look of them, I knew they were expensive and not just any treat. As a sign of respect, before receiving the sweets, I had to bow to the person on my right side. It meant that I was excusing myself from going before them, which enabled me to accept the sweets. I did this by using wooden chopsticks, which were to be picked up in a certain way as well.
After placing the sweet treat on my kasha, a paper-like tissue, I had to wipe off any paste that was left on the chopsticks on the corner of my kasha so that the next person could use it. During that whole process I remember how stunned I was about how there were so many steps. I couldn’t just pick it up with my hands and eat it.
It was good for me to force myself to be patient and endure the pain of sitting with my legs compressed by my upper body. (I’m well aware that I’ve missed a dozen other steps, but I’m relying purely on memory, so please forgive me.) That’s why I was so impressed with how well the woman knew every step by heart.
The one thing that stood out for me about the tea was not its bitterness, but the fact that bowl had to face a certain way. The design of the bowl had to be faced towards me, which I thought was interesting because I had never heard of anything like that. It was also preferred to consume the tea in just three gulps. Then, once done, I placed the bowl back down and had to turn it one way three or so times, which signified that I was finished.
I know that it was just a class and wasn’t the real thing, but I felt like I and everyone else were disrespectful because I just knew that the real thing was nowhere near as rowdy we were. At the same time, though, I very much appreciated their patience with us. I’m sure if we all went back again, we would know exactly what to do.
I’ll always remember the precision and patience the woman put in to every single motion. She made every move as if every inch had a distinct meaning from the million other moves. Everything came with order and if one move was left out or forgotten, things wouldn’t progress smoothly.
At the end of the “ceremony,” the woman finally answered all the question that ran through my mind. When she said that it took her ten years to become a master, my jaw dropped. That is when I knew how essential and valuable the Japanese tea ceremony is to my culture. Even though there are other cultures that have tea ceremonies, there’s a clear distinction between my culture. This art, in my eyes, is what defines not only Hiroshima, but all of Japan.
Witnessing everything in that room made me see how much time and dedication is needed in order to master just one thing. It taught me that you can’t want to be or do something if you are not willing to go through the obstacles that come with it. I can’t imagine having to sit in that position for hours and I know now that that takes years of getting used to.
This experience helped me see that the little things are what make everything come together. That every preparation is worth the effort because its meaning is beyond the actual deed. Everything is absolutely necessary to get to the ultimate conclusion.
Those moments that I had the privilege of witnessing will forever be embedded in my mind and help me find peace when I need to. Not only did I get a deeper understanding of my culture, but an even greater appreciation for all the events that happened years and years even before my existence.
I don’t just see Japan as an island or for its divine foods, but a country whose history has helped shape this world to what it is now. A country whose technology and advances are like no other, yet the people very much remember and honor their roots and those who came before them. A balance that not many seem to be able to realize.
Junior, LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies)
Parents: Michael and Roxanne Tanioka (both Sansei)
Residence: Culver City
Egg, noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, pork, batter, tempura flakes… these are only a handful of components that comprise the culinary jewel of Hiroshima, okonomiyaki. Every single ingredient is different, but when layered and bound together by the egg, they transform into the tasty okonomiyaki that Hiroshima is renowned for.
My perspectives broadened. Everyone I met on the Hiroshima Kenjinkai delegation to Japan was connected, whether it was the college students from Indonesia, Spain, or Czechoslovakia, HIP staff, delegates from various parts of America, or host families scattered within Hiroshima Prefecture. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all seemed to have one thing in common that brought us all together, and that was Hiroshima, the egg to our okonomiyaki.
Leading up to this delegation, people constantly reminded me to enjoy the Hiroshima okonomiyaki… but I had never understood its hype. The first time I tried Hiroshima okonomiyaki was when I was 11, sitting in a small shop at the Hiroshima train station. I wondered with my adolescent eyes what on Earth was taking this man such an extensive amount of time to prepare this “pancake.” I waited impatiently, observing how methodically he assembled every single layer of the okonomiyaki.
This summer I was fortunate enough to participate in the Kenjinkai program and reside in Hiroshima Prefecture itself; and I unmistakably see Hiroshima’s signature okonomiyaki differently. The process by which the okonomiyaki is made is treated with such respect, which was something I was unable to appreciate five years ago. The ingredients aren’t simply thrown together, but rather stratified delicately. The patience and precision put into its production are astonishing, which only epitomizes how prideful my culture is of this prized dish.
Every ingredient in okonomiyaki is essential.
Josep was a relatively tall European student at Hiroshima University whose appearance was surely more unusual to the Japanese high school students than our own. He was one of many college students who surprisingly knew much more Japanese than any of us Kenjinkai delegates with Japanese heritage. A good number of these college students who helped us during the high school workshops did in fact know Japanese better than English. Josep, as a matter of fact, was born in Japan. He converses with his brothers in Japanese and is fluent in almost five languages; by far the most fascinating person I met on this trip.
Kaho, my 14-year-old host sister, was involved in an exchange program with a couple of different families with children younger than she. I was lucky enough to spend most of my homestay time with all these families and witness Kaho become a true oneesan to all the siblings. Kaho and her mother together comprised my host family, which was a unique experience because the absence of a father/husband goes against Japan’s social grain.
Sugihara-san was an administrator who put together the entire Kenjinkai program. He was extremely dedicated to the well-being of our group, from taking care of small luggage issues to facilitating every activity that we were fortunate enough to experience. Despite Sugihara-san’s daily long commute to HIP from Hiroshima City, his hometown, he often accompanied us in transit back to the city for our activities of the day. Sugihara-san’s devotion genuinely showed his conviction to the success of the Kenjinkai program.
These intriguing people from assorted families and places around the world, including my second cousin from Hawaii, whom I met for the first time at this delegation, proudly came together and were tied to a single ingredient, Hiroshima.
We all comprise the ingredients of the okonomiyaki. Every unique layer represents every single one of us. We are bound by that solitary ingredient; we are a fellowship in a global community that extends beyond the physical land of Hiroshima. We are okonomiyaki, we are the heritage of Hiroshima.