Student Reflections on AYLP:JAWS 2011
Oregon native Nikita Gaurav was one of 30 high school student participants in the inaugural American Youth Leadership Program with Japan : Japan-America Watershed Stewardship project, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and administered by Cultural Vistas (formerly known as AIPT-CDS).
The traffic light stationed above me blinks from a scarlet red to a brilliant green and suddenly I find myself submerged in a sea of people. Everywhere I look: people, people, people. Not even a square inch of sidewalk is visible. I quickly grasp the hands of my new friends and gaze upwards at the tall buildings towering over me. A variety of aromas fill my nose: fresh baked pastries, day old fish, cigarette smoke, and floral scented perfume. Gleaming, fluorescent signs display Japanese kanji and katakana in every bright, garish color imaginable. Men gather in crowded restaurants around laptops to drink and discuss business while fashionable women with outrageously high heels stroll the streets. A large truck featuring a blown up picture of a Japanese singing group rolls by blasting loud “J-Pop” music. I am standing in the middle of downtown Tokyo in a popular recreation district known as Shibuya.
My feet ache slightly from the busy day spent attending lectures at the University of Tokyo. I still cannot believe where I am. Everything seems so surreal, especially considering that just three days ago I was spending a mundane summer day at home which involved a driver’s ed class, SAT prep books, piano practice, and an evening run. Sensei Novinger, who is one of the great mentors in the AYLP:JAWS program, tells us that we have the next few hours to explore on our own. Questions that flood my mind include: what if we get lost? And is this safe? Sensei instructs us not to worry and to meet back at the train station around 11:00 pm. Still grasping my friends’ hands I walk out with them into the bustling streets, awaiting an adventure.
I spent the last month in Japan working on the AYLP:JAWS project. J.A.W.S serves as an acronym for Japan-America Watershed Stewardship. The AYLP:JAWS project was an incredible opportunity for me because it not only captured my interest, but also incorporated my knowledge of Japanese and passion for the environment. The stewardship aimed to further America’s public diplomacy effort with Japan and expose foreign methods of sustainability to America’s youth. The J.A.W.S project was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as part of its American Youth Leadership Program. I was selected as one of the thirty students from across the nation to participate in this project.
I considered every day spent in Japan a present that I couldn’t wait to open, because somehow I knew it would give me a wonderful new experience. I learned so much and had so many unforgettable experiences.
One huge aspect that makes Japan such an amazing country is the attitude and customs of its people. I noticed right away in Tokyo that everyone is kind, everything is clean, and almost everywhere is safe. Considering that Tokyo is the largest, most expensive city in the world, what I found surprising was Tokyo’s very low crime rate. In fact a friend of mine dropped his wallet and passport late at night while walking back from doing laundry. A half hour after he realized this he runs back to the exact same spot only to find his passport and wallet with all his money inside sitting right there on the cool cement sidewalk. Considering it was late at night and there were lots of people walking around, I find it amazing that no one bothered to steal the wallet or take the money inside. Crime, gangs, rebellion and even poverty is uncommon in Japan. Culturally, the Japanese people are used to working with each other to avoid conflict.
The devastating earthquake, nuclear disaster, and the global economic crisis hit Japan very hard. However, while running through one of Tokyo’s largest parks, Yoyogi Park, early morning I only noticed a few homeless people. Masanobu-san, an ex-financial investor and one of our admirable mentors, explained to us that Japanese tend to bind together to help people in their community who are suffering from financial woes. The Japanese also believe that simplicity is the key to living a comfortable life. They lack the thirst for possession and wealth that can often drives individuals into crime. Even those who are wealthy remain very humble and generous. I find it incredible that five months after the Sendai earthquake hit, more than 3.8 billion yen ($78 million) has been recovered from safes and returned to rightful owners.
Everywhere we turned we encountered random acts of kindness. People walked up to us attempting to practice their English skills, business owners offered us free food and gifts. I admired how clean Japan was. Hardly any litter was visible because the Japanese are used to carrying their trash with them in personal trash bags. Japan is also very convenient. Everywhere we traveled we found vending machines, and these vending machines contained everything from full meals to electronics to personal hygiene products like toothpaste and toothbrushes. After staying in Tokyo for a few days, I realized how easy it would be for me to live and work in Japan.
My first several days in Japan were spent attending lectures and demonstrations at the University of Tokyo, which is considered the Harvard of Japan. The University of Tokyo exposed to me new opportunities and also broadened my options for studying abroad in college. The professors at the university shared with us a new program that they are introducing in order to attract more foreigners to the university. It is known as the PE@K program where they plan on offering courses completely in English. I found the environmental science and engineering course in the PE@K program the most alluring. The course promises an interdisciplinary understanding of technology, history, policy, jurisprudence, and the environment.
I was also enlightened to hear that the acceptance rate for this program is predicted to be very high. The program is entirely in English, therefore many native Japanese students are not eligible because they lack the twelve consecutive years of English skills needed. The University of Tokyo decided to create this program in order to encourage more foreign students to come study in Japan. Throughout our stay in Tokyo, Niigata, and Sado, we attended several lectures on pressing environmental issues and new methods of sustainability.
A few of the interesting topics we learned about included flood control, snow air conditioning, and hydrogen power. At Niigata University, we learned how Japan annually handles flooding. Right after an earthquake or monsoon floods quickly encroach on the Japanese prefectures which are mostly constructed on lower land. The scarce flat land used for development and infrastructure floods the fastest because it is at the bottom of Japan’s giant mountain range while also being adjacent to the ocean.
The Japanese people built huge underground passageways three times the size of an average underground subway station. These large underground canals are connected to major rivers and the ocean so that watcher can drain into them during a monsoon or tsunami. Dams are often also built inside these large passageways so that energy can be generated while floods are being prevented during the monsoon season. While in Niigata, we visited a mountainous “green” town. Most of the buildings are equipped with green roofs, solar panels and snow air conditioning.
In this region approximately ten feet of snow accumulates every winter. They collect the snow and store it these gigantic insulated “snow barns”. During the summer months the melted water is pumped through pipes in buildings to be used as a means of air conditioning. The water is then pumped into the building’s grey water system where it is used to flush toilets, water plants, etc. The snow lasts in this insulated barn until late October. The cost for snow air conditioning in Niigata is one fifth of the estimated standard air conditioning cost. The Japanese certainly make use of every single resource available to them.
I particularly enjoyed learning about high temperature solar thermo-chemical hydrogen production at the University of Tokyo. Three methods are used to chemically separate hydrogen molecules from water and convert the hydrogen into an energy source: solar water splitting, solar gasification and solar reforming. This new form of sustainable energy is growing in Japan because it does not take up much space compared to the amount of land needed for other main sources of green energy like solar panels and windmills. How does this work? Solar heat systems use mirrors and a reflective or refractive lens to capture and focus sunlight to produce temperatures up to 2,000°C. This high-temperature heat can be used to drive chemical reactions that produce hydrogen. Chemicals like Zinc Oxide and Sulfur Iodine are used in the process creating a closed loop that consumes only water and produces hydrogen and oxygen. High-temperature water splitting is most suitable for large-scale, centralized production of hydrogen. This is a growing form of sustainable energy, Professor Tatsuya at the University of Tokyo explains to us that after the earthquake Japan realized they need to rely less on nuclear energy and more on other sustainable, everlasting forms. Overall, the environmental lectures at Tokyo University and Niigata University have been very captivating and educational.
Last November, excitement flooded my mind when I read a letter informing me that I was accepted into the Japanese-American Watershed Stewardship program. Then a tsunami devoured the coastal town of Sendai causing a nuclear plant disaster to occur. Watching the news and seeing all the destruction and devastation inflicted on the people of Sendai brought tears to my eyes. It obviously was not safe to travel to Japan with the radiation, power outages, and aftershock quakes. All my hopes of traveling to Japan that summer were crushed. I feel that because Japan is such an optimistic, technologically-advanced country they were able to clean up the nuclear reactor mess fast, and because of their excellent efficiency I was notified by the State Department that it was safe to visit Japan. The AYLP:JAWS group was the only American foreign exchange group in Japan at the time. Wherever we traveled we met people who told us to tell all Americans that Japan is recovering and safe again.
Overall, I consider myself lucky to have been presented this amazing educational opportunity. I got an all-expense paid trip to Japan, I learned more about Japanese culture, I practiced my Japanese skills, I was educated on the environment, I learned how to live a more sustainable lifestyle, and most importantly I built strong lasting relationships with peers, mentors, and host families. I owe thanks to Jesuit High School for motivating me to work harder and take initiative outside of school, education certainly does not stop once school does. Specifically, I owe thanks to my wonderful Japanese Sensei who presented this project to me, and to Jesuit’s kind principal Mrs. Satterberg for writing me a glowing recommendation. The American Youth Leadership Program was certainly a life changing experience.
To learn more about this program and others like it, visit culturalvistas.org and facebook.com/culturalvistas.