What can students do, anyway?
In the face of crisis such as war or natural disaster, individuals often feel helpless. Students in particular, lacking resources and experience, can easily be overwhelmed. However, valuable action is possible; students can have an impact, often in more ways than they know.
This last year, I served as chair of the American Executive Committee for the 63rd Japan-America Student Conference (JASC). Just five months after the great Tohoku Earthquake, I, along with 70 other students, traveled throughout Japan to the cities of Niigata, Kyoto/Shiga, Okinawa and Tokyo to learn and discuss issues of bilateral and global importance.
One of the challenges we encountered was finding what we could do as students in the face of heavy issues such as natural disaster, the use of nuclear energy, the influence of U.S. military presence in Japan, etc.
In 1934, a group of students in Tokyo were facing a similar challenge. As tensions were rising between Japan and the U.S. over Japan's occupation of Chinese Manchuria, these students took matters into their own hands. They recognized peace was unattainable between the U.S. and Japan without mutual understanding. So, they invited American students to experience Japan firsthand with the goal of promoting peace through interpersonal connections.
A selection of American students accepted this invitation and sailed across the Pacific for the first ever Japan-America Student Conference. Together they toured Japan, occupied Manchuria and Japanese colonized Korea together. They engaged in open discussions and brainstormed solutions on issues through direct exposure and discussion. The students did not solve the problems, but they gained new knowledge based on first-hand experience and formed life-long bonds.
The next year, the Americans invited Japanese students to visit the Pacific Northwest and California to continue the bilateral exchange. Since then, the conference has met nearly every summer alternating between Japan and the U.S. The conference remains student-run with executive committee members designing the conference from the ground up, including the content, promotion, delegate selection and the actual running of the conference.
This summer, we faced unprecedented challenges planning the conference. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11th caused many universities to cut funding for trips to Japan and a lot of parents to discourage their kids from going. Despite this the conference went on with full delegations from both countries participating. We felt this year was an especially important year to hold the conference to reaffirm both nations' commitment to one another and explore what the road to recovery will look like for Japan.
Like our predecessors, we didn't come up with all the answers to problems faced by Japan and the U.S., but we took action and had an impact. We connected with local people in Okinawa affected by the U.S. military presence, held a forum about the earthquake and its aftermath in city of Niigata, and presented a letter in Tokyo addressed to the President of the U.S. and Prime Minister of Japan emphasizing the need for solidarity between the countries. By working in partnership, and forming strong connections, American and Japanese students together created a foundation for our generation to solve the problems of the future.
We concluded that, confronted with the question, "What can students do?", the most important thing is to prepare ourselves as leaders. Based on the group I spent the summer with, I have no doubt our generation has the capacity to lead the world towards a brighter future.
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