Early this summer (well, technically spring), I had the opportunity to travel to four of the largest cities in the nation of Japan. Specifically: Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto and Hiroshima. During the month of May, I traveled between these cities with a class from the University of Michigan, investigating postwar cultures of Japan. The course during the winter semester looked at histories, literature, film, and studio arts produced during the years and decades prior to the end of the Pacific War.
Elaborating upon our lengthy academic knowledge of these cultures, my class traveled to Japan to delve into different topics—those we could only explore through touch, sight, personal relation, and immersion. For three and half weeks I learned about cultures of urban development and war memory in the hearts of Japan’s major cities.
Now even though this course was strictly academic, I pursued the study abroad portion because its syllabus clearly reflected my major passions, namely local-global struggles for social justice and peace. As we made our way through Japan, we continued to come face-to-face with legacies of the war. Those which most interested me, which we fortunately spent a majority of our time studying, were legacies working themselves out on the political-economic-cultural field of Japan’s urban landscape.
In Yokohama, the 2nd largest city in Japan and neighbor to the larger Tokyo, we met up with a group of University students from Wako University with their professor—a professor of politics and English who has been involved in radical leftist politics for the past few decades. In Yokohama, we were given a tour through an urban terrain that expresses dichotomies that we are far too familiar with in the United States.
The Wako professor guided us between the downtown populated by massive skyscrapers and well-developed harbor promenade, ‘slums’ home to historically Chinese populations, a touristy Chinatown, and a gentrified boutique district eerily similar to Brooklyn streets I’ve spent time on. This professor educated us on what most tourist, and even students abroad, don’t have the opportunity to engage with. He and his students spoke of the changing nature of the neighborhoods and parks we saw—painting a fluid, rather than stagnate, portrait of the city. Here, in a city I hadn’t heard of before departing for Japan, I found connections to dynamics with which I have become familiar in college. The gentrification going on in US cities must be tied to what’s going on in Yokohama. There must be a common cause. The trends toward globalization here and in this city, too, must be related. As someone intent on engaging with issues of capitalism, I found this experience enlightening, to say the least.
As far as Yokohama led me to make connections regarding global capital and common struggles for equity, our time in Hiroshima stoked my interest in global efforts for peace. Arriving in this beautiful city, tucked between mountains and sea, I could not help to think, “The worst event ever experienced by humanity happened here.” Civil and military experts expected no organic life to grow in the city for 75 years after the A-Bombing. However, visiting the city 71 years after the bomb dropped, I was astounded by the vitality of Hiroshima. Over 1 million people populate it still, and it’s full of plant life despite what experts predicted.
In Hiroshima our group was lucky enough to stay in the World Friendship Center, a pacifist co-op which formed in the years directly after 1945 with the intent of providing housing and peace-based education to visitors, and English language courses to Hiroshima residents. Here our class discussed the re-building and branding of Hiroshima and its famous Peace Park. Importantly, we spent time learning about legacies of grassroots anti-nuclear and pacifist activism in Hiroshima since the bombing. Thanks to the World Friendship Center we were given a tour of the Peace Park by city residents and met with a survivor of the attack. I think of this as a cultural and political exchange where our class and the Japanese volunteers shared our experiences learning about the A-bombing and aspirations for future realities. Hearing from the A-bomb survivor—hibakusha in Japanese—placed what happened there in human terms. There are still people alive who experienced this attack. There is potential that nuclear fallout will occur in the future. Peace, though, I believe, is still attainable. If this woman—a hibakusha—can believe peace is possible, then why shouldn’t I?
Learning in these cities, from and among their residents, was an experience that certainly grew my leadership skills and added to my interest in local-global struggles for equity and peace. In the Barger Leadership Institute, we learned how to hone our leadership goals and sharpen our understanding of what it means to be a ‘leader’ on campus and in the world. The word ‘leader’, in all honesty, is pretty null—a buzzword usually. BLI worked to give back meaning to this role, and my experience in Japan—and my drive to truly have both an academic and leadership experience—revealed to me more of what I consider leadership to be about. Leadership, I think, is a process of knowing the world (or some of its parts) and working with others to solve problems that arise with acquiring that knowledge. Certainly, I was faced with political and ethical problems in Japan: nuclear proliferation and gentrification, for example. Back at school, now, it’s my job to put the pieces back together so that I can begin to affect that change.