I have been interested in Japan for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a house designed by a Japanese architect, practiced judo, and religiously watched Ghibli movies on VHS. One of my clearest memories from elementary school is conspiring with a fellow classmate to breach the “2 books per student” rule in the library to check out all four books on Japan in the little school library. I attempted, in fourth grade, to teach myself Japanese (and failed spectacularly). Luckily, the nearby middle school offered Japanese as a foreign language, and from seventh grade onwards I leapt in headfirst.
Japanese language classes were hardly enough to sate my interests, and in my junior year of high school I came across the Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP). RSP was the closest I had to a college-level course during my time in high school. I remember often working harder on my RSP coursework than my actual schoolwork, all because I found the RSP content far more intriguing.
I had no particular interest in Japanese religion before RSP, but one of the lessons that has stuck with me most is a guest lecture from a Japanese monk. He shared a number of anecdotes with us about the less glamorous (but deeply entertaining) aspects of monastery life. In his monastery, for example, only the head monk had a watch and, thus, was in charge of timekeeping and waking up the monks before dawn for meditation. Our guest lecturer confided in us that he and the other monks often plotted to get the head monk drunk so he would oversleep and fail to wake them up, earning the rest of the monastery another hour of precious sleep. While it might sound trivial, it is incredibly rare for high schoolers to have access to this sort of “insider” information, and that particular lecture is what led me to participate in a number of Buddhist rituals when I studied abroad in Kyoto four years after RSP.
Through RSP, for the first time, I studied non-U.S. historical perspectives on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Were the bombings necessary? Were both bombings necessary? Did they really end the war and save more lives? Despite a thorough historical education, I had never asked these questions, and the implications both unsettled and excited me. I came into RSP with the opinion that the atomic bombings were a horrific but necessary evil to end the Pacific War. When I finished RSP, I left conflicted.
That uncertainty led me to work in Hiroshima a few years later, the summer after my second year in college. I joined the International Affairs Division of the Hiroshima Prefectural Government and worked with the Peace Promotion Team. Through my coworkers, I came to know Hiroshima as a city that wanted to change the world. As a city that inherited a history of some of the worst atrocities known to man, many in Hiroshima were determined to use their unique experience to advocate for the end of nuclear weapons. As an American, this seemed like a worthy but ultimately futile goal. When I raised my doubts about the feasibility of denuclearization to a bomb survivor, she answered: if we don’t try, it is certainly impossible; it is only by trying that we find out if it just might be possible.
From that moment onwards, I have become a staunch advocate for denuclearization. I gave fellow Americans tours of the Peace Park and lived in an apartment along the edge of ground zero. I met bombing survivors and regularly walked by the twisted steel ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome. The next year, I joined the Stanford Nonproliferation Activism Project, and the year after became the president of the club. I’ve even gotten into heated discussions with strangers at the dog park about the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
RSP opened up my curiosity about what I, a self-proclaimed Japan fanatic, actually knew about Japan. That curiosity carried me all the way into studying abroad and ultimately working for the prefectural government in Hiroshima. While my primary academic focus no longer is Japan, the lessons I learned from RSP—to look for the human element, to question history as it has been taught—have remained with me over the years since I participated in RSP.