My Continuing Journey with Stanford e-Japan

The following reflection is a guest post written by Jun Yamasaki, a Spring 2017 alum and honoree of the Stanford e-Japan Program, which is currently accepting applications for Fall 2020. He is now a student at Northwestern University.
jun yamasaki final project Jun Yamasaki (left) and friends working on a final project at Northwestern University; photo credit: Jun Yamasaki

The following reflection is a guest post written by Jun Yamasaki, a Spring 2017 alum and honoree of the \Stanford e-Japan Program, which is currently accepting applications for Fall 2020. He is now a student at Northwestern University.

My journey with Stanford e-Japan began with my enrollment in the fall session of the course when I was in the second year of high school in 2017. “Journey” may not be a word that is usually associated with the taking of a class, yet, my usage of it here is deliberate. Three years have passed since I was a student in Ms. Waka Brown’s class, and I have since graduated high school to pursue a college education in the United States at Northwestern University. As I reflect on my experience with Stanford e-Japan, the word “journey” seems ever more appropriate, for the program has been and will continue to be interlinked with my personal development as I look towards my future path.

The initial motivation behind my enrollment in Stanford e-Japan was rooted in my background as a kikokusei or kikokushijo, Japanese words that are used to describe students who have returned to Japan from a long period abroad. When I was five years old, I was suddenly told by my parents that we would be moving to the United States. To say that I was shocked or surprised would be an understatement; after all, my “world” at the time had consisted of a set of small bubbles, all on the scale of a few kilometers: my immediate neighborhood and the cities where my grandparents resided. A bullet train station linked those two discrete bubbles together during summer and winter breaks. Understandably, as a kindergartener, my knowledge and command of the English language was not even close to rudimentary.

A few months saw my repertoire slowly increase, and with it, my comfort in my new environment. The openness, friendliness, and hospitality of the people I met during my time in the States helped me feel that I belonged there, that I was not just some outsider from another country, and that I could consider where I lived in Florida, and later California, as my new homes. These experiences were perhaps my first encounter or involvement with U.S.–Japan relations.

My return to Japan in 6th grade unexpectedly proved to be more difficult for me than going to the United States. My entire experience with my attempts at reacclimation is another story altogether, but essentially, I experienced what many kikokushijo term as “reverse culture shock” due to the significant differences in culture and behavioral expectations in the United States and Japan. This led to a period that involved many questions about my own identity, as a result of those experiences, as well as the inevitable question that many kikokushijo are asked when they bring up their upbringing outside of Japan: “So do you consider yourself Japanese or American?” I have yet to come up with a satisfying answer. Sometimes, for the sake of conversation, I briefly consider just giving a simple answer. However, I almost never do so, because a simple answer does not do justice to the significance and weight of the topic for kikokushijo like me; not to mention that an answer aside from “It depends” would grossly fail to take into account the complexity of the concept of culture itself, and the many philosophical considerations that have to be made in such a discussion.

It was these experiences, or more specifically, the questions that arose from these experiences, that led me to enroll in Stanford e-Japan.

I was seeking an opportunity to advance my understanding of the relations between the two countries and cultures that are intrinsically linked to my identity, as well as further my interest in international relations that grew out of those experiences.
Jun Yamasaki

While I was enrolled in the course, each module of Stanford e-Japan helped me construct a multi-dimensional understanding of U.S.–Japan relations. This was not only helpful in satisfying my own curiosity, but especially today, I appreciate how solid of a foundation this course has given me to understand, interpret, and construct informed opinions about current events. Modules such as “U.S. High Schools and Education,” “Diversity Issues in the United States,” “Civil and Human Rights: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy,” and “The Japanese American Internment,” have offered me perspectives about the background and significance of some of the crucial racial injustice issues in the United States today that I would not have been able to have access to had I not taken the course. In addition, as countries around the world struggle against the global health emergency that is COVID-19, modules such as “Healthcare in the United States” have become ever more relevant.

Stanford e-Japan’s efforts to help increase the number of Japanese students studying abroad have also impacted me both directly and indirectly. The “Studying Abroad” module and the subsequent discussions with my fellow classmates about our future plans with regard to college and how we will continue to strengthen the U.S.–Japan relationship were very informative and productive. This was especially helpful because around this time, I was not sure if I wanted to stay in Japan as most of my classmates at school were planning to do, or go to the United States. Although I had some idea at that point about the quality of U.S. college education, spending six years back home in Japan had made me slightly hesitant at the prospect of living for four (or more) years away from my group of friends and family.

Participating in Stanford e-Japan gave me a glimpse into what I could experience at a college in the United States, and the turning point in my decision came in August of 2018, when I attended the joint Stanford e-Japan and Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP) awards ceremony on the Stanford campus. I was simply awestruck by the quality and depth of the analyses that the Reischauer Scholars had conducted for their presentations. I distinctly recall Ms. Brown and Ms. Funahashi (RSP Instructor) remarking that the level of research that they had conducted was near the level of a university or graduate school paper.

After the awards ceremony, the e-Japan and RSP students had a chance to tour the Stanford campus. At one point, we talked about our experiences with the U.S.–Japan relationship and our future plans. I distinctly recall that this was one of the major turning points in my decision to apply to colleges in the United States; in that moment, sitting there and conversing with the other award winners that sunny California afternoon, I had a powerful realization that this was the college life that I wanted to experience over the next four years.

Even after my graduation, Ms. Brown and the other instructors have been kind enough to invite me to return to the Stanford e-Japan virtual classrooms to talk to the current students about topics such as studying abroad and education in the United States. I always tell them that it was important to me that whatever field I went into, I wanted to be involved in some shape or form with the U.S.–Japan relationship. Taking Stanford e-Japan and examining the U.S.–Japan relationship from so many different perspectives and dimensions helped me “connect the dots,” and realize that my seemingly disparate interests were not necessarily mutually exclusive.

This leads me to the current stage of my journey. As a stepping stone towards the future goal that I was able to identify through my participation in Stanford e-Japan, I am currently studying mechanical engineering and applied mathematics, with plans to obtain further education and research experience in the form of a PhD in aerospace engineering after my undergraduate studies. Although I have enjoyed all of the classes I have taken so far, one class called “Design Thinking and Communication” stands out to me in particular. In this class, students are split into groups of four students, and are tasked with devising a solution for real, outside clients. In my case, my group was paired with a project partner from the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, a rehabilitation research hospital in downtown Chicago. As we went through the design process to create a solution for our client’s patients, we had to research and approach the problem from multiple different perspectives, such as societal impacts and financial concerns; not just the more tangible, technical-oriented considerations. Although they may be slightly different in subject matter, I am currently enjoying studying engineering for the same fundamental reasons that I enjoyed Stanford e-Japan.

Stanford e-Japan is truly unique in that it is a course that has been, and will continue to be relevant for its students even years after the conclusion of their enrollment. I am always happy to hear that Ms. Brown, Dr. Mukai (SPICE Director), and SPICE have been continuing their efforts to bring such a great program to increasing numbers of students. As someone who is fortunate enough to attend college in the United States thanks to the generosity of the Yanai Tadashi Foundation, I am pleased to hear that Mr. Yanai is also supporting Stanford e-Japan. It is my hope that SPICE will continue to offer such courses to students who are as motivated and driven as those I studied with when I was a student in Stanford e-Japan.

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