When Tai Young Whang, an ambitious high school graduate from Pyongyang, stepped onto the dock in Tokyo in 1933 to attend Hitotsubashi University, he never could have imagined that his personal dream of building economic bridges between Korea and Japan would fuel his great-grandson’s desire to follow in his footsteps almost a century later.
At the end of my first year of middle school, I chose to study the Japanese language for the first time. What started out as a curiosity of the language and some of Japan’s popular cultural exports (such as Pokémon games) gradually blossomed into a deeper passion for Japan’s culture and history. During my eighth-grade world history class, I turned my focus to researching the intricate sankin kōtai system and skilled political maneuverings underlying the Tokugawa shogunate’s iron grip on power during the 17th century. I even found myself at Eiheiji Temple in Fukui Prefecture that May meditating towards a blank wooden wall at four in the morning. Yet, I was not satisfied. These brief historical vignettes, like still frames in the film reel of humanity, remained fragments of a larger narrative that I was increasingly eager to discover.
As my school did not offer courses in East Asian or Japanese history, I was excited to apply during my sophomore year to Stanford’s Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP), an online program on Japan offered to high school students across the United States. By providing its students with the ability to comprehensively explore Japanese history, economics, society, and more, the program presents a unique opportunity to delve into these topics alongside similarly motivated peers. While the course taught me a lot about Japan proper, I also gained a much deeper understanding of the U.S.–Japanese relationship.
During the course of the 20-week program, we spent the first 14 weeks on a series of in-depth readings and comprehensive seminars led by government officials, business leaders, and scholars. As actual practitioners of the fields we were studying, these visiting experts brought their worldviews and inspiring insights to life. During one of the virtual seminars, for example, we had the opportunity to meet Rachel Brunette-Chen, the then-Principal Officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Sapporo, and learn about both the U.S.–Japan Security Alliance and her own foreign service experience bolstering the ties that connect the two countries. Hearing from an actual foreign service officer provided a tangible sense of the dedication and importance of those who work to link American and Japanese interests on the ground.
Starting from week one, we unpacked what we had learned from our readings and virtual classrooms through weekly discussion boards. These online forums continued throughout the week, often filled with thought-provoking perspectives, respectful rebuttals, and witty banter. We debated the efficiency of Abenomics, the impact of textbook revisions on Japanese history education, and the societal strains of modernization on early 20th century Japan, among other topics. Each new post became another thread weaving our different ideas together into a tapestry of cross-cultural connections that we all grew to treasure. Even today, many of us remain connected both online and by our shared experience.