When a major earthquake and tsunami devastated Northern Japan, claiming thousands of lives and wiping out entire towns, the world watched in horror.
In Indiana, Alex Kessler, who had earlier that evening said goodbye to a visitor from Japan, was struck by the images of people crying. Kayla Lindsey, who attends a Japanese school in Oregon, said it was “the most devastating moment of her life” and struggled to communicate with her friends and family in Japan. Rachel Deter and her Japanese club in Virginia soon launched a crane-folding fundraiser. They wished there was something they could do.
Now, four months later, these young people are part of a group of 32 high school students and recent graduates from across the country acting as a bridge between Japan and the United States in the inaugural year of the “JET Memorial Invitation Program for U.S. High School Students.” This program, founded in the memory of two JET teachers who died in the tsunami — Taylor Anderson of Virginia and Montgomery Dickson of Alaska — aims to inspire young people to support positive relations between Japan and the United States, as the deceased JETs had.
On July 17, the students gathered in San Francisco for a farewell reception hosted by the Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata, before heading to Japan the next day. “In Japan, I’d like you to try to grab as many opportunities as you can get, and see by yourself and think by yourself and feel by yourself,” Inomata said in an address to the students. “Upon your return, I’d like you to share your experience and knowledge, and stay in touch with 32 friends and the friends you might find in Japan.”
The families of Anderson and Dickson are supportive of the program, said Mari Shogase, deputy director of the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, which organized the program. “I understand that they are happy to see the wishes of their daughter and son goes on,” Shogase said. “We were honored to have the support from the families.”
The Japan Foundation decided to launch the inaugural year of the program, which will continue for five years, this May, with the departure scheduled for July. During the two-week application window, 276 students from across the country applied. The 32 selected as participants all have high grade point averages and have studied Japanese for two years or more. More than half got their first passports for this trip, Shogase said.
Their whirlwind trip, which lasts from July 19 through 28, will take the students to Osaka and Kyoto, on a two-day homestay, and include language lessons and special sessions on anime, manga, yukata, taiko — and even a chance to study the particularities of the Osaka dialect.
Some students said that their parents expressed concern for their safety in the wake of threats to nuclear reactors. Kayla Lindsey, 18, a recent high school graduate from Oregon who has been studying Japanese since the fourth grade, said her family was worried. “My parents were constantly asking where I was going to be, but my teacher sat down with me and let me know exactly where I was going to be and that I wouldn’t be affected,” Lindsey said.
Alex Kessler, 18, said he has been interested in Japan since childhood and that it’s been a longtime dream to visit the country. “I love how they have such rich traditions and such modern technology. It’s like the old meets the new,” Kessler said.
Since he’s entering college this fall and money will be tight, he didn’t think this dream would come true anytime soon — until he heard about this program. “I’m so happy. This is what I have always wanted to do,” he said. “Though my language skills aren’t the best, I’ve been preparing.”
Kessler said that he wants to be respectful of the memory of Anderson and Dickson, but doesn’t want to think about the trip in a negative way.
“I want to keep them in mind and honor them, because they are the reason why it’s possible for so many people to take this trip,” he said.
Cayra DeGiulio, 16, a junior from Alaska, said that it’s important to keep the two in mind and learn from their legacy. “They were doing what they loved best, and that was where they died,” DeGiulio said. “So, in a way, it sounds morbid, but if you have to go before your time, that’s the way to do it — doing what you love.”