On May 2, 2013, Mr. Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan (MEXT) was invited to a reception party that took place at Capitol Hill and reached an agreement with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to double the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. and U.S. students studying in Japan. Indeed, this may not seem to stand out among any other catchy news such as “Abenomics,” or a series of comprehensive economic policies led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and “the 2020 Summer Olympics,” which Tokyo, Japan is bidding as one of the three candidate cities to host. However, it really does. In response, Akira Foundation (AFJ) is working on an upcoming Youth Exchange Program, dubbed “TOMODACHI U.S.-Japan Youth Exchange Program (TOMODACHI-UJYEP),” with American Councils for International Education (ACIE), in line with the ambitious new steps to follow through on their foregoing commitments to a transformative change in how the Japanese educational system relate to internationalization which makes it more accessible for foreign students and nurtures individuals equipped with ingenuity and expertise to solve shared problems across borders.
In recent years, the number of students who choose to study abroad has dropped, significantly, from an all-time high of 83,000 in 2004 to 58,000 in 2010, which indicates that the seemingly demonstrable progress is now languishing. Japan’s chronic deflation may have contributed to dampen such an ambitious sprit that must be essential in revitalizing its society, and make it for broader international engagement, or ‘global village,’ where Japan have yet to be truly and concretely committed by their own citizens. The lifetime employment system in Japan is no longer an unwavering norm, which has caused more uncertainty and anxiety among new graduates, while employers are unrelentingly cutting costs further through a war of attrition. For one, the unemployment rate for Japan’s youth aged 15 to 24 still remains high above 9%, compared to the overall rate which is just above 4%. Worse still, under such disturbing circumstances, a new social status or stigma labeled “Freeters,” “NEETs,” or “SNEPs” has emerged, most of whom are prone to drain their potential and miss the most meaningful learning opportunities to live and grow through public participation. In 2011, the number of Freeters, NEETs and SNEPs combined reached out to about 4 million people, and that phenomenon represents a brutal fact that social distortion and costs are looming across the society, especially among the youth.
Here is another “silent epidemic” that surrounds the youth: suicide. Strikingly, more than 30,000 people took their own lives in Japan every year until 2011, when it was marked for 14th straight year. Suicide is now the most common cause of death among people aged 20 through 39 for six consecutive years. This is an enormously idiosyncratic phenomenon and chronic social disease in Japan. Given that the Japanese are more introverted, or “inward-looking,” the Japanese youth would lose even a few glimmerings of hope, let alone his or her bright future that lies ahead, without taking any suicide prevention measures that must transgress traditional clinical approaches at an early stage.
Since its inception of AFJ in 2009, we have tenaciously addressed the foregoing socio-economic issues among the youth and, in channeling change and making collective impact around our specific initiatives, explored the ‘posse’, or “the mixed coalition,” among an extensive collaborative network of interested parties including governments, universities, NGOs/NPOs, corporations, advocates, researchers, volunteers, entrepreneurs, among other people and organizations. The newly developed TOMODACHI-UJYEP is an embodiment of our reciprocal approaches to and collaborative partnerships with a far greater diversity of stakeholders. The main purpose of the program is to empower the youth who are disrupting, and to nurture them to harness their capabilities to bring a much more creative, innovative and intuitive approach to solving problems on an international stage. We select 6 high school students and a few accompanying teachers from each region of Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, and design and develop the program that empowers Japanese and American students through cultural and educational exposures while providing them with a unique hands-on service perspective.
We must acknowledge, however, that this is an experimental trial, but nonetheless, many private and public institutions and individuals have already shared our values and work together to support the program which is underlain by the following common causes: leverage youth’s innovative and creative characteristics; nurture them to find their own, authentic meaningful lives; and inspire them to become engaged global citizens who commit themselves to “sustaining creative, collective and cooperative (3Cs) development” in our global village. To date, the TOMODACHI INITIATIVE, the bilateral public-private partnership launched in 2011 by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S.-Japan Council, strongly supports the program, financially, through the “TOMODACHI Fund for Exchanges” funded by Toyota Motor Corporation, Mitsubishi Corporation, Hitachi, Ltd., and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc. Meanwhile, ACIE and AFJ are working collaboratively to develop their own three-week programs in both Washington, D.C. (plus the New York trip) and Tokyo (plus the Tohoku trip).
The program will kick off with a media conference with Vincent C. Gray, Mayor of Washington, D.C. in late July 2013, when 6 Japanese students and 2 teachers from Keio Shonan Fujisawa Senior High School fly to Washington, D.C. for participation in the program. For the U.S. program, a variety of institutional supporters including US-Japan Council, Grameen Foundation, United Way, Ashoka, and Architecture for Humanity, will help the Japanese students gain a sense of social responsibility and global awareness through unique service-based learning at firsthand. The students will also have a chance to meet and discuss topics of U.S.-Japan history and relations with U.S. congressmen at Capitol Hill, while engaging in the team-building workshop of ‘Sustainability Projects’ related to built environment, food/nature or water, through their video production.
For the Japan program, AFJ is carefully reviewing the balance of program partners and contents between cultural immersion and social entrepreneurship which is phenomenally emerging around the Tohoku region where the massive earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. Keio Shonan Fujisawa Senior High School and Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus will provide educational and cultural exchange programs to American students, and in parallel, the students will be asked to form a group to present their own ideas or thoughts to address social and cultural issues in Japan through the entire three weeks, supported by J-Seed Ventures, which will host the three sessions every Friday to teach the practical, creative way of crafting and improving a business model, ‘Business Model Generation’. In the final week, American students will move to the Tohoku region and visit volunteer organizations involved in relief and sustainable recovery work. The Japan program will start from early November, 2013.