A Year in Japan for Derek Yamashita

March 9, 2015 

Derek Yamashita of the University of California, Santa Barbara studied for a year as a Robert Grondine Memorial Fund Bridging Scholar at International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan.  He beautifully captures his year of study, internship, and volunteerism in Japan with the following words and photos (edited for brevity).

Studying abroad in Japan this past year has undoubtedly been and will likely be the most life changing and best decision I have made in my life. Separated from the places I called home and my network of family and friends, It was the chance to cast aside the life I have lived so far and rediscover myself in a completely new world. I was given a clean slate to freely build the life I had always wanted for myself in the endless metropolis of Tokyo and the rich and vibrant culture of Japan.

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As a fourth generation Japanese American, I had grown up largely uninterested in my Japanese heritage in my hometown, Huntington Beach. However, all of this changed when I had discovered and took part in a sister city exchange program between my hometown and the city of Anjo, Japan. Through my two-week reciprocal exchange, I was spirited away as my newfound friends and host family showed me the beauty and incredible hospitality of the people and culture of Japan. Following this experience, I had utterly fallen in love with its culture and sought to reconnect with my heritage whenever and wherever possible. It seemed that during this time, all I could think about was returning to Japan…

Despite these ambitions, sensations of doubt slowly began to envelop me. I began to realize that I couldn’t be sure whether my love for Japan was truly genuine based off of two short trips that may very well have been vacations. During my time in Japan, everything was planned for me, I had no responsibilities, and I faced no personal struggles. These experiences were not reflective of a realistic life and I feared my dreams of a life in Japan may be unrealistic. It was this doubt that ultimately led me to my decision to embark on my year abroad in Japan to discover whether my love of Japan was genuine and one that I should continue to follow, or an incorrect path I should divert from…

Making new friends was my first priority. As I said goodbye to my family at LAX, I essentially had no friends or connections…I quickly set out to join clubs that interested me. Sitting in the cycling and photography club, I initially felt confused and unwelcomed. Everything was in extremely fast student-style Japanese with all sorts of slang and random abbreviations. I was also the only foreigner in the clubs that I visited. Understanding nothing and feeling completely overwhelmed, I almost quit these clubs after the first few meetings.

However, the moment I came up with the courage to approach the members of these clubs about my language issues, I was surprised in that they immediately apologized for the misunderstandings, explaining that they did not realize I was having difficulties. Both clubs tried their best to help me with my integration, but the cycling team in particular humbled me with their unbelievable kindness. At the following meetings, a student was always beside me, translating the entire meeting for me. They made great efforts to ensure I understood everything that was going on and the members of the club all came to me to introduce themselves in English. I quickly began to bond with these newfound friends as I joined them on a 3-day cycling trip around the base of Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture in the Fall and various other events in Tokyo. I would later join them on cycling trips around Japan including week-long trips in Okinawa, Shikoku, the mountains surrounding Tokyo, and even a month-long trip around Hokkaido. Through these trips, the members of this club became my closest friends in Japan whom I could turn to for anything. They were the kind of companions that I could hang out with everyday, and played a massive role in helping me to be able to speak Japanese naturally and confidently. The members of the cycling team became so much more than just the Japanese friends I had wished so strongly for, they became the family in Japan that I could never have dreamed of and will be a connection in Japan that will always allow me to feel at home.

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During this year abroad I had also wished to continue my volunteer efforts for the Tohoku region through direct, hands on work. Despite these desires, I had no real means of traveling to these remote towns located far up North, let alone the connections to connect with the people living there. Then, even without any searching on my end, the solutions to these problems came during my first month at ICU. Tohoku-volunteer groups “Team Asunaro” and “Youth for 311” came to my school to search for individuals just like myself and I suddenly found a means to volunteer in Tohoku on a monthly basis with another incredible groups of individuals.

Through these volunteer groups, I was able to volunteer in Tohoku on over 13 different occasions. These volunteer projects included traveling to temporary housing neighborhoods and helping the elderly residents there maintain their homes by cleaning air ducts, stoves, lights, and many other assorted tasks. We also were encouraged to support these residents psychologically by sitting with them and speaking with them. Some of my best memories of this work was when I was able to sit down and have tea with elderly couples while telling them in Japanese about my reasons for wanting to volunteer in Tohoku and about my Japanese American heritage. In turn, I was very surprised to hear these residents share their stories of what happened on March 11th, and the struggles they continue to experience in the present. I have been informed by Team Asunaro that the sharing of personal stories regarding the tsunami and current struggles are topics these residents are very rarely willing to discuss. This close personal and meaningful interaction with the residents of these recovering communities was again, something that far exceeded my expectations.

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Through these experiences, I not only was able to volunteer in Tohoku, but I was able to discover an entirely new means to support this region for years to come through the medium of photography. During my time in Tohoku both in 2012 and throughout this year abroad, I was disturbed to hear that the people of Tohoku and the disasters of March 11th were fading from the media and in effect, the concerns of people in Japan and the world. I have heard residents in multiple temporary housing communities express that their greatest fear is that the struggles of Tohoku will be forgotten in favor of ever developing global events, and that the recovery of Tohoku will be thrown into jeopardy as a result. Through the lens of my camera, I was able to record the stories and realities of the current struggles of Tohoku and was able to aid Team Asunaro and Youth for 311 by providing them with photo narratives to promote their programs to other potential volunteers around Japan. Further, I was able to share the stories and concerns of the Tohoku people with larger audiences around Japan and overseas through my blog. People around Tohoku had apparently seen my blog and photography and I was contacted by many people in Japan about my photo
narratives. These people even included a fish cake company representative in Onagawa that requested that I produce a public relations video about their business in their factory!

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Last but not least on my list of goals was to find an internship and leads on a possible career should I ever wish to live in Japan after my year abroad. This is where the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation Scholarship and The Grondine Memorial Scholarship truly transformed my year abroad and my direction in life. After struggling to find professional footing in Tokyo, I turned to, and was immediately given a vast array of valuable contact
information and introductions by the Bridging Foundation. I was stunned when Deputy Director, Jean Falvey extended to me a golden chance to meet Chris Wells, a partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP, a major international law firm. I wrote to the firm and couldn’t believe my eyes when I was given a schedule for a year-long internship. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined having the honor to intern at the corporate level and it was during my train ride to Bingham’s office that I first realized that my horizons in life were expanding exponentially.

Interning under the Global Funds team with attorneys, Koji Yamamoto and Christopher Wells, was both challenging and enjoyable. I was treated not just as an intern helping out with paperwork, but as a student under lawyers like Koji, who took time out of their never ending work cycle to acquaint me with their field of work and give me the skills and knowledge I needed to take on hands-on tasks…

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I feel so grateful and indebted to all the people who have supported me this past year and allowed me to gain everything I could have wanted from my year abroad in Japan. Though these experiences, I have not only confirmed that my love of Japan is not simply a fool’s dream built off of what were essentially two week vacations, but a genuine love that I now am resolute in continuing. I am incredibly happy to now know that the path I have been following for the past 4 years has been a path that will lead me to a life that I want for myself and is something that I can be proud about.
My year abroad was a chance for me to break away from the monotonous party college culture of UCSB and discover new strengths, opportunities, and horizons that I never knew I had. I now work as a peer advisor guiding other UCSB students on their path to their study abroad experiences in the UCSB Education Abroad Office. I am also looking into the JET program and graduate studies in Tokyo. There are so many opportunities that I now feel capable of taking on and it is all thanks to my unbelievable year abroad.

Thank you so much to all of you at the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation for your incredible support and kindness. Your support has changed my life and I will be sure to keep you up to date on my journey back to Japan.

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