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Editorial | Island Voices

Group strengthens isle bonds with Japan

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The success is in the stories — and the stories are countless. For more than 30 years, the Japan-America Society of Hawaii has been enriching lives, thanks to a vast network it has carefully cultivated. The hope is to continue giving people rewarding experiences and real benefits by fostering greater cultural understanding through a healthy, thriving relationship with Japan.

That’s part of the message that will be shared at the society’s annual dinner next Wednesday, drawing upon the 50 programs a year the organization conducts to help the public better understand issues affecting the United States-Japan relationship.

Based on the belief that investment in education builds a base for future relationships and business connections that benefit our state, our main focus has always been on educational programs, which reached 6,600 students in 2009. In Hawaii’s business community, you meet professionals across different fields who took part in JASH’s programs as youths. These experiences stay with them for the rest of their lives and ripple through our community.

More than 4,000 Hawaii elementary school students each year participate in "Japan in a Suitcase," an imaginative in-the-classroom program that encourages kids to seek alternative viewpoints by learning to ask questions and look at challenges from a new perspective. It’s amazing what looking at different McDonald’s menus in other countries, hearing different animal sounds, and trying games other children play can do to a child’s curiosity and imagination.

In addition, each summer six 11-year-olds are selected as Junior Ambassadors to Fukuoka, Japan, to interact with hundreds of their peers from around the world in the Asian-Pacific Children’s Convention. The Sister School Relationship Program fosters relationships between Hawaii middle schools and their counterparts in Japan.

At the high school level, Japan Day reinforces classroom lessons with cultural activities such as flower arranging, calligraphy and tea ceremony. The Japan Wizards Competition is a statewide academic contest that tests high school students on different aspects of Japan. Four winning teams from both public and private schools — 12 students total — are awarded a one-week trip to Japan.

JASH also administers the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship, an award that this year’s winner says will help her further her dreams. Graduate student Sharon Fukayama, now in Japan researching its educational system, hopes to eventually establish a bilingual, bicultural school in Hawaii.

Understanding cultural differences at an early age can go a long way. Simply put, JASH excels in grass-roots and personal relationship building that can strengthen goodwill.

As many here will remember, the Ehime Maru sinking in February 2001 was a challenging time for the U.S. and Japan. But JASH’s relationships with people in both Hawaii and Japan helped mitigate the tragedy and turned a culturally sensitive situation from escalating into ill will.

It’s often during a crisis when the relevance of our work at JASH stands out. And while it takes years to cultivate a relationship, it also takes resources. JASH, which was established in 1976, relies heavily on its members and fundraising efforts to put on its educational programs. Next Wednesday’s annual dinner will feature as its keynote speaker Peter Ho, Bank of Hawaii president and chairman of the 2011 APEC host committee.

As people decide in which worthy organizations to invest their limited time and energy, they might consider the values that the Japanese have instilled in many: respect for people and fair play, to work hard and have pride. Japan has undeniably transformed itself into a world leader, but it all started on a much smaller scale — one person at a time.

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