In order to understand what TOMODACHI means to me, it is important to understand the meaning itself – not merely as a word that we attach to powerful experiences, but the ways in which “meaningful” experiences can fundamentally change our direction in life.
In my first semester at Fairfield University in the fall of 2016, I was starry-eyed and hopeful about college. I had declared my major on the business track, and I was opening myself up to new experiences. I had decided to take Japanese only a few months prior as an afterthought to the language requirement. As I prepared to go to my first class, I remember thinking to myself “at worst, I’ll be able to understand my anime”, completely unsure of what to expect. And it was tough. Sure, I enjoyed it, but did I see it becoming a huge part of my life at that time? No. It wasn’t until a few months later when I spoke to a professor about an opportunity to attend a student conference, that I began to realize how much more there was to discover in the realm of U.S.-Japan relations and the longstanding relationship.
The opportunity that she told me about was the 2017 TOMODACHI Daiwa House Student Leadership Conference, which remains to be one of the most important and meaningful events I have ever attended. I say meaningful, because it wasn’t merely that I learned new things or met so many intelligent and driven people (whom I still have the pleasure of calling my friends) – the meaning was derived from the direction in which the conference steered my life.
At the end of the conference, Mya Fisher told us about the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC), and I knew that would be my next step on this journey. I was a 70th JASC delegate in 2018 as a precursor to a year-long study abroad in Osaka from 2018 to 2019. In the summer of 2019, I was an executive committee member for the 71st JASC, which saw us travelling throughout Japan as a coalition of American and Japanese students. I will never forget landing in Japan with some of the 71st JASC participants who had never been before. I could see in their eyes that they were about to embark on the same journey I had falling in love with Japan as a country; the language, the food, the people and perhaps most importantly, the relationship with Japan that they were a part of as Americans, the immense depth and infallible strength of the U.S- Japan relationship.
None of the things I mentioned – attending the conferences, my achievements at these conferences, and perhaps even my study abroad experience – would have happened if it weren’t for the TOMODACHI Program. Every single year of my college career, the Council continued to invest in my hopes and dreams regarding Japan and I am only one of many alumni. Sometimes I try to think about all the meaningful experiences the TOMODACHI Initiative has provided to students in both countries – the overall benefit of these programs and the relationships they foster cannot be overstated. They are the very definition of meaningful.
Times are hard right now – a pandemic has affected nations around the world, and racism and injustice continue to rear their ugly heads and remind us of all the progress we need to make. But about a month ago, a couple of USJC staff reached out to check in with me and other alumni. They wanted to find ways to support us, as they always have, and I believe they will continue to do so in the future. I cannot describe how much that gesture meant to me and I cannot wait to pay it forward when I return to Japan, as I plan to later this year, as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.
As of late, it has been hard to look forward to a hopeful future, given how dark the world seems. And indeed, I am sure this is likely how many of those affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake felt as their homes and livelihoods were swept away by the disaster. But from that tragedy, the TOMODACHI Initiative was born. Similarly, I believe that from this pandemic and the demonstrations calling for racial justice, new organizations and groups of incredible people will band together and spring forward in the same spirit of cooperation for a brighter future. I am proud to be a part of the TOMODACHI Generation and I know that imbued with all I have learned from USJC, I can be a true changemaker in the world.
–Mason Williams (TOMODACHI Daiwa House Student Leadership Conference Alumnus ’17)