Inaugural TOMODACHI Toshizo Watanabe Leadership Program Cohort Visits California

From August 10 to 20, fourteen Japanese high school students from all over Japan visited California as part of the inaugural TOMODACHI Toshizo Watanabe Leadership Program. The program, which aims to create the next generation of leaders, allowed participants to explore a wide range of topics including different leadership styles, the history of discrimination, and the role of a community. The program included a visit to institutions such as the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Terasaki Institute, California Institute of Technology, Japanese American National Museum (JANM), and Holocaust Museum LA, among many other places.

During the visit to UCLA, Terasaki Institute, and Caltech, participants toured the campus and research facilities; additionally, they had the opportunity to hear from Japanese researchers and academics who illustrated the differences between American and Japanese academia. The students also had the special opportunity to connect with TOMODACHI-STEM @ Rice University alumna and Schmidt Science Fellow at the Quantum Biology Tech Lab Dr. Natsumi Komatsu, Ph.D., who spoke to the students about her experience pursuing a higher academic degree in a foreign country and her motivation to continue her academic career in the STEM field, among other topics.

At the Holocaust Museum LA, the students received a guided tour for an in-depth look at how the Holocaust unfolded and learned about the vast impact leaders can have when they possess authority and power.[GK1]  Following the tour, students participated in a workshop led by UCLA Professor, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, where she shifted the focus from leadership at the world or political level, to leadership displayed at the grassroots level. The participants read stories about individuals who were victims of the era and learned that an act of resistance, no matter how small or subtle, can be an act of courage and display of leadership.

The following day, participants visited the JANM for a guided tour, which gave them the opportunity to learn about topics that are not part of Japanese history curricula such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the redress movement. Students learned that despite the trauma caused by the discrimination and incarceration of Japanese Americans, it is imperative to keep the memory of such events alive and pass that history on to the next generation. Makoto Suzuki from Fukushima Prefecture drew a connection between the Japanese American incarceration to her own trauma that she experienced during the Great East Japan Earthquake. “My younger sister, who was not even born then, does not know about the disaster. It is difficult for me to tell her about [it]… However, I believe that by communicating, we can help protect each other.”

Towards the end of their program, students had the special opportunity of meeting Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles, Akira Muto, and his wife at the Consul General’s residence, where they had a chance to share their future aspirations. During their visit to Western High School (WHS) in Anaheim, participants were paired up with WHS students and spent the day attending classes such as Spanish and video production; they also had the opportunity to tour the campus and observe extracurricular activities. Four participants were interviewed during the class as one of the features for the school announcement.

On the final day of the program, the students had the opportunity to present their reflections and discuss thier future aspiration with Mr. Toshizo “Tom” Watanabe, the donor of the program, and Suzanne Basalla, President and CEO of the U.S.-Japan Council. During the farewell reception attended by host families, speakers from site visits, and USJC members and affiliates, Sakura Kinjo, a participant from Hyogo Prefecture, expressed her appreciation to the guests. “Today marks the end of the program, but we would like to take what we gained and put them into future use. After we return to our respective homes, we pledge to demonstrate and pass on what we learned.”