The “Girls Unlimited Program,” which the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo sponsors, targets female junior and senior high school students. Many of the participants are not shy about expressing their opinions, while others “want to break out of their shell and speak up.”
Kazumi Ito, a second-grade, 14-year-old student at the Friends Girls Junior High School (Tokyo’s Minato Ward) is one of them. She lived in the U.S. until the age of three. She returned to Japan with little command of either English or Japanese. “Since around that age, I have not been good at communicating with people,” she said. She says that though she has opinions, she is shy about expressing them. She applied for the GUP, hoping to “change and become active.”
The inaugural GUP was held in September last year. Participants were all new to each other. “I was surprised that so many people talked to me,” she said. Inspired by GUP participants and a talk given by a guest speaker, she became more outgoing in her interactions at school. “My friends told me that I am speaking more,” she said. She is building confidence little by little.
Her dream is to become a certified weather forecaster. In the summer, when she was in the fifth grade of elementary school, Hiroshima Prefecture was hit by a devastating landslide that killed 77 people. She remembered that the Meteorological Agency explained at a press conference that “damage was unpredictable.” That convinced her to become a forecaster who can predict any disaster. She heard that teamwork is an essential element in the job and that people cooperate in analyzing massive amounts of data. “Through the GUP, I hope to acquire the ability to respect other people’s opinions and to express my own opinion at the same time,” she said.
Aoi Takano (17 years old), a second-year student at Toin Gakuen Senior High School (Yokohama), is also not good at expressing her opinions. She saw herself as “ the most ordinary high school student” among the participants.
She has been taking lessons in the tea ceremony since she was in the fifth grade of elementary school. Through those lessons she learned how to make strong or weak tea and when to serve tea by carefully studying guests mien and facial expressions. “I came to pay too much attention to people’s facial expressions and what they might have in mind,” she said.
In April last year, she participated in a workshop organized by an international boarding school in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. At a group debate session, participants frankly conveyed their ideas, but never criticized opposing opinions. They taught each other new things. The program inspired her to “become a person who can express her own thoughts and encourage others to speak up.” That was when she learned about the GUP.
She is still looking for her future dream. But she hopes the GUP will guide her to the discovery of what she wants to do and help her become a person who can decide on her own.