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TOMODACHI SoftBank Leadership Program (1): Overseas exposure inspires children with life-changing experience

Masayasu Kakishita (18) is a high school senior in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. This past March, his mother told him that she applied for him to participate in a study abroad program. He had never thought he would venture abroad. His first reaction was, “Oh, come on. Give me a break!”


His home was completely destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami seven years ago. All of his six family members survived, but they still live in a rented house. His father is a fisherman and returns home only a few times a month. His mother works as a temp staff. He attends the general course program at Motoyoshi Hibiki Senior High School, a public institute run by the prefecture. After graduating, he planned to go to a vocational school.


He is the president of the school’s student council, but he is shy with people. A leaflet on the study abroad program did not motivate him at all in the beginning, but later something changed inside him.


The “Tomodachi Summer SoftBank Leadership Program” invites about 100 students from quake-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures to a three-week program held at the University of California, Berkeley, every summer free of charge. It is designed to help them acquire leadership skills and encourage them to use those skills to contribute to their communities by organizing projects concerning the promotion of reconstruction and tourism. The SoftBank Group Corp. launched the program in 2012 in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Japan and the U.S.-Japan Council.


He passed a document screening test and went to the interview. He had a change of heart; now he was eager to go abroad. 


In the interview, candidates are divided into groups to discuss solutions to problems. Masayasu told other candidates in his group that he wants to develop and market a new “rice omelet” using local ingredients. But he was stunned when he heard others’ opinions, such as “I want to go to a Taiwanese college to serve as a bridge between Japan and Taiwan” and “I want to save soldiers in developing nations.” He recalled: “I’ve never been away from Kensennuma, so I felt as if I were a small-minded person.” After the interview, he immediately applied for a passport hoping for good luck.


He passed the interview. The three weeks that he spent with other participants from July 20 were inspiring. The students met with 20 local young entrepreneurs. They also did field work in crime-infested North Richmond, where poverty is also a problem. They looked into ways to improve the situation. At the conclusion of the field work, they presented ideas and put some of these into action. Each team also discussed challenges facing Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region and presented a number of solutions. On the last day of the program, they gave a presentation on a plan they worked out. “The biggest asset that I gained from this program was [an understanding of the need] to take action,” said Masayasu. “I learned that there are things that action can change.”


In fact, he has been long annoyed by the uncleanliness of Kesennuma and his school, but he dared not take action as he felt the situation would never change. But soon after he returned to Japan, he created posters calling for the sorting of garbage and put these on trash bins. Every week he changed the location of trash bins for combustible and non-combustible waste and put new posters on them to attract students’ attention. It worked; students began sorting garbage. “I can make a difference if I take action,” he said.


On the other hand, he feels many times a day that “something is not right.” There are classes that require students to raise their hands when they want to speak. There are students who think not speaking in class is cool and who do not participate in events. He wants to take action, but he is frustrated by these realities. He feels Japan is a small place.


There is a project that he wants to carry out. With the help of friends that he made in the Tomodachi program, he plans to organize a bus tour to the Fukushima nuclear power station. His father hails from Ehime and there is also a nuclear power station near his father’s hometown. He does not know whether nuclear power is good or bad and whether the restart of reactors is a good thing or not. “But from my stay in America, I learned that what matters most is to see things with your own eyes, and feel and think on your own,” he says. “I don’t want other areas to suffer from an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident like we did here in Tohoku.”


For Masayasu, this summer became a life-changing experience. It opened a new chapter in his life and gave him a new way of thinking.   


Yuika Watanabe (16 years old), a freshman at Sakurano Seibo Senior High School, a private school in Fukushima, is also among those who participated in this summer’s Tomodachi program.


Yuika was a second grader at primary school when the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred in March 2011. She and her family took shelter in Yamagata, the hometown of her mother, till she entered the fifth grade. At school in Yamagata, she was bullied by an older pupil who said “you are transmitting radioactivity.”


She heard about the Tomodachi program from an older student in the same school club she belongs to. Before she took part in this program, she was assigned a task to interview local people, and she decided to speak to local farmers. Through her interaction with them, she asked herself, “Aren’t vegetables produced in Fukushima safe?” and “What can I do to eliminate the prejudice against Fukushima?” These questions motivated her to organize events in partnership with Fukushima farmers to change the image of local produce.


Speaking in front of people was the last thing she wanted to do, but “in the program you have to organize your thoughts within five minutes and give a presentation,” she said. “There is no script. Everyone was speaking from the heart, so I did not feel nervous and was able to say what I felt.” Program participants put energy and effort into discussing issues to come up with better ideas. There are no right answers nor is someone’s opinion better than someone else’s. “I was given the courage to speak up and that is the biggest asset that I took away from the program,” she said.


On the last day of the program, tears welled up in the eyes of all participants. “The program broadened my life,” Yuika said. “This was the best summer I’ve ever had.” 

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