Speech Contest Kakehashi Participant's Report

Wesley Warriner is a student of University Washington. He visited Japan in January 2017 as part of the Kakehashi Project, a Japanese government educational exchange program.

By Wesley Warriner
Our Kakehashi group atop Mt. Nokogiri

This January I had the opportunity to spend eight days in Tokyo and Chiba as a participant in the Kakehashi Project, sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). There were eight other students from the U.S. with me for the duration of the program, and together we experienced a side of Japan that I would imagine most tourists don’t take the time to even think about.

While in Tokyo we did spend some time sightseeing, taking sojourns to Asakusa, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Odaiba, etc., but for me the most eye-opening part of the trip was when I had the opportunity to interact with members of Japanese society, and discuss some of the social and economic issues with which they are faced on a daily basis. I had already been to Japan a couple of times in the past, so while sightseeing in Tokyo was nothing new to me, I always find it enlightening to interact on a personal level with the people there. When I visited Japan back in 2015 as a solo vacationer, I spent a month moving from homestay to homestay, ranging from Hokkaido down to Ehime, and I have to say that as a student just coming out of high school, I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling experience. Up to that point I hadn’t travelled outside of the United States for more than a few days at a time, and I believe that nothing helped me grow more as a person than being thrust into and immersing myself in that hitherto unfamiliar environment.

Taking this previous trip into consideration, I wanted to once again challenge myself and experience something new through the Kakehashi Project. I knew that just being in Japan and enjoying a free vacation would not be a successful use of my time (nor of MOFA’s resources), so whenever I had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of Japanese people, and the environment in which they live, I decided to take it. As a student studying economics at the University of Washington, I am particularly interested in some of the broad social, cultural, and of course, economic challenges confronting Japan today. While there are arguably countless problems facing any society, a couple of major issues that I focused on were the activity of women in the workforce, and the potentially crippling demographic shifts associated with Japan’s rapidly aging population. While there is clearly no perfect solution to these problems, during my week in Tokyo and Chiba, I was able to draw some insight into how Japanese politicians and society members are working to deal with them.
 
With Mr. Hagiuda at the Prime Minister's residence

For instance, on our second day in Tokyo, my Kakehashi group visited the Prime Minister’s residence and had the opportunity to hold a private Q & A session with the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hagiuda Koichi. I took advantage of this opportunity to ask him about the Abe administration’s Womenomics policies and their efforts in dealing with low female labor force participation, as well as gender discrimination in the workplace. Japan’s gender gap, particularly when it comes to upper management positions, is astonishingly wide by OECD standards. Due to rather rigid social expectations and the often unforgiving Japanese workplace environment, it is hard for women to pursue a career and move up, especially if family and child-rearing are to be considered. That is why, in addition to more comprehensive regulation on the political front, I believe that part of the solution to this issue, and many social issues in Japan for that matter, must come in part from a change in cultural and social preconceptions.
After a brief stay in Tokyo, we all headed across the Aqua Line to Chiba Prefecture, to a little town known as Kyonan-machi. Here we stayed with residents of the town (I was personally lucky enough to stay in the home of a particularly vibrant town councilwoman), and got a taste of life in a relatively small Japanese community. However, Kyonan-machi is one of those places truly suffering the effects of Japan’s low birthrate and overwhelming aging population. Situated too far from Tokyo for people to commute, and with no young industries nearby to attract labor, Kyonan-machi is home to a vast majority of retired individuals and couples with no children to inherit the town. When we all met with the mayor during our visit, I remember that despite his good humor and clever jokes, there was a distinct tone of desperation in his voice as he worried for the future of his home.
Our homestay family

The final experience that I would like to mention, and the one that gave me a bit more hope for Japan’s future, was when we visited Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Chiba City. After I gave a quick speech about stepping out of your comfort zone and personal growth, we talked in small groups with students there about gender discrimination and the disparity between social expectations in Japan and in the U.S. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the students were already seriously thinking about how traditional views of gender roles could be modernized, and the positive effect such a shift could have on Japan’s society and economy.
 
Discussing traditional social expectations at KUIS

In retrospect, what I have ultimately drawn from my Kakehashi experience is a reason to return. In order to understand the social and economic issues with which Japan is faced, and more importantly the potential solutions, I hope to go back and perhaps conduct research in Japan in the future. As for now, I will be attending Hitotsubashi University as an exchange student this Fall, where I expect to further my foundation for studying these conundrums, which promise to rank among the hot issues of the 21st century.

Regardless of where my studies take me in the future, I am truly grateful that I could participate in the Kakehashi Project, and sincerely thank the Consulate-General of Seattle for nominating me in the first place. Thanks to the Consulate, my interest in Japan has been renewed, and I certainly plan to head back soon.