TOMODACHI tackles economic development, mental health and agriculture

Building the TOMODACHI Generation teams tackle economic development, mental health and agriculture in fourth annual program

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Six years after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown ravaged Japan’s Tohoku region, citizens are still struggling with the disaster’s devastating effects. Addressing some of those vexing social and economic issues is the goal of students who participate in the Building the TOMODACHI Generation: Morgan Stanley Ambassadors Program, now in its fourth year. A partnership among The Washington Center, the U.S.-Japan Research Institute and the U.S.-Japan Council’s TOMODACHI Initiative brings together Japanese and U.S.-based students to develop civil society solutions for the Tohoku Region while learning critical teamwork skills and practicing cross-cultural understanding.


For the first part of the two-week session in February and March 2017, 12 Japanese and nine U.S. students studied the civil society model in both theory and practice -- which involves the interplay between nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental actors. Through lectures and panel discussions, students learned how the model operates in both countries, and how it can be leveraged to address ongoing issues, such as those facing the Tohoku region. Simultaneously, the students organically learned how to solve an important practical challenge: language and cultural differences.


“Overcoming the linguistic and cultural barriers was an endeavor that enriched my capacity for problem solving and amplified my perspective about the different structures in which other cultures operate when completing a project,” said Valeria Barquero Sotomayor, a TWC Cordova y Fernos student from the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras.


“We were all collaborative, supportive, and respectful of each other,” said Sayaka Okumoto, from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. “The U.S. students were kind enough to help break the language difficulties that we had – they were willing to explain anytime to us about anything that made us confused.”


In the program’s second phase, the students broke into three teams. Each team was tasked with developing a project that harnesses the strengths of civil society to solve an existing problem in the Tohoku region. Students appreciated the ability to directly apply the skills they learned to a real-world issue.


“My biggest takeaway from the TOMODACHI program was learning how to think on the macro and micro level,” said Joshua McCowen, a TWC student from St. Mary’s University in Maryland. “In this scenario, it was about creating a development project, but being able to focus on a specific point while also zooming out to see the big picture is a universal skill that can be applied anywhere.”


In the concluding session of the TOMODACHI program, the teams presented their final projects to a panel of three judges at TWC’s Residential and Academic Facility on March 3. The judges included Laura Winthrop Abbott, formerly of the U.S.-Japan Council and the U.S. Department of State; Glen O’Gilvie, of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement; and Katsuichi Uchida, of the U.S.-Japan Research Institute.


A plan to establish a business development center in Tamura, Fukushima, devised by Team Mesa received top honors at the event. The town is only about an hour from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant whose meltdown sparked the radiation crisis throughout the region in March 2011. Citizens could not return for full residency until 2014, and since then, economic development has stagnated. The center envisioned by Team Mesa would, in the short term, offer courses and seed funding to nurture startups in the technology sector. In the medium term, the plan calls for construction of a building to house the program. In the long term, Team Mesa hopes the center will provide a foundation for a sustainable small business community. The team – including members Okamoto, Sayo Kurokawa, Misato Oi, Aino Owada, Emma Hostra-Schubert, Brandon McAuliff and Gabrielle Weatherbee – received a $200 GlobalGiving gift card to donate to a cause of their choosing in the Tohoku region.


The other two presentations received kudos from the judges as well. Team Mamagochi & Co. proposed a network of educational and social supports for youth displaced from their native Miyagi Prefecture because of the disaster. The network would help these young citizens, now in various places around Japan, manage stress, loneliness, and lack of self-confidence because of their displacement. The team included Koichi Imura, Sae Kobayashi, Kyoka Takeda, Mayuko Tanaka, Sarah Clancy, Jonathan Kelland and Elizabeth Marin.


Team Land of Rising Stars focused on increasing participation in farming and societal trust in agricultural products grown in the village of Aizu-Wakamatsu. The first part of the proposal included collaborating with a local agricultural co-op to identify and tap new markets for products. The second prescribed partnering with local schools to combat rumors about the quality of agricultural goods in the wake of the nuclear disaster. Team members included Barquero Sotomayor, McCowen, Minamo Akiyama, Manatsu Hirashima, Akane Katayama, Honoko Nishio and Samuel Bork.


Following the event, Japanese students returned to their universities and the U.S. students resumed their semester programs at TWC, armed with a host of new skills applicable to their studies and their careers. But for some, the TOMODACHI experience had an even deeper impact.


“Before joining the program, I was very nervous, because I had been studying art at the university, and it seemed difficult for me to be an interesting person for other participants who might have learned about sociology, economics, politics, and other subjects more related to the theme of the program,” said Akiyama, who is majoring in aesthetics and art history at Doshisha University. “But when I shared opinions in group discussions or asked questions to panel guests, I realized that my opinions or questions reflected my knowledge and experiences in the art field and therefore were likely a new perspective for the others. The program was a fantastic moment to think about the same topic with people who had various backgrounds – and to realize that I was an interesting person because I had my own unique background.”


To see the photos from the two week event click here.

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