From the Asian Students’ Alliance, South Asian Students Alliance and Southeast Asian Stu- dents Alliance to the Chinese Student Community and Vassar’s Korean percussion and dance orgs, the College’s Asian community may appear to be well-represented. However, despite being a major international player with the world’s third-largest economy, Japan’s footprint on campus feels hardly visible. With this year’s significant influx of students from Japan, some savvy sophomores are seizing the opportunity to establish a Japan-oriented student org: the Japan Association for Students (JAS). Founding members of JAS Miku Migita ’21, Hikari Tanaka ’21 and Karen Nakayama ’21 shared through email their blueprint for the organization and why they deem its founding necessary.
All three members agree that JAS’s fundamental philosophy is built on a foundation of inclusivity. They even carefully sculpted the name, “Japan Association for Students,” to reflect this. It is not an organization exclusively for Japanese students, but rather a space for all students to come together and associate through their personal interest in Japan. The founding members are a microcosm of varied forms of connection with the culture. Nakayama has lived in Japan for most of her life, Migita has spent some time overseas and went back home to attend a returnee-oriented school and Tanaka has lived in the United States since age three.
Nakayama explained, “I want this org to provide a space for people to convene and talk/enjoy any- thing about Japan. Japanese culture doesn’t need to be strictly defined. All of us come from different backgrounds and we interact with various cultures differently. If a student is interested in Japanese culture, we can provide a space and events to interact with Japanese culture at Vassar. But in the end, each student can find their own Japan.” Migita then expanded on the idea of “finding their own Japan,” saying, “JAS can be a homesickness remedy. For students on campus who are interested in Japan, it should be an opportunity for them to learn/come in touch with Japanese culture. Either way, I want JAS to be an inclusive and wholesome space where everyone is connected by their love and interest in Japan and its culture.”
Tanaka aspires to go beyond celebrating Japanese culture. She stated, “I want this org to be a place for people to freely talk about Japan, in terms of both its good and bad aspects.” She hopes that JAS can foster critical discussion and enjoyment of Japan and its culture, and that everyone can come away with new considerations and perspectives.
For those with direct connections to Japan, it may seem natural to seek out hubs of Japanese culture within the Vassar community. Yet there are also students who don’t have any personal tie but may still be interested in cultures other than their own. Speaking on which aspects of Japanese life may spark such students’ interests, Nakayama and Migita agreed that Japanese culture is a unique fu- sion of tradition and modernity. They differ, how- ever, on where and how they draw that divide.
Migita highlighted technology and its juxtaposition with the traditional: “It’s a weird feeling—on the way to the train station I would see beautiful shrines surrounded by nature, and a couple minutes later I would be on the most high-tech train you’ll ever see with high-quality TVs and comfy seating. Even Japanese houses symbolize the synchronization of modern and traditional culture— usually, people have both tatamis and flooring in their houses. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Nakayama, though, focused on the hybridization of the familiar and the foreign. She added, “I think Japanese culture is cool because it is a good mixture of tradition and modernity. Japan derives many aspects of tradition, food and kanji characters from the ancient Chinese civilization … On the other hand, we have always had a fascination with the Western culture since the industrialization in Meiji Ishin (1868), so the Western culture and art movement continued to influence and modernize us.” Sharing a personal anecdote, she continued, “I once saw a fancy cafe with the appearance of a traditional Japanese home in the middle of the rice fields, but with Norwegian minimalist furniture, and serving coffee and macarons.”
Tanaka thinks more along the lines of human universals. She remarked, “I think Japanese culture is interesting because it shows a different aspect of human nature. At first it might seem ‘exotic’ but when you examine it, Japanese culture and Japanese people just have followed a different way of interpreting and understanding society. I think it’s always great to understand the world through the ideas and experiences of others.”
When asked how she would go about removing this exoticism barrier, Tanaka replied, “Sometimes cultural exports create a caricature of the nation/ culture it originates from. I think it creates a sense of wonder that might at first seem like a compliment to the culture but in the end creates a ‘us (normal) vs. them (unusual)’ mentality. I hope the culture we are trying to show will create a more well-rounded picture of what Japan is like.”
While JAS is still in its incipient stages, its first order of business is hosting Japanese seasonal celebrations. For autumn, the members plan on hosting Otsukimi. As Migita explained, “Otsukimi is a traditional harvest celebration in Japan, where people offer susuki grass, rice dumplings and other crops to the full moon, as a show of gratitude for the har- vest. This celebration has adapted to the modern culture very well, and it is currently a day where people eat rice dumplings under the full moon. JAS is trying to do this at Vassar, where we eat sweet rice dumplings and other Autumn Japanese snacks, while doing cute arts and crafts with fallen leaves and twigs and, of course, origami. It will be a cute and chill study break with tasty snacks, so please come!”
The festival will encapsulate the values and philosophies that the org aims to convey. As a burgeoning pre-org, JAS is carrying forward a variety of cultural activities for Vassar.
[Full Disclosure: The author is a member of the Japan Association for Students.]