The power of exchange: Deepening the ties between the US and Japan

Connie Dang

This month marks the start of Grand Valley State University’s annual Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about the rich and diverse array of Asian cultures and societies that have helped shape the lives of so many in our community.

This year’s celebration has special meaning for me. I recently had the privilege of joining a delegation of Asian-American leaders from across the U.S. in a visit to Japan as part of the Kakehashi Project, a people-to-people exchange program led by the government of Japan.  

Kakehashi means “an arched bridge” in Japanese. The program serves as a bridge to friendship between Japan and the U.S. by fostering an exchange of ideas, dialogues and shared experiences about our people, cultures and policies. Through this program, Japan selected 10 Asian-American leaders from a diverse array of professional backgrounds.

During our visit, I was inspired by the stories of my accomplished fellow participants, who reflect the diverse heritages of Asian-Americans across the country. Our ancestors, who came from Burma, China, India, Korea, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam, gave us the opportunity to live and flourish in the U.S. Today, we live in Michigan, California, Colorado, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, D.C., serving in our communities as attorneys, mayors, state commissioners, policymakers and board chairs of prominent organizations.

Our group bonded as we traveled from Tokyo to Hiroshima and Kyoto. The Kakehashi Project activities were thoughtfully designed, well-rounded and comprehensive. We toured the world famous Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima, Gekkeikan sake brewery, Myoshinji Temple, and the Zazen meditation and tea ceremony at the Shuko-in. And, I’d be remiss not to mention one of the most impressive experiences (which I am still bragging about to family and friends): riding on Japan’s high-speed bullet train, the Shinkansen.

The trip also afforded us the opportunity to meet with Japanese government officials, including the state minister for foreign affairs, Masahisa Sato. Our conversations highlighted the democratic and cultural values shared by our two nations. They spanned Japan’s legislative process, the “cool Japan” policy, the role of the city bureau, housing, railways and infrastructure, science and technology (including the robotics industry), gender equality and the nation’s education system. We were empowered to ask critical questions and truly engage with our own ideas and perspectives.

An area with which I naturally connected and saw an opportunity for further deepening ties, particularly right here at GVSU, is the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Since 1987, JET participants have been instrumental in helping Japanese students cultivate the cultural competency and English fluency to ensure a successful study-abroad experience. Conversely, the JET Program has prepared Americans for a variety of career options in the Japanese education system. It’s a global living and learning experience. I am currently working with a coordinator from the Japan International Cooperation Center to explore the prospect of bringing a group of Japanese high school students to visit secondary and post-secondary education institutions here in Michigan.

As I reflect on this memorable visit to Japan, I am grateful for the hospitality and kindness as well as the close insights into the nation. It is a learning experience that brings people closer together in better understanding and appreciating societies different from our own. Through one person and one activity—such as Kakehashi and our heritage celebration—we can continue to strengthen the “arched bridge” connecting Japan and the U.S.