Fukushima CIR Wins Essay Competition

Billy McMichael, 2nd-year Fukushima CIR, was recently awarded the Grand Jury Prize in the 17th Annual JET Programme Essay Competition, Japanese Language Division. Congratulations Billy!

If you haven’t received the 2009 JET Journal yet, you can read Billy’s essay, “Katsu Curry”, online:
Original (Japanese, PDF)
Translation (English, PDF)

Billy also had an essay published in the Daily Yomiuri last month that talks about his work to promote intercultural acceptance and understanding within the prefecture. This essay, “The Speaker Behind the Mask”, is included below. Congrats again to Billy, you’re an inspiration!

The Speaker Behind the Mask

“Without further ado, please welcome our guest speaker for today.”

On that cue, the speaker enters the classroom. To everyone’s surprise, however, the speaker is wearing a mask and gloves.

An unexpected entrance by this mysterious masked speaker has an electrifying effect on the audience. The speaker is introduced as a Japanese national who once lived and studied in Canada, yet not a word is said about why the speaker is in disguise.

Amidst clamor from the crowd, the speaker starts an ice breaking activity in which participants play a simple game that requires clapping hands with a partner without making eye contact or using speech. Through this ice breaking activity, participants discover that there are more forms to communication than just speaking or using body gestures.

The ice breaker has its desired effect, and the audience is full of life. The speaker then decides to shock them again by suddenly taking the mask off. Without the mask, the audience quickly realizes that the speaker is actually not Japanese, but a foreigner. This performance, made possible only by the speaker’s ability to speak fluent, non-accented Japanese, causes another great stir in the crowd as few can hide their surprise. The speaker explains his reason for wearing a mask as to prevent people from judging him by his appearance. Many people in the prefecture today suffer from being judged and prejudiced solely on their appearance, the audience finds out.

This is then followed by a series of activities that focus on identifying stereotypes and prejudices people have towards those from different cultures. For example, participants play a game in which they must choose a photo of a Canadian out of many photos of people from different racial backgrounds. While most participants subconsciously choose Caucasian looking people as being Canadian, the actual answer is all of them are Canadian except the Caucasian looking people. In fact, the participants find out, the Caucasian looking people in the photos are Japanese nationals.

Finally, the speaker introduces “Celebrate Diversity,” a philosophy common in multicultural countries such as Canada that views differences between cultures and races as something that enriches us, not divide us. He then concludes with activities about the importance of eliminating stereotypes and being open to differences when interacting with foreign nationals. “In order to get rid of stereotypes”, the speaker advises, “please become friends with as many foreigners as possible. Don’t avoid us, or give us special treatment. Remember that its important to view us as ordinary people, and treat us as you would treat any other friend”.

This is a shortened version of a workshop I run as part of my work for promoting intercultural acceptance and understanding within my prefecture.

My name is William (Billy) McMichael, and I am a 2nd year CIR/PA from Canada currently working for the Fukushima International Association. When I first arrived in Fukushima, I was quick to learn through phone calls from disgruntled foreign citizens that in spite of its breathtakingly beautiful scenery and good natured people, a prejudicial attitude towards foreigners persisted in the prefecture, full of unfair judgments and stereotypes. This attitude found expression in a large number of reported incidents of xenophobic discrimination and social exclusion.

For this reason, over the past year I feel very fortunate to have been a part of my contracting organization’s goal of promoting intercultural coexistence in the prefecture. For example, I was encouraged to travel around the prefecture doing my aforementioned workshops, and interact with hundreds of locals ranging from elementary school children to senior citizens. Through these workshops, I was able to use myself as a real-life example of one who aspires to be non- judgmental in his dealings with others, while observing first-hand the state of internationalization (or lack thereof) in Fukushima.

I experienced many different forms of internationalization at the grass roots level; from organizing and running international festivals that attract over 5000 visitors, to participating in local events and joining local club activities, to supplying information on everyday matters to locals on a regular, steady pace via monthly radio appearances, running English websites, and creating multilingual monthly newsletters.

For someone like me who has dreamt from a young age of becoming a bridge between my home country and Japan, this past year in Fukushima has been a wonderful learning experience for which I am very grateful to the people I have met here. They have given me an enormous boost in confidence, and a renewed ambition to pursue my lifelong dream.

Although I understand that the prevalence or success of grass root internationalization is not easily measured, when I receive comments such as ” I realized for the first time I had developed stereotypes in me. I now understand that all citizens around the world are similar and are friends”, and “I will now judge people by what is inside, and not by their outer appearance or preconceived image,” from participants in my post-workshop surveys, I feel certain that internationalization is happening and that even I can help make a difference. It is this feeling of possibility that encourages me today. When I was seven years old, after reading a novel on Inazou Nitobe I told my parents, “When I grow up, I want to be a bridge that spans the Pacific between Canada and Japan.” Nineteen years have passed now, and thanks to the JET Program, I feel for the first time in my life I am making important progress towards becoming that person.

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