Koichiro Yasukawa (left)
and Hideya Matsumoto (right)

This month’s Close UP features the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC), which is held every summer by bringing together 36 students each from Japan and the United States. During the conference, the 72 students live and spend time together for approximately one month to discuss various global issues. Since its establishment in 1934, JASC has been supported by student participants from various backgrounds, some of who have later become significant political figures, including former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. From planning to organization, the Conference is managed by the students themselves with support from the International Education Center currently. For this interview, we spoke with Hideya Matsumoto, a senior student at Keio University studying business and chairman of last year’s JASC, and Koichiro Yasukawa, a senior student at Waseda University studying law and the selected chairman for this year’s upcoming JASC.

Matsumoto:When I was a sophomore, I had participated in a different international exchange program and someone I met through that program had told me about JASC. I was not sure if it would be a good idea to join JASC in my junior year because a lot of juniors spend their summer doing internships or going job hunting. But I eventually took his advice that I would be happier joining JASC rather than seeking out a job. I participated in the 60th conference and was fascinated by the opportunities I was given during the conference to meet new people from various backgrounds and from different fields. I later decided to serve as the chairman for the following 61st conference.

Yasukawa:I first became interested in JASC when my mother, who is an English teacher, brought back a brochure of the conference to show me. I was a reserve for the 59th conference so had not been able to participate. However, my older sister participated in the 60th conference so I felt encouraged to try again. Fortunately, I was able to join the 61st conference and have been nominated as the chairman for the 62nd conference this year. To tell you the truth, I decided to postpone my graduation this year so that I would be able to fulfill my duties at the conference. I even turned down a job I had been offered. It was probably a drastic decision, but luckily my family supported it.
Reports from the past conferences
tell of JASC’s 75-year history

Yasukawa:Anyone who is currently a student at a university, graduate school, two-year college or professional college in Japan is eligible to apply, including foreign exchange students. We normally receive two to three hundred applications each year, and twenty-eight of those applicants will be selected to represent Japan as participants. During the selection process, our main focus is on the applicants’ communication skills. Here, what really matters is whether they have their own messages they want to convey. Those who have a willingness to convey what they have to say will eventually go on to become great communicators, even though they might not be great English speakers at first.

Matsumoto:I think it is also important if the person is “able to fit in.” At the conference, 72 people will be living together for one month, you see. For the committee members, candidates who were participants in former years nominate themselves, and from them, eight from each country will then be selected.

Yasukawa:Yes, some of the main events prior to the conference include a spring camp following the selection of the participants and a pre-conference camp just before we leave for the conference. At these camps, the participants build a base for round tables, which composes the main part of the conferences. We also receive training to become familiar with participating in discussions by learning communication techniques from guest instructors, having discussions with foreign exchange students, and meeting with groups of American nationals. For some participants, maintaining discussions in English can be frustrating at first - I once saw a participant burst into tears.

Matsumoto:The camps also help us form closer relationships with other participants. The age of JASC participants ranges from teens to those in their thirties and forties. Educational backgrounds also vary widely. Therefore, it is very important to build a level relationship that extends beyond age gaps and varying fields of interest. From the very first meeting of the Japanese participants at a spring camp, we call each other by our first names and do not use any polite honorifics.
Matsumoto:Yes, last year’s conference took place in Japan. Every year, the conference travels to four locations. For the 61st conference which took place last year, we stayed in Tokyo, Hakodate, Nagano, and Kyoto. Among those, the participants from the U.S. especially enjoyed their homestay in Obuse-machi, Nagano. They were really impressed by the hospitality of the Japanese.

Yasukawa:I also took back some fond memories from Nagano. Among the American participants, there was a guy named Paul who I believe was about five years older than I am. I had been having a hard time getting along with him. He was a writer who had traveled around the world and I had disliked him because he often interrupted conversations during our discussions by bringing up his own stories and showing off what he knew. However, when we were playing soccer during the camp in Nagano, Paul and I made some nice passes between us. My impression of him changed a lot since then and I started feeling some respect for him, even for knowing so much about the world when I didn’t. I guess it must have carried through to him as well, because the communication soon became really smooth between us after that.


Matsumoto:I saw a strength in the U.S. participants, which may have been nurtured by the diversity of races and cultures in their country. They voice their opinions directly at each other and these often clash, but then they eventually come up with a mutually agreed-upon opinion. I got the impression that they really are a melting pot, living together in harmony while still acknowledging mutual differences. In contrast, the Japanese side tended to let their differences in opinion sort of slide by. I do think we are quite good at combining elements from different ideas, though.

Yasukawa:Through participating in the conference, I felt that we as Japanese think with a very grounded sort of state of mind but then are not good at expressing them directly in words. There is a feeling among Japanese that the listener will know what they are getting at without them having to actually spit it out. This doesn’t stand so well with Americans. Not speaking out is as good as not having any opinion at all. Of course, I’m not saying that we should throw away our culture with its emphasis on wa or harmony. I believe it is possible to communicate without causing conflict if we can voice our opinion while still showing respect to the opinions of the other. Given the current situation, I think it might even be necessary for us to develop the skills to share this Japanese value of harmony to the world.  

Yasukawa:I think Japanese tend to avoid confrontation. We don’t like to be seen as being different from others. While confrontation is always going to be difficult, I do think that we can create a genuine bond with a person once that situation is overcome. During the one month of the conference, there are several stages regarding forming bonds with others which continue to change over the course of the relationship of the participants, starting from “getting to know each other” and progressing through “harboring a sense of rivalry,” “mutual confrontation,” and “overcoming differences.” It can be hard sometimes to go through these phases, but this is one of the real benefits of JASC that only participants will be able to experience.

With Akiko Goto from the International Education Center which provides support for student participants

Yasukawa:We have set our theme for this year as “To Understand, To Unite, To Act: Continuous Evolution through Integrated Perspectives.” It is not always easy for students to view global issues as directly connected to them, but as students, we are also in a position to speak out precisely because we are free to do so. We are looking forward to making ground with some active discussions with the other participants. The conference will take place in the United States, and we will be touring Richmond (IN), Washington D.C., New Orleans, and San Francisco. Our homestay this year will be in New Orleans, with has a very unique culture created by a diversity of ethnicities. We will keep posting updates on our latest news and activities on the website and blog. We look forward to keeping you all up to date on further developments.