This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Chikako Usui, was born and raised in Ojaki, in the Gifu Prefecture of Japan, about an hour’s train ride from Kyoto. Today, she is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and president of the Japan America Society of St. Louis.
And thanks to a new exchange program, those two worlds will be coming together even more beginning this summer.
With a $30,000 grant from the National Association of Japan-America Societies and Tomodachi, the St. Louis-Ishinomaki Friendship Program will bring young people from one of the hardest hit areas from 2011’s earthquake and tsunami to St. Louis.
Usui spoke with the St. Louis Beacon about this new collaboration and the strong ties between St. Louis and Japan. Answers were edited for length and clarity.
Beacon: What were you doing in 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami struck? Do you remember where you were?
Chikako Usui: I learned of the disaster as I read the Japanese newspaper online. I immediately called my brother and his family who live in Tokyo. Tokyo is about 200 miles southwest of Sendai, a major city in Tohoku. I learned that they felt a very strong earthquake and all the transportation was disrupted in Tokyo that day. It took 13 hours for his wife to return home that evening whereas it normally takes 40 minutes by train. My brother walked home that day for 1.5 hours because trains, subways, buses, and taxis were not available. He was lucky to get home as his home was centrally located in Tokyo and took only 1.5 hours of walking...
After the earthquake struck, you spent the year working with organizations in St. Louis to get aid to Japan, and followed up with a trip to Ishinomaki in 2012. How did that experience lead you to create the St. Louis - Ishinomaki exchange program?
Usui: In August 2012, Richard Colignon, a member of the JAS board, and I took a trip to Ishinomaki, near Sendai, on our own initiative. Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit areas by the earthquake and tsunami. Upon our return, JAS-St. Louis published a special edition of Japan Notes, “Tohoku after 500+ Days,” with articles by individuals/groups from St. Louis who traveled to see the affected areas. Immediately after that publication, the National Association of Japan America Societies announced grant opportunities for the exchange program involving youths from the Tohoku region. JAS-St. Louis was award a $30,000 grant for 2013, plus an additional grant for 2014.
The first group of students will come over this summer, tell us about their visit and what you hope they’ll experience during their stay in St. Louis?
Usui: Our program will bring 11 Japanese to St. Louis from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4. They include five students age 12-15 and three adults from Ishinomaki and three adults from Tokyo who have assisted the recovery efforts of Ishinomaki as volunteers. The Japanese visitors will stay with American host families and participate in the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden. We hope they will take home memories of fun, friendship, and cross-cultural understanding that could help them re-build their lives. The Japanese group will also manage a Tomodachi booth at the festival, including displays of photos and videos of the recovery efforts of the Tohoku area. To foster new friendship, 15 to 20 yukata, a summer kimono, will be presented to St. Louis youths.
In 2014, a group of young people from St. Louis will visit Japan. Again, what do you hope they’ll learn from the trip?
Usui: We hope to visit Ishinomaki and Suwa, St. Louis’ Sister City. We want to invest in the next generation of Japanese and American people and deepen the friendship between the two countries through grassroots level people-to-people exchanges. The youths from St. Louis will stay with Japanese families and participate in Japanese cultural or festival activities.
St. Louis already has solid ties with Japan, with several organizations devoted to Japanese culture, and the Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual Japanese Festival. Can you tell us about the origin of those ties?
Usui: The Japan-America Society of Saint Louis was founded in 1967 with the mission to promote the exchange and understanding between the people of Japan and the United States. The society is a non-profit, non-partisan, educational and cultural organization. It offers information about Japan and provides variety of public education programs about Japan and U.S.-Japan relations.
The Japanese festival originated in the 1950s when the first and second generation Japanese Americans and Japanese in St. Louis produced the festival every year. They raised seed money for construction of a Japanese garden in St. Louis and approached Peter Raven, then Missouri Botanical Garden president. The result of these efforts led to the dedication of the Japanese Garden, Seiwa-en, meaning the garden of harmony and peace, on 14-acres in 1977. Since then the Japan America Society of St. Louis and the Missouri Botanical Garden have developed a very unique partnership in hosting the annual Japanese festival. The Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the largest Japanese Garden in North America and the festival has become one of the largest and oldest Japanese Festivals in North America, bringing in between 30,000 to 50,000 people annually.