By: SHIYANA GUNASEKARA
Washington: Over the winter break, SAIS students and Reischauer Center researchers were selected to travel to Japan as part of the Government of Japan’s KAKEHASHI Project. The unique trip served as a supplementary experience to Professor Kent Calder’s Fall 2017 Asian Energy Security course.
The exchange is intended to help strengthen the bonds between the United States and Japan through shared experience. It did that and more for me. It allowed us to learn first-hand about our different cultures and common values, by building strong personal ties that will stay with us throughout our personal and professional endeavors.
The week-long visit was an opportunity to experience the U.S.-Japan relationship, rather than simply reading about it. The most memorable portion of the week was our time in the Kumamoto Prefecture, where we stayed with local families in the area. In the United States, we do not have many of the same traditions that they do in Japan, such as frequenting a public bathhouse, or onsen. Experiencing an onsen will make any newcomer feel awkward and hesitant. However, many of us quickly overcame shyness, put our toes in the water and truly took part in the Japanese tradition.
Although I met the other participating students just a few months ago, and my host mother only upon our arrival, the experience encouraged us to share and be open with each other. It speaks to an openness and transparency of Japanese culture, one that the United States shares, particularly when engaging with the global community. The KAKEHASHI project was an opportunity for many of us to build strong personal ties, grounded in the common values that our countries hold.
On a geopolitical front, the trip also confirmed what I understood as a mutually beneficial relationship between Tokyo and Washington, and highlighted the potential for increased energy cooperation. While Japan’s expertise in high-efficiency low emissions (HELE) power plant technologies and joint energy infrastructure development will undoubtedly be the focal points of any Indo-Pacific cooperation between the two countries, Tokyo’s leadership in the Asian liquified natural gas (LNG) market is what positions Japan as the ideal energy partner for the United States in the long run.
KAKEHASHI means “an arched bridge” in Japanese – and this project builds a bridge between America and Japan for reciprocity of ideas and friendship. Leaving Tokyo, I genuinely felt a new connection to Japan. I feel invested in the welfare of the Japanese people and the U.S.-Japan relationship. As someone interested in working on Asian affairs in the U.S. government, I hope to work on forging new partnerships between our two countries while deepening our existing ties. To quote a guest from our final presentation, the exchange sends a powerful message of “the importance of building bridges, not walls.”
Shiyana is a second year MA student concentrating in South Asia Studies and specializing in Asian International Relations. Her interests include the Indian Ocean region and energy geopolitics. You can find her on Twitter at @shiyanaa.