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A Journey ‘Home’ to Japan, for the First Time

A trip to Japan offered several young, Japanese-American students the chance to connect with their cultural roots for the first time ever.

A trip to Japan offered several young, Japanese-American students the chance to connect with their cultural roots for the first time ever. Courtesy Heidi Nielson

In the Fall of 2014, a handful of young, Japanese Americans were selected to travel to their families' country of origin as part of the Kakehashi Project through the Japanese American Citizens League. A few of the students agreed to document their trip, many of them visiting Japan for the first time, to capture the sights and sounds they experienced over the course of their journey. These are a few of their stories.

Heidi Nielson, 25, University of Arizona:

I'd always wanted to go to Japan for as long as I could remember. I grew up hearing about Japan from my grandparents, mostly my grandma, who always wanted us to go someday and kept us connected to our heritage. When my grandma died, I didn’t handle it well. We were very close, and she was always a role model of strength and resilience to me, having been crippled at a young age by severe arthritis. Before she died, she left me all of her journals and asked me to write her memoir. Ten years later, I still haven’t been able to open them. I wanted to go on the trip for so many reasons, but most of all I wanted to feel closer to my grandma and to a country that she loved.

Heidi Nielson on the Shinkansen -- Japan's high-speed railway line -- traveling from Sendai from Tokyo.
Heidi Nielson on the Shinkansen -- Japan's high-speed railway line -- traveling from Sendai from Tokyo. Courtesy Heidi Nielson

Arriving in Japan felt surreal and sometimes the trip skill feels like a dream. I got engaged the night before I left for Japan, and I kept telling my fiancé that it was like two dreams coming true at once.

My favorite day was when we arrived in Ten’ei Village. We were welcomed to Fukushima prefecture by the government, and the official made a special effort to talk to me about my great-grandparents, who emigrated from Fukushima. As we were driving to Ten’ei Village from Fukushima City, I kept marveling at the idea that I could have been looking at the same mountains and trees that my ancestors did.

My grandma always said that when she died, she hoped she could stop in Japan before going to heaven.

On our last full day in Japan, we went to Asakusa Shrine. It was a lovely rainy day to wander around the beautiful temple. I lit a candle for my grandma there. Even though it was such a small gesture, I felt happy thinking that there was a light burning for her in Japan.

Before I left, I felt like I was just beginning to learn what it means to be Japanese American. I joined JACL before applying for the program, and I felt so proud of the history of activism in the community. It is a history that I want to carry on as a soon-to-be attorney.

A view of Fukushima Prefecture -- from where Heidi Nielson's ancestors emigrated -- taken from the train while traveling from Sendai to Fukushima City.
A view of Fukushima Prefecture -- from where Heidi Nielson's ancestors emigrated -- taken from the train while traveling from Sendai to Fukushima City. Courtesy Heidi Nielson

I feel closer to not only my grandma, but also my whole family. When I came home, my mom, who has never been to Japan, was so excited to see and hear about everything. I brought her a lot of presents, but she was most excited when I showed her the picture of the candle I lit for my grandma. She told me that my grandma always said that when she died, she hoped she could stop in Japan before going to heaven.

Now that I’m back, my mom and I want to do more research on our roots in Japan, and I feel like I can finally start my grandma’s memoir.

The candle Heidi Nielson lit for her late grandmother at Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo.
The candle Heidi Nielson lit for her late grandmother at Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo. Courtesy Heidi Nielson
Elissa Ouchida, 24, California State University - Sacramento:

Prior to this trip my strongest connection to Japan was my grandparents. But the version of Japan they often talked about was very old, and seemed very distant to me. This trip was a chance for me to get a firsthand look at the land they often referenced.

Elissa Ouchida (far left) saw the trip to Japan as a chance to connect with the stories she heard growing up from her grandparents.
Elissa Ouchida (far left) saw the trip to Japan as a chance to connect with the stories she heard growing up from her grandparents. (left to right: Ouchida, Erin Tsutsumoto, Heidi Nielson, Miya Young) Courtesy Elissa Ouchida

Although half of our time was spent in Tokyo, it was the half spent in Sendai, Fukushima, and Ten'ei village that left the strongest impressions. This is where we faced the “onsen" -- a Japanese hot spring used for bathing. Public bathing.

Facing the public bath for the first time was terrifying. My Japanese side was excited to try something uniquely linked to my heritage. My American side was freaking out that others were going to see me naked. Despite the awkwardness, everyone was able to laugh past it. Bonding never happened so quickly. Looking back, our onsen experience makes me smile, and has become one of my fondest memories.

A somewhat terrifying event ended in comforting optimism for me. We are the true bridges between the two cultures. We can respect both our American and Japanese sides, and still know we have plenty to learn about each.

The Kakehashi Project is designed to help Japanese-American students connect with their cultural roots -- including everything from language and history to tradition and cuisine.
The Kakehashi Project is designed to help Japanese-American students connect with their cultural roots -- including everything from language and history to tradition and cuisine. Courtesy Elissa Ouchida

More than anything, the personal connections I made on the trip remain the most memorable. Everything and everyone we encountered placed such value on our shared history, while appreciating the present, and working towards a better future. In Japan, it seemed like what mattered most was responding with positive perseverance and kindness, regardless of what happened.

They made me a lot of what I am today. What I didn’t realize was how much the Japanese culture made them.

I can see now those values reflected in my own family. My grandparents gave me my moral compass with an appreciation for my history. My dad gave me my patience to comprehend the present, and my mom gave me my focus to work towards a better future. They made me a lot of what I am today. What I didn’t realize was how much the Japanese culture made them.

What this experience shed light on was that we are more than just Americans with Japanese ancestry. We are individuals who had preserved the core values of Japan and applied them to an American setting for multiple generations. Those values lead to the valor of the WWII Japanese-American troops, to the strength of Japanese-American civil rights leaders, and to the success of my 18 fellow travelers.

I am proud to say I was able to travel with them. I am proud to say I am Japanese American.

Elissa Ouchida says the trip allowed her to connect the values she was raised with to the culture from which they came.
Elissa Ouchida says the trip allowed her to connect the values she was raised with to the culture from which they came. Courtesy Elissa Ouchida
Layne Sakamoto, 22, UCLA:

I chose to participate in the Kakehashi program because I wanted to get in touch with my cultural roots. I had never been to Japan. My grandmother, or baachan, is from the Kanagawa-ken prefecture and always talks about her time growing up there. I wanted to see this beautiful place she speaks about so fondly.

I've always been interested in studying the Japanese language, and to get a better sense of who I am as a Japanese American. I was curious to see how life in Japan compares to our lives in America, and how we -- as Japanese Americans -- carry with us both customs.

Layne Sakamoto says she was struck as soon as she landed in Tokyo by the similarities and differences across both of her cultures -- American and Japanese.
Layne Sakamoto says he was struck as soon as he landed in Tokyo by the similarities and differences across both of his cultures -- American and Japanese. Courtesy Elissa Ouchida

As soon as we landed at Narita Airport, we were surrounded by people who looked like us. But I was struck by how people with such similar appearances can be so different. What stood out to me over time was just how kind the people in Japan are. On a rainy day, we visited Tokyo National Museum, and I was caught outside without an umbrella. An older woman passed by and offered me her umbrella. I politely declined, but she insisted, showing me she had another in her bag. She refused to take "no" for an answer, and I gratefully accepted her offer. I remember thinking this wouldn't be common in America.

I was struck by how people with such similar appearances can be so different.

The sight of the disaster-stricken areas in Sendai still sticks with me -- the empty streets, houses with just their foundations remaining -- the images are clear in my memory. It saddened me to learn that many people are not allowed to move back to the area as the soil is contaminated.

Staying at the Bunke ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Fukushima is something I'll never forget. We slept on tatami mats, bathed in hot springs, eat traditional meals, and wore yukatas. Because wi-fi wasn't readily accessible there, we all bonded really well too.

Before this trip, the only connection I had to Japan was my baachan -- the only one from my immediate family born there. But now, I have my own stories, my own memories, and my own experiences. I hope to visit Japan again, to become more involved in connecting our two cultures, and to learn more about the country that defines part of who I am.

An overnight stay at a traditional ryokan gave students a true Japanese experience.
An overnight stay at a ryokan in Fukushima gave students a chance to eat, sleep, and dress in traditional Japanese custom. (left to right: Elissa Ouchida, Heidi Nielson, Erin Tsutsumoto.) Courtesy Elissa Ouchida