TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars from Sophia University talk diversity with LMU

Friendships in the United States — especially in diverse cities like Los Angeles — often reach beyond racial and ethnic lines.  But as a globally minded and intellectually open university, Loyola Marymount University encourages its students to broaden their horizons even further through a wide range of international opportunities.

Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan is a fellow Jesuit institution and one of the many esteemed schools that LMU works with to promote understanding and appreciation of cross-border cooperation.  As of spring 2018, there are roughly 1200 international students attending LMU from over 90 countries, including one student from Sophia.  Between Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, 23 Sophia undergraduates and two faculty members joined us as part of the TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars Program.

Over the course of their trip, Sophia students toured the LMU campus and visited LA hotspots.  Stops off-campus included the Japanese American National Museum, Museum of Tolerance, the Hammer Museum, Japan House at Hollywood & Highland, Olvera Street, and the Japanese Consulate.  On-campus activities included First Amendment Week with Jemele Hill, presentations by Ethnic and Intercultural Services, a midday concert put on by various LMU student organizations and an LMU women’s basketball game.

The TOMODACHI (“friend”) Initiative was established by the U.S. Embassy in Japan, in collaboration with the US-Japan Council (USJC) following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.  The USJC facilitates a number of grant programs supported through private-public partnerships.  It sponsors youth exchange to create the “Tomodachi Generation” — a cadre of youth and young adult leaders enhancing US-Japan relations.

The TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars Program honors the life and service of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).  It is embedded in Japan’s larger Kakehashi Project (“The Bridge for Tomorrow”), which seeks to inspire a new generation of leaders in Japan and around the world.

TOMODACHI youth exchanges are organized by the USJC and other international organizations. Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks in BCLA’s Asian and Asian American Studies Department serves on the USJC as a council leader.  He coordinated LMU’s 2014 TOMODACHI delegation and is now working with a new cohort of student leaders.

“This [program] is not a reward for what you have done,” said Rooks at a breakfast reception for Sophia and LMU TOMODACHI Scholars. “Though you are all accomplished, this isn’t a program that’s a reward for that, it’s a promise of what you will become.”

LMU Provost Thomas Poon stopped by and shared his support for such international camaraderie.  “U.S. ambassadors say exchange programs are the best way to create strong, lasting, influential, and educational relationships between countries,” said Poon.  “I hope this won’t be the last time that LMU and Sophia engage … in fact, I’m sure it isn’t.”

Breakfast extended into brunch when the Sophia students gave a surprise presentation.  They discussed Japanese fashion and school life, dressed LMU students in yukata and happi (different from kimono), and led the crowd in “Soran Bushi,” a traditional dance celebrating the fishermen of Hokkaido.

LMU TOMODACHI Scholar Matthew Williams engaged the Sophia scholars in a conversation about the significance of pride and LGBTQ+ issues in America that many of the Japanese students were curious about.  Stephanie Smith shared what being a black woman in America means to her, and Francesco Castelo admired the interethnic cooperation he often sees among American children.  Karla Ramirez said she is excited to learn more about Japanese culture as a Latina raised in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that was filled with Japanese-American families prior to their forced removal and incarceration in the 1940s.

Students later met in Malone for an open discussion on race, ethnicity, and nationality through the lens of ethnic studies.  Panelists included Dr. Stefan Bradley, chair of African-American studies, Dr. Priscilla Leiva, assistant professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies, and Dr. Rooks.

On their last full day, Sophia students held a reporting session in the Sullivan Academic Center to share about their weeklong experience.

“I was impressed by the diversity of the United States, California, and LMU,” said second-year student Shota Awatsuji. “[Different people] influence each other in positive ways … but I also learned that there is a problem of discrimination … and it’s important to speak about those issues.”

Shows like Glee and Friends may have helped Awatsuji learn English (and plenty of humor), but his time in LA taught the global studies major that there is much more to American culture than he initially understood.

Satomi Hosoi, a first-year English major, echoed Awatsuji when she and her group discussed the lessons they learned about LGBTQ+ pride and diversity.

“The members of our group … always thought that the U.S. was ahead [on this subject],” she said, “… so we were surprised when Matthew [Williams] explained to us how he thought, in a way, Japan has a good environment [for LGBTQ+ discussions.]”

“[What’s] important is not only learning about different types of diversity, but the diversity within diversity,” said Hosoi.  This idea of “intersectionality” was a key concept Dr. Rooks and LMU students focused on in the weeks preparing for their Sophia counterparts, and it was clear the message got through.

Each group of Sophia students presented an action plan outlining how they will take these lessons back home with them.  From websites and social media to articles and high school outreach, Sophia’s TOMODACHI Inouye Scholars are planning many ways to teach and celebrate diversity.

Just as Sophia students came to L.A. for intercultural exchange, from March 3 to March 11, LMU’s TOMODACHI Inouye delegation will set out on its own international journey.  Through tours of Tokyo, meetings with Japanese leaders, a home stay in Hiroshima, and more, LMU students will learn about Japanese life, how to engage as young American leaders, and how to incorporate lessons they learn abroad into their lives back home.

Political science major Dylan Ramos is a junior and 2017-18 LMU TOMODACHI Inouye Scholar.