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Humanity on Full View at Scholarship Luncheon

SNA (Tokyo) — Art is an innate need to express, to create, to translate the jumble of thoughts and ideas and emotions and feelings that make us human into a shared experience. It is an expression of our humanity. It was no surprise, therefore, that the subject of art was central to the conversations at the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) luncheon at the Tokyo American Club on May 9.

CWAJ hosts Japan’s annual premiere print show, where some of the country’s top print artists—Daniel Kelly and Toko Shinoda, for example—exhibit along with up-and-comers. The mix of subjects, styles, techniques and perspectives on exhibit at the show exemplify diversity.

What was surprising was how often the subject of humanity threaded its way into every conversation at a luncheon meant simply to announce the winners of this year’s CWAJ scholarships (funded by the print show sales).

Eri Tayama, a recipient of a CWAJ Study Abroad scholarship, recounted her experiences as a Japanese Red Cross (JRC) aid worker in various conflict zones. Her most recent work was in Bangladesh with the Rohingya refugees.

An estimated 900,000 Rohingya have fled to southern Bangladesh from Myanmar. The lack of privacy, crowded conditions, and spread of disease due to unsanitary conditions has been described as inhumane, yet aid organizations struggle to reach the most vulnerable since language barriers prevent them from communicating vital information.

Tayama identified and helped train Rohingya individuals to serve as interpreters who could reach deep into the refugee communities and get that information and aid to those even on the fringes of the camp. Empowering people in the Rohingya community fosters a degree of human dignity among the refugees, she said, and helps fight feelings of helplessness and victimization.

Bangladesh is thousands of miles from Tokyo, and the lives of refugees vastly different than the lives of the women in a dining room at the Tokyo American Club. Yet here were women not only discussing their common humanity with Rohingya refugees, but also actively supporting Tayama in her effort to provide people in disaster and conflict areas with tools to maintain their human dignity.

Tayama will use her CWAJ scholarship, to enter the Master’s program in International Affairs at Columbia University with the intention of developing humanitarian policies for disaster and conflict zones.

Tayama’s tale is typical of discussions about humanity, discussions that usually center around the terrible things people do to each other—wars, torture, genocide. And while violence and fear are certainly part of our humanity, the vast majority of our existence is a mixture of compassion and generosity, tolerance and love, the search for knowledge that inspires us to be better people. In other words, all the things that counter our baser instincts. The scholarship recipients were shining examples of the higher levels of humanity that we all aspire to:

—Misaki Takahashi, who at the age of twelve visited Brazil as a Gunma Prefecture Green Child Ambassador. She saw first-hand how deforestation was not only an environmental disaster, but also a force in damaging the health of communities, families and children no different than herself. “I felt I had to do something. I had a responsibility, as a consumer, as a human, to help in some way.” With the CWAJ Study Abroad Scholarship, Takahashi will study practical, on-the-ground solutions to combating climate change through forestry management.

—Ayaka Munakata, whose father died of cancer when she was just four years old, was not allowed in the room with him because she was deemed too young. The fact that she could do nothing as a young child to ease his pain affected her so profoundly, she became a nurse with the specific purpose of aiding patients and families through their hospital experiences. She was awarded one of the CWAJ Fukushima Relief Scholarships and will further her study in patient palliative care.

—Marina Amimoto lost her sight at the age of three to retinal cancer, and the use of a leg at the age of nine to bone marrow cancer. It would be understandable for this two-time cancer survivor to focus on her own personal difficulties and struggle for survival. Yet, the difficulty she and her parents faced in communicating with doctors about her disease motivated her to a career in social work so that other children and families would not have to suffer the same lack of communication during such stressful times.

—Kaiki Itono, the only male to receive a CWAJ scholarship, found a humorous way to explain the importance of his work, which is studying the “worker’s mind” to determine why, even under periods of extreme stress, people don’t seek mental healthcare. With Japan’s epidemic of suicides and karoshi (death from overwork), Itono’s field of study is pertinent and timely. He rounds out his life by playing piano and learning new instruments. Amimoto and Itono each received a CWAJ Scholarship for the Visually Impaired.

The very foundation of CWAJ is testament to what can be accomplished with determination, perseverance and respect for others. In 1949, two Japanese women and two American women, representing the occupied and occupiers, the victims and the victors, formed CWAJ to fund Japanese students who had been accepted by universities in the United States, but were unable to afford the exorbitant travel expenses in a postwar world. As their husbands worked at rebuilding the country’s government and infrastructure, the visible signs of collaboration, these four women laid the foundation for an enduring organization that today brings women from thirty countries together in a common purpose.

The luncheon ended with a keynote address by Hiroko Sano, Professor Emerita at Aoyama Gakuin University and CWAJ scholarship recipient forty years ago. Sano is a John Milton scholar, and while she devoted most of her speech to Milton, she lamented the fact that so many universities around the world are giving up on their humanities programs in favor of skill-based studies. “That’s a pity,” she said. “We all need to learn how to live our lives well. We learn that from literature.”

We live in an age of disruption. New technologies are superseding traditional ones, new economies are upending established ones, and the development of AI has put into question the very role of humans in future societies. Tempestuous times result in fear of the other, anger and sometimes violence. Our political leaders talk about building walls, starting wars, and placing our nationalistic priorities ahead of our global interactions. These are exactly the times when it’s important to examine our humanity—through literature, art, debate—to remember what makes us human, rather than just animals. It is exactly at this time that we need organizations like CWAJ, which quietly, but persistently, work behind the scenes to support individuals who are tapping into their individual humanity to make the world a better place.

Full list of CWAJ award Recipients:

Scholarship for Japanese Women to Study Abroad
(3 million yen per recipient)
Misaki Takahashi
Eri Tayama

Scholarship for the Visually Impaired
(1.5 million yen per recipient)
Kaiki Itono
Marina Amimoto

Scholarship for Non-Japanese Women to Study in Japan
(2 million yen per recipient)
Yangyu Zhang (People’s Republic of China)
Umida Ganieva (Ukraine)

CWAJ-Tokyo American Club Women’s Group Non-Japanese Graduate Scholarship
(2 million yen)
Jerilee Azhary (Malaysia)

Fukushima Relief Scholarship
(500,000 yen per recipient)
Kazumi Kokubun
Ayaka Munakata