July 05, 2016, BY Paula Cogan Myers

Bucknell's newest summer travel course, Sustainability in Japan, examines Japan's approaches to cultural, linguistic and environmental sustainability. In late May, a group of eight students from across the disciplines completed intensive basic Japanese language training on campus before heading to Kyoto, Japan, for three weeks of exploration.

Nathand Carter '19 said he's dreamed of traveling to Japan since he was in middle school. "I went through a phase of romanticizing the country and culture, but upon entering college, I realized I really wanted to understand Japan for what it actually is, and not just what I imagine it to be." Carter wants to promote and create sustainable change in the world in his career, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The course, which will take place every two years, grew out of a trip made possible by a Japan Foundation grant Professor Elizabeth Armstrong, East Asian studies, received in 2012. Armstrong wanted to integrate the study of Japanese language and culture with environmental sustainability in Japan, so she partnered with Professor Mizuki Takahashi, biology, who studies ecology, ethology and conservation biology of amphibians.

They designed the course to examine Japan's pressing need for sustainability of resources economically, politically, culturally and sociologically in relationship to its position as a global leader and member of the G8 consortium. Takahashi, who is Japanese, and Armstrong, who lived in Japan for many years, developed a multi-dimensional approach to both planned assignments and opportunities for observational and reflective learning. 

SusinJapanGroupTempleThe group visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. Photo by Lindsay Pan '17.

Learning About Japanese Language and Culture
At the start of the trip, Takahashi arranged a joint seminar with students at Doshisha University. He wasn't sure how the college students from different cultures would connect, but he didn't need to worry. Soon, the U.S. and Japanese students were texting each other to make plans.

"Staying in Kyoto really gave our students a chance to learn more about Japanese culture by spending time with Japanese students," said Takahashi. "We introduced them, but they grew those connections, and they spent a lot of time together in the evenings, interacting in ways we could not have planned for them."

SusinJapanGroupDinnerBucknell and Doshisha University students bonding over dinner. Photo by Ted Lim '18.

These new friendships provided a window into Japanese culture and language, and helped the students feel comfortable trying out their Japanese. Phuong Nguyen '19 said it didn't take long for them to find commonalities.

"It's amazing how everyone speaks a common 'language' of some kind," she said. "Like the newest drama series, pets or food. On the other hand, there are new 'languages' everyone has to learn from scratch no matter what their nationality, like science. Everyone was so friendly and really tried to understand and communicate in both English and Japanese."

Armstrong said that she was glad the students had fun spending time together, but also about what they learned from those interactions. "They learned about differences that were happening around them culturally and socially — things they would have not absorbed in the same way had we just told them," she said. "They were experiencing it themselves."

The group visited this garden near Kyoto, Japan to explore environmental sustainability. Photo by Khoi Le '18.

Cultural and Environmental Sustainability
The group's schedule integrated culture and language learning with examples of environmental sustainability initiatives in Japan. From wading in the Kamo River looking for the giant salamanders Takahashi studies, to interacting with elementary school children and introducing a gym clothes recycling program to the school, to interviewing locals outside a Kyoto train station to find out what they think about Japan's relationship to sustainability, they were busy every day.

They even had the opportunity to meet Bucknell alumnus Chris Hainge '02, who studied with Armstrong, lives in Japan and worked with two partners to start a successful craft beer business, Kyoto Brewing Company. Khoi Le '18 said it was inspiring to meet Hainge, because he would like to pursue a start-up in Japan one day. "I learned a lot about how beer is made, but more importantly about the thought Chris put into making the factory as eco-friendly as possible," Le said. The company uses a liquid cooling system that reuses water from previous processes, and the grain that is left from making beer becomes food for cattle at a local farm. "It was very interesting to see sustainability actually happening in practice."

Visiting Hiroshima
Learning about cultural and environmental sustainability created space to go deeper as they visited the city of Hiroshima, a site of the U.S. atomic bombing during World War II. The visit fell on the heels of President Obama's historic trip, and the students conveyed that they had an emotional day, filled with realization and reflection.

While it was difficult for Dalton Stewart '19 to imagine what is now such a bustling city in the jarring images of ruins full of suffering people shown at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, his perspective shifted through the experience.

"As I walked through the museum reading countless stories and viewing artifacts of those who died, I realized the curators of the museum were just trying to communicate that nuclear weapons have terrible effects and there is no reason we need to use them," Dalton said. "I don't think most people realize how devastating these weapons are."

After the tour, the group went to Hiroshima Castle, which was rebuilt 13 years after the bombing. They climbed to the top, sitting together quietly. "They needed a moment of decompression," Armstrong said. "They sat for nearly an hour and a half, almost in a meditative state. They were all in stasis, trying to figure out what they'd just seen."

A wind turbine near Kyoto, Japan. Photo by Khoi Le '18.

Taking their Experiences Forward
Experiences like this are what Armstrong and Takahashi say can't be planned, but were guided by the foundational learning before, during and after their time in Japan. Students developed ideas for their final papers while in Japan, and finished them when they returned. Their topics varied from public transportation to traditional architecture to nuclear power — and the nuances of culture they began to learn were integrated with their topics, just as the course intended.

What seemed like a discrete experience among individuals became the shared experience of friends. "We had a very diverse group of students and we didn't know how they would connect," said Takahashi. "But they became very close."

See what students shared when they took over @BucknellU's Instagram account during the trip.