Public Health Perspectives: Japan

My STEP project was a two and a half week study abroad to Japan through Ohio State. There, I, along with 19 other students, studied public health from the perspective of the Japanese through lectures, seminars, and first hand visits to historical sites. Lectures took place at The University of Tokyo and Azabu University, and field trip visits were to Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Hiroshima, Ishinomaki, Toyama, and Sendai.

While the study abroad was pretty short, we learned so much in the amount of time. It would be difficult to explain everything we did and learned, but here are just some highlights from our lectures and seminars: First, we learned about public health nurses that perform house visits and keep record (maternal and child health handbooks) of every child –  our professor from the University of Tokyo actually still has his. We visited an incineration plant and saw how the Japanese treat and burn enormous amounts of garbage and use the energy to provide electricity for surrounding neighborhoods. We also experienced firsthand the detailed trash system in Japan through the complex sorting trash disposals throughout our stay. We gained a lot of knowledge about different challenges the Japanese face, such as the aging population and also about the history of many different diseases such as minamata and itai-itai diseases. At Azabu University, we performed a dissection of a fish to extract parasitic worms while working with students who attend the university.

While there are many things that I learned about public health, there were also things I learned about myself that I wasn’t aware of before. I learned that I was braver than I thought I was. Being a rather shy and reserved person, traveling alone overseas for the first time was a frightening thought. But I made it. There were many times I got lost while navigating the streets of Tokyo. While getting lost seems like a bad thing, it was actually one of the most fun parts of the trip because you discover all kinds of adventures. Steering away from popular tourist attractions and wandering the streets of Japan, I was able to truly experience life as a local. Eating at small tucked away restaurants and conversing with shopkeepers who rarely, if ever, get foreign customers was one of my favorite parts. Having studied a bit of the language before at OSU, I felt like I was able to get a lot more from my experience. Also, as the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Doing so, such as walking on the left side and bowing to show respect helped to not only draw less attention, but immerse myself into the culture.

This study abroad also changed the way I view and think about people; how different, but also how similar we are no matter where we live in the world. There are noticeable differences immediately such as appearance, of course, as well as in the manner in which we are raised and the society in which we live. However, there are also the bonds that connect and bridge all of us together. The feelings and emotions which we all experience that cross any land or language barriers.

I have read about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in many previous history classes. And it’s easy to think one way or take a particular stance when you just read the facts. But when you’re seeing the actual items from those who died due to the bomb and hearing the story about a survivor, it becomes a whole different ball game. It is no longer about “who”, “what”, or “why”, but that human lives like me or you were taken in an instant. In addition, watching and listening to someone tell their personal story about minamata disease and the emotions that remain after all these years is beyond words. To see and hear with my own eyes and ears the lasting impact of one company’s action that caused pain and heartache to so many. Actually physically standing in the exact location where I watched the tsunami destroy homes and lives through the television and seeing it five years later was very powerful. While I can still only just imagine what it was like for those who were impacted, I now have a better understanding.

This study abroad course to Japan has taught me that learning is not limited to the classroom and can be enhanced by experiences outside. It is one thing to read about something in class, but it is another thing to truly experience it with all one’s senses. While not every course I take will be able to be a study abroad, I will try to apply the same ideas to future classes. By finding ways to learn outside the classroom, such as engaging in real world experiences, I can greatly improve my learning. Finding a way to immerse myself as wholly as I have on this study abroad into each and every class and topic I encounter will be beneficial and priceless for my education. Prior to leaving for this study abroad, I was unsure whether I wanted to go into the medical/health field or continue to graduate school. But after going on this study abroad to study public health in Japan, I can say that I plan to pursue further education in hopes to get a degree in the health field. And even though I am not public health major, this experience really helped me in my decision.

While this study abroad to Japan was only two and a half weeks, the amount I learned and experiences I had were much more than that. Not only did I learn about public health in Japan, I was able to experience things from a different perspective and learned a lot about empathy, strength, and even myself. It was an unforgettable trip that has made me a better and more understanding person. I hope to return to Japan again one day.


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