Over the summer, I spent two and a half weeks in Japan learning about public health with a focus on Japanese issues. I attended lectures for the first week at the University of Tokyo and the second week I traveled across Japan learning about public health issues at the places that they occurred. This was a really cool experience because this was the first time I traveled outside of North America. It was also an amazing experience because I was able to learn more about my heritage as a 4th generation Japanese American (Yonsei).
After learning about three of the four big pollution diseases of Japan and seeing their effects on people firsthand, the importance of protecting the environment and people as a chemical engineer has become more important to me. I also was completely surprised at how different the culture was. As someone who only grew up with limited exposure to Japanese culture through my family and the Japanese American Citizens League, I knew that what I knew about Japanese culture was very limited. I learned a lot about the culture, both the good and the bad. For example, I learned about how much working hard is valued in Japan which leads to workers working much longer than those in the U.S. On the other hand, the culture stresses working hard so much that there is a term “Karoshi” which means death by overwork due to stress from work.
Another life changing experience was learning more about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and visiting the peace memorial. In high school history classes, all I ever learned about the atomic bombing was the numbers of casualties and how it helped end the war. At Hiroshima, I not only learned about the facts of the atomic bombing, I also learned about stories of the victims. After visiting Hiroshima, my view on weapons and war in general has been changed to side more with the people against war in general and especially against nuclear arms.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum made me empathize with the victims after seeing the horrible effects of the Atomic bomb both during the bombing and the years after. The museum itself was haunting and the exhibits were paired with an audio tour which made the experience as a whole more visceral. Any photos of the exhibits and the museum would not be able to give full justice to the feeling of being at the exhibit or Hiroshima.
Another disaster we learned about was the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. I remember hearing about the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and how I thought it was a terrible event, but after a few months, I stopped hearing about the recovery efforts except for around the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and the event was almost forgotten in my mind. Beforehand, we did research on the disaster. Even though I had some background info, I still didn’t realize the sheer amount of work that still needed to be done. After seeing the picture of what the city used to be and then the leveled off ground and even the part of a shower from someone’s former home, I completely changed my view of the disaster as just “another news event” to the tragedy it actually was. Videos and news articles aren’t nearly enough to understand the sheer force of the tsunami and the destruction it caused. I was caught off guard by how high the tsunami had reached and seeing it in person was a whole new aspect than just hearing how high the tsunami was as a number.
On a lighter note, Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima was the most scenic part of my trip. The island view was amazing and the Itsukushima Shrine and the torii was a really cool part of the island. I thought that my favorite parts of the trip would be in Tokyo or other large and busy cities but the trip to Miyajima was definitely one of my favorites. One of the cool parts about the island was the fact that there were deer everywhere and would walk up to people.
Although the main focus of the trip was on public health, I was able to learn a little bit about Japanese culture through attending events like the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo and a festival at Tokyo University. I also got to see historical places like Toyama castle. Another part of Japanese culture I got to experience was traveling to an onsen (hot spring) and staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Hakone which was another really scenic and mountainous area of Japan.
Due to this STEP experience, I definitely want to travel abroad more now that I was finally able to leave North America for the first time. One regret I had is that I wasn’t able to visit places like Kyoto and I definitely am planning to travel back to Japan sometime to visit many of the places I missed. I am also now interested in traveling to other places around the world due to this experience like Hong Kong where my mother grew up or places in Europe like Geneva Switzerland which I am thinking about going to this upcoming summer.
As for career impacts, this experience has made me place a higher importance on environmental safety of industries after seeing what carelessness of pollution can do to people. Especially after hearing about victims of diseases like the itai-itai disease (cadmium poisoning) due to the carelessness of mining companies polluting the river, I am better able to realize that the work I do in the future as a chemical engineer might have a real impact on those living around a large industrial building. Without this experience, I would have still been environmentally conscious, but because of this trip, even more than before, I want to make sure that any decisions I make in the future for an industry has the impact to the environment taken into account.