A Month in Japan

Raphael Melke

Study Abroad: Public Health Initiatives – Japan


Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP Signature Project entailed flying to Japan, a country that I’ve always dreamed of visiting, and learning about public health through the lens of Japan. This trip allowed me to gain a better understanding of not only the public health system of Japan, but it also helped me grow personally and professionally.


What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

I assumed that the Japanese would be racist. I thought they would treat me differently, act differently around me, laugh at me, not help me when I needed assistance, and everything in between. But none of those things ever happened, well at least not to my knowledge, and actually the opposite was true. Whether I was in the city or a rural area, the Japanese were extremely helpful and kind. The very first day, my friend and I were in a train station staring with big wide eyes at a map of all the trains and their routes. We had absolutely no idea which trains we needed to take in order to reach our destination. A Japanese man saw the lost look in our faces, walks up to us, and graciously points out to us the route we should take. We thank him with the very limited Japanese we know, and move on. At the time, I remember thinking that what he did was nice of him to do, but I was still skeptical of the attitudes on race held by the country. That belief, however, would soon change. Time and time again, Japanese would continue to help me navigate, help me learn about their culture, and help me understand their way of life. There were very few negative experiences throughout the trip. One restaurant definitely over charged me, but that doesn’t mean they did that because I was black. They did that because me and the other students who ate there were all obviously foreign travellers, who could easily be taken advantage of. I must also add that I only knew a couple of words in Japanese, so if the Japanese ever talked about me, I would have never known. For all I know, the Japanese people I interacted with could have said some nasty things about me behind my back, but that kind of thinking is truly unfair. I was wrong to profile the Japanese people, and moving forward I will look back upon this experience to help prevent that kind of thinking.

My view of World War II definitely changed after visiting Japan. Looking back to when I learned about World War II, Japan, and the atomic bomb, some things, I feel, that were emphasized were that:

  1. The Americans had two decisions: engage in a land invasion of Japan or detonate atomic bombs. The latter was favored.
  2. The United States needed to send a message to world
  3. It marked the beginning of the Cold War
  4. A lot of people died

I’m not going to pretend that we didn’t have some discussion about the tragic effects of the bomb, because we definitively did, but my thinking of it was that it was sad and unfortunate event in history. This was even more deeply rooted when I visited Hiroshima, which had an Atomic Bomb Museum that left me in chills, and appalled at the destructive force humans inflict upon one another. The event was so devastating that there’s actually no official death toll, just an estimation. No one foresaw the attack, so no one was prepared for the nightmare that would be unleashed upon him or her. Adults and children began their day, just like any other, but were then subject to an immaculate white light that momentarily suspended a person in awe and confusion, but soon and long after trapped them in a state of terror. Some perished immediately, some gradually burned and melted to death, while most others periled slower, by the ruthless reach of the radiation. The tattered clothes, dead skin, burned and destroyed infrastructure, and more on display at the museum echo stories of a tragic past. In the classroom, there are limits to the amount of info you can learn about a topic. In order to fully understand and grasp an experience, there has to be an active part to that learning. At the museum, I could feel the tension and pain of those who past away long ago, but could also feel the determination of those who have survived them, to ensure this doesn’t repeat itself in the future. By touching, smelling, and seeing with my own eyes a historical piece of history, I was able to be an active participant in my own learning. There were multiple moments like this throughout the span of the trip that really provided a concrete application to the ideas learned in the classroom.

Part of the reason I went on this trip was to figure out my professional goals, specifically if I wanted to become a health care professional. After returning from my trip and reflecting on it, I ultimately decided it was not a path I wanted to take,; it was relieving coming to that decision. I think like so many of my fellow peers, I felt a never-ending nudge or pressure from other people towards that professional field; the pressure was multi-faceted. I had people telling me that it was “the way to go” and “that’s where the money is”, it was annoying to hear the same messages over and over again. Before attending the trip, I actually pretty much concluded I didn’t want to be a health care professional; this trip rather, cemented my belief. The trip served more as a final attempt to reverse my choice, before moving on to other ideas. And in the end, it didn’t sway me back into the professional field I fooled myself into believing was for me. The info I learned about public health was definitely interesting and cool to learn about, but it simply doesn’t push me to make it a focus.

I’m beyond ecstatic that I was able to travel to Japan and have it part of my Ohio State experience. I fulfilled a childhood dream, learned about a different culture, visited historical important places, and met awesome people. The trip has motivated to go and visit other countries around the world! The only problem is choosing which country I should visit next.