The email took Randolph-Macon professor Lauren Bell by surprise, but in the best way. As Japan reopened its borders to foreign travelers in late 2022, a message hit her inbox that a Japanese-government-funded exchange, originally cancelled in late March 2020, was now–finally–going to happen.
Even better, students who had been booked for the original trip and had since graduated from Randolph-Macon were invited to join a group of current students and professors.
“I think that’s what made this even more special than it might have been, was this opportunity to bring back those alumni,” Bell said. “The pandemic took things from everybody, but they acutely lost something—it was cancelled days before they were supposed to go. I’m so grateful that the Kakehashi program allowed them to come.”
The reinvigorated program is a part of the Japanese government’s Kakehashi Project, which strives to strengthen relations between Japan and the United States through cultural immersion programs; kakehashi translates to “bridge” in English.
RMC’s long legacy of collaboration with Japan, through the work of the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund and the U.S-Japan Council’s Tomodachi Initiative, made the college a natural fit. Japan’s commitment to the initiative meant that all expenses were paid for RMC’s travel party of nine current students, five alumni, and two chaperones to visit the country from Jan. 31 through Feb. 8.
Adriana Rosales ’21, now a radio co-host, sales rep, and content writer, was one of the students selected for the original trip, and was able to take time from her busy schedule to visit Japan for the first time.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Rosales said. Now building the foundation of her career, Rosales valued the opportunity to engage with her alma mater, saying “for me, it was very exciting because it was connecting again with the school.”
One of the first things the group did in Tokyo were cultural exchanges with RMC’s partner school, Rikkyo University. After the original trip was cancelled, the two schools conducted a virtual exchange in 2021, but getting to forge friendships in person was a highlight of the trip for many Yellow Jackets.
“We have some friends over there that we can really connect with on a regular basis,” said Kaleb Bey ’24, a psychology major and Japanese studies minor. “We’re hoping to foster this connection and relationship between the two schools even more, so it was really cool to be a part of.”
The trip balanced time in Tokyo, the world’s largest city, with a visit to the ancient capital of Kamakura. The group visited a robotics showroom, the National Diet (Japan’s national legislature), participated in a Japanese tea ceremony, learned how to dress in kimono, and experienced traditional Japanese games and dances. The itinerary also included visits to important historical sites, like Meiji Shrine and an ancient Buddha statue in Kamakura.
“I think that’s something I will never forget,” Rosales said of seeing the breathtaking Buddha statue for the first time. “It was just beautiful.”
“You can take all the courses that you want, but there’s nothing like actually being there and experiencing the tradition and the culture and learning about the history firsthand,” Bey said.
None of the students or alumni had ever been to Japan before, but some have learned to speak Japanese through their coursework at RMC. “Having interactions with locals and shopkeepers that don’t expect you to know the language, who are just delighted that you’re taking the time to learn it and taking the time to be courteous– it was really cool,” Bey said.
Above all, this unique trip has immersed Yellow Jackets into a different culture and inspired in them a continued desire to explore the world.
“I hope they take away some perspectives on what’s good about our lives here in the United States, but also what’s good about life in other places,” Bell said. “And what can we learn from other cultures and bring back to improve our own?”
At the end of the trip, the students and alumni were already planning for when they could return. Bey noted that “one of the biggest things is it’s sparked the interest to travel even more and to engage in different cultures.”