Tomodachi Softbank participants show off their t-shirts on their second day in Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Three hundred Japanese high school students walked through Sather Gate on Tuesday, snapping pictures of the UC Berkeley campus on their iPads and preparing for a three-week experience in community development, entrepreneurship, and cultural exchange.

The teenagers are all from the earthquake-devastated Tohoku region, and were selected from a pool of 2,000 applicants to participate in the Tomodachi SoftBank Leadership Program. The program, funded by telecommunication company SoftBank and organized by global exchange organization Ayusa, is part of a larger effort by the US embassy in Japan and the US-Japan Council to strengthen cultural and economic ties between the two countries after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“The Tomodachi Initiative, broadly speaking, is to invest in the younger people of Japan and to connect them with the younger generation in the US,” said John Roos, US ambassador to Japan.

Though the program includes a homestay with a local family, and all-American cultural excursions to baseball games and amusement parks, the central component of the participants’ stay is an urban planning and community development class. The students will be taught an adapted version of the Y-Plan (Youth – Plan, Learn, Act, Now!), an initiative started ten years ago at UC Berkeley.

“The idea is to learn about community development by teaching it,” said Deborah McKoy, Y-Plan founder. “Typically, Berkeley students learn about the Y-Plan method and teach it in local high schools. What we’re doing here is having teachers from around the world teaching the Y-Plan method. It’s a 12-session class about engaging young people in community development and community transformation.”

The students will design proposals for the revitalization of downtown Berkeley, and present their ideas to Mayor Tom Bates and other city officials on August 8th.

A panel of speakers, including US Ambassador to Japan John Roos, welcomed the students on Tuesday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
A panel of speakers, including US Ambassador to Japan John Roos, welcomed the students on Tuesday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In class, the students will discuss how they can apply the method to the infrastructure and communities in their hometowns. In his welcome address to the participants, Roos encouraged them to “bring back some of your most creative ideas to the Tohoku region.”

“I want to learn leadership and revive my hometown,” said Natsumi Oikawa, 16, one of the few participants who can speak conversational English. Oikawa’s Fukushima home and family survived the earthquake, but her school was destroyed.

Other participants suffered tremendous loss. Seventeen-year-old Ayaka Ogawa’s parents, sister, and grandparents were all killed by the earthquake, and her house was destroyed.

“They’re teenagers who have been impacted by a force beyond their control,” said Ayusa director David Beiser. “It must be terrifying to know there are such forces out there. So I want them to feel that they can make a difference in their communities. I want them to come out of this with a sense of hope, but also a sense of power and vision for themselves — that they can be effective agents of change. We’ve had several programs with the Y-Plan before and that’s always the message we give, but I think it’s particularly poignant with this group.”

In a video address to the students, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son communicated a similar message of empowerment to the students. He spoke of his own experience coming to the Bay Area as a teenager and studying economics at UC Berkeley, where he learned by being exposed to new ideas and lifestyles. The Tomodachi students all received iPads courtesy of SoftBank and are encouraged to record and share their experience in Berkeley.

Students toss a ball on Memorial Glade during a break from class and activities. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Students toss a ball on Memorial Glade during a break from class and activities. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“For Mr. Son, a lot of this is based on his experience,” Beiser said. “He was told at 15 to go to the US and learn English and entrepreneurship. While he was here he read an article about the microchip and the rest is history. But not everybody is a Masayoshi Son, so we’re trying to provide a kind of scaled experience for the kids. In this group of 300, there are some at that level, and then some who are just terrified.”

Oikawa, who is one of many participants who had never been outside of Japan, said she has already experienced some culture shock. “Last night I took a cold shower because I didn’t know how to use the faucets,” she said.

George Suzuki, a Sendei native whose mountainside neighborhood was destroyed by landslides, has more cross-cultural experience than most of his peers, since he lived in England for a few years. The 17-year-old is an aspiring business owner and is hoping to pick up entrepreneurial skills in Berkeley.

But Suzuki admitted he is particularly looking forward to being a tourist for the next three weeks. “All the images I had of America came from movies or the news, so I wanted to see it and make an image of it for myself,” he said. “The streets are like the streets on TV.”

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...