Seizing Opportunity During the COVID-19 Crisis—The Power of Cross-Cultural Storytelling

By James Minamoto

[CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE] A volunteer group of Japanese Americans in Tokyo found opportunity in the COVID-19 pandemic and launched a pro bono, non-profit educational program to nurture a more global mindset among university students in Japan based on the ancient art of storytelling.

The Minamoto Family, Downey, California (circa 1934). The author’s Nisei father is standing at the far right. Photo: Courtesy of James Minamoto

The climate "crisis," the global financial "crisis," the refugee "crisis." We hear the word "crisis" a lot these days, oftentimes describing a serious, widespread, problem. Some readers will recognize that the Chinese characters (kanji) for "crisis" ("kiki"/危機), are made up of the characters for "danger" () and "opportunity" (). Rather than fearing the character for danger during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, a non-profit group of Tokyo-based Japanese Americans (JA) acted on the second character. They seized opportunity during the crisis, launching a pro bono educational program for young, next generation Japanese leaders called the Japanese American Storytelling Program (JASP). This is their story.

The Program that Almost Wasn't

JASP was inspired by the initial vision of Takashi Ohde, an advisor at Gakushuin Women's College Institute of International Studies in Shinjuku City, Tokyo to educate his students on the JA experience and the very positive response of his students to the stories of family history and professional journey told by JA Stan Koyanagi. Both Ohde and Koyanagi are members of the U.S.-Japan Council (USJC), a non-profit organization in the US and a public interest corporation in Japan, with offices in Chiyoda City, Tokyo.

The planned Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games also presented an intriguing possibility to introduce a next generation-focused, JA storytelling project that built on the Games' global momentum. The board chair of the USJC (Japan) recognized the potential synergies and commissioned a USJC Task Force to conduct an internal feasibility study. The USJC's plans aligned with remarks by State Minister Keisuke Suzuki of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who referred to the JA community in the United States as "the sister community of Japanese society," according to a December 2019 article in the Rafu Shimpo newspaper. Prospects looked promising for the USJC's new initiative.

However, in early 2020 the USJC Task Force team faced an unexpected wave of bad news. COVID-19 transmission in Japan began to increase rapidly, widespread social distancing measures went into effect, and the 2020 Olympic games were eventually postponed. Many universities in Tokyo suspended on-campus classes indefinitely. A potential project funding source also failed to materialize. By March 2020, the Task Force's optimism for launching the new JA initiative had all but disappeared. Even before it began, the project was dead, or so it seemed.

A Marriage of Ancient and Modern Technologies

The dedicated USJC staff and members of the USJC community were determined to find solutions to the many challenges they faced. A long-time Tokyo resident and active USJC member, Patrick Newell, enthusiastically agreed to volunteer and join the USJC Task Force hoping to proceed with the new initiative. As a professional educator, Newell has long advocated storytelling as a communication tool. He believes messages are more effectively understood, remembered and utilized when they are presented in the form of an interesting story.

When adapted for the classroom, good stories have three parts or "acts." Act 1 is the background setting of a story that arouses student interest. Act 2 is the posing of an interesting question or challenge that seeks an answer. Act 3 is the offering of a creative solution to the challenge, the explanation of its benefits, and relevant takeaways or calls to action. This framework is based on an ancient "technology," dating back to the time of Aristotle thousands of years ago. It is still used today by effective modern public speakers.

The USJC Task Force members were convinced that live, real-time student engagement should be a cornerstone of the storytelling project, just like Koyanagi's informal talks with Ohde's students. That would be far more impactful than students passively watching pre-recorded oral histories. But how could JA speakers effectively engage with students in Japan during a COVID lockdown? Three interlocking solutions were identified by the Task Force team.

First - to structure JA presentations using the time-tested "three-act" storytelling framework.
Second - to modernize the ancient technology by marrying it with a 21st century conferencing platform such as Zoom, to bring real-time, live, interactive JA storytelling presentations directly into the university classroom.
Third - acknowledging the challenges of distance learning to earn and keep the students' attention for the duration of a 60 or 90-minute university class, to incorporate robust student engagement activity all throughout (and not just at the end of) the storytelling presentation.

Capitalizing on Zoom's functionality, JA speakers could select from a variety of interactive tools. For example, breakout sessions, instant polling, pop quizzes, and other discussion-oriented breaks, to complement a traditional Q&A wrap up session. In short, modernizing an ancient art. A marriage of old and new technologies' best features. This was a breakthrough solution. A silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud. The USJC JASP team quickly realized this was an opportunity and started recruiting speakers and potential candidate schools. Newell happily signed on as the "Storytelling Coach" for the initiative. JASP launched its inaugural presentation via Zoom in October 2020.

Nurturing a Global Mindset Among Japan's Next Generation of Leaders

Consisting of all volunteers, JASP's founding speakers were recruited from among the USJC's members residing in Tokyo, as direct stakeholders in Japan's future. JASP speakers (JASPers) present on both traditional and modern themes, with thought provoking titles such as "Resilience: Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight," "The Movie of Your Life," "Diversity & Inclusion and Omotenashi for All," "Just Another Plantation Kid," and "Airborne: Let Your Curiosities Soar." In its first year, 2020, JASP's eight JA speakers presented to nine universities in Tokyo: Aoyama Gakuin University, Chuo University, International Christian University, Showa Women's University, Sophia University, Temple University (Japan Campus), Tsuda University, The University of Tokyo and, of course, Gakushuin Women's College.

As word of the program spread, acceptance among host faculty members at other universities snowballed. To meet the growing demand, the roster in the 2021 academic year grew to 25 JASPers, who gave 50 presentations. Responding to host faculty feedback, JASP diversified its "Japanese American" speaker base. It included Shin Issei (post-war Japanese immigrants to the US), Shin Nisei, Bi/multi-racial Nikkei, and Kikoku Shijo (Japan returnee) speakers. Many of them were bi-lingual, joining the initial group of Nikkei, Sansei and Yonsei speakers.

The marriage of old and new technologies synergistically increased JASP's geographic impact. Presentations were given beyond the program's birthplace in Tokyo, to regions throughout Japan including Akita, Gunma, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Okinawa, Osaka, Shizuoka and Tohoku. Remote conferencing technology enabled JASP to introduce a more geographically diverse group of JASPers into Japanese university classrooms. JASPers now included presenters from Hawaii, California, Texas, New York and Michigan, supplementing the original Tokyo-based speaker group. Several host faculty members appreciated the opportunity to have their students in Japan directly interact real-time with "local" JA's thousands of miles away during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Said one host faculty member: "through the power of students were able to link what we learn in the classroom to what they mean for the individuals living through them, leading to active and meaningful discussions that continued in the classroom and beyond." One student commented: "I thought that Nikkei people were a bit distant and had a completely different way of thinking from Japanese people," learning for the first time that "there were actually people similar to Japanese who shared Japanese values." Another felt impacted by a more global mindset: "Your talk made me yearn for life abroad...this experience motivated me to work harder at learning English."

Through the extraordinary efforts of many, including the USJC (Japan)'s Executive Director Junko Tsuda, and Director of Programs & Partnerships Kaoru Utada, as well as JASP co-leader Steve Sugino, the program continues to scale. For the Spring 2022 academic term (April-July), 30 JASPers are scheduled to give over 30 presentations. For the coming Autumn 2022 term (September-January), 10 new JASPers will join, raising the speaker roster to 40. 2021's 50 presentations are set to be exceeded by a wide margin this year. In April 2022, JASP launched a new website.

Not Just Another Speaker Program

JASP's purpose is to collaborate with educators at universities in Japan to nurture the next generation of leaders towards an inclusive global mindset. Its mission is to share JA personal and family experiences with university students in Japan through real-time storytelling and active discussion.

Incarceration Camp Signpost, Manzanar, California (2011). Photo: Courtesy of James Minamoto

Although JASP is externally focused on Japan's young, next generation leaders, the program has also yielded consequential internal dividends. JASPers researching and preparing their own storytelling presentations report experiencing a meaningful journey of introspection and self-discovery, and a better understanding of themselves. "The stories are real life, family, personal stories, of overcoming challenges and hardships," observed one JASPer, adding, "this has been a life changing experience of reflection, learning and personal growth."

JASP presentations are "renewable." After spending the time and effort to prepare a compelling story, JASPers can leverage their investment by repeatedly recycling their presentations for different university classes and students. This feature is especially important for the all-volunteer JASPers, who give every presentation live and not by pre-recorded video. "Since the presentation is now on autopilot and only costs me the time of actual presenting, I am happy to take on multiple sessions per semester if needed," said one JASPer, continuing, "Being able to share my family story in an impactful way is one of the highest value opportunities for me."

As COVID-19 concerns ease in Japan, JASPers plan to selectively offer face-to-face, on-campus presentations, especially when speakers and hosting classes are both based in Tokyo. However, Zoom presentations will likely remain a prominent, permanent program feature, enabling easy set up for host faculty members, and relatively quick and inexpensive presentation delivery. One key benefit is unparalleled speaker convenience. A JASPer living in Honolulu can comfortably take 90 minutes at the end of the work day on a Thursday to give a real-time, interactive storytelling presentation on JA life in Hawaii to university students sitting in a classroom in Okinawa on their Friday afternoon. This all would have been impossible to achieve solely by traditional in-class, face-to-face presentations.

"Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste"

We are all progeny of a long human ancestral chain where know-how and values have been passed on from generation to generation like gifts, both explicitly and implicitly. As the "sister community" of Japanese society, JAs are distinctively privileged beneficiaries of traditional Japanese values such as resilience (tachinaoru chikara), endurance (gaman) and effort (ganbaru). Relying upon and modernizing these inherited gifts, a community of JAs in Tokyo—USJC leaders, staff members and interns, JASP speakers, university host faculty and other JASP friends and supporters—recognized that crisis presents not only danger, but also opportunity. Winston Churchill famously said "Never let a good crisis go to waste," advice these ordinary individuals took to heart. The JASP now aspires to do its part by passing on gifts of its own to the next generation of Japan's leaders.

James Minamoto

A third-generation Japanese American and descendant of immigrant farmers from Hiroshima with an elementary school education, James ("Jim") Minamoto graduated from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. He left his native New York in 1993 to join a Japanese international law firm in Tokyo, and established a corporate practice including cross-border M&A and helping overseas companies do business in Japan. Since 2012 he has been a member of the U.S.-Japan Council (USJC), a non-profit organization, and co-leads the "Japanese American Storytelling Program."