From Africa to Japan (Part I)

– Nothando Khumalo

I’m in love with Japan! I am cheating on China! But Africa is still my heart! – I utter this small declaration, before my African ancestors rise up from the grave and claim my head for treachery. Tokyo is a city after my heart – six storey shopping buildings, coffee shops in every corner, glamorous road intersections, well-stocked 7/11 convenient stores every 500m … you get my point yet?

During the past month [August] I have spent an amazing 21 days in Japan, attending the Bai Xian Asia Institute (BXAI) Summer Program. BXAI is primarily focusing on an Asian Future Leaders Scholarship Program (AFLSP), which provides scholarships for high-caliber students from across Asia to study abroad at leading universities in Asia. Every year, during the summer break, BXAI hosts a summer program that brings scholars together in one location (China in 2015, Japan in 2016 and Taiwan in 2017) for three weeks to share their own unique experiences. The program is comprised of a rich academic curriculum for intellectual cross-fertilisation, in addition to sports, language immersion courses, cultural visits, and other travel options. This is a new program, in its second year, and as part of a partnership with the Yenching Academy of Peking University, I had the privilege of attending with nine other Yenching scholars selected from a list of enthusiastic applicants.

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Yenching Academy Scholars


During the course of the program we had the opportunity to travel around Japan, and one of the best parts was a very insightful visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima. Jackson Tse, also Yenching Scholar, eloquently expressed what many of us were feeling after the visit, “Today I had the privilege of hearing from Ms. Keiko Ogura, as survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Her unwavering perseverance in the face of adversity inspired me most. As a hibakusha (Japanese name for Atomic Bomb survivors), she saw unimaginable and unspeakable suffering and death on August 6th, 1945 – sights that no eight-year old should have to bear witness to. Yet, because of widespread societal discrimination, she spent several decades silently coping with her trauma and loss. However, when her husband passed away when she was forty-two, Keiko-san – a housewife with children – resolved to continue his work by advocating for fellow hibakusha. Realising the pressing need to preserve historical memory, she began studying English, interviewing survivors and meticulously translating their stories.” Over the course of three decades, her work memorialised the suffering of Hiroshima citizens, and paved the way for acknowledgement and acceptance of hibakusha in Japan.

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Jackson sharing an emotional moment with atomic bomb survivor Ms. Keiko Ogura

Having lived in China for nearly a year, I began comparing China with Japan. I could go off on a tangent and start pointing out the many differences between the China and Japan – mannerism, affordability, livability, public services, food choices and variety etc. As much as there are many differences between the two, they also share many similarities, particularly in terms of culture.

Apart from the well-organised BXAI summer program, which not only exposed me to the discipline of East Asian studies but also gave me relatively well-rounded exposure to Japan, there were also a myriad of things that fascinated me about Japan. The toilets for starters – I know, odd topic, but it simply has to be said, it’s necessary. Japanese toilets are everything! They give me life; my butt has never experienced such warmth. Japan is famous for its high-tech, derriere-washing, tushie-washing toilets. Walking into most toilets, public included, you are likely to find a seat with a control panel that offers a three-speed bidet hose, a warm seat in winter and water with temperature to match. Cleanliness is an important aspect of the Japanese culture. So in a country that is both fanatical about cleanliness and totally self-conscious toilets have become symbolic of Japanese cultural norms. As Dave Mccaughan pointed out, the desire not to disturb others; the importance of separating hands from bodily functions; the need for public restraint vs. private indulgence; and the belief that technology is always a friendly extension of oneself all come to life in the confines of the cubicle.


The precious control Japanese toilet


Enough about my Japan love affair. During the program I met two intelligent Ghanaian scholars – Adutwumwaa Surname and Salman Mohammed – who were attending the BXAI summer program as part of an exchange/partnership with Kufuor Scholars Program – a three year transformational leadership program in Ghana started by the John Agyekum Kufuor Foundation (former president of Ghana). They were selected from a total of 500 applicants. On the first day I met Adutwumwaa, she was wearing a beautiful top made with the most exquisite Kente cloth (a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan ethnic group of South Ghana). Second day – she was wearing yet another stunning Kente piece, this time a skirt. Third day – a Kente dress. So, as curiosity would have it, I decided to ask her, half-jokingly, “it seems like your suitcase was half-filled with these stunning Kente pieces” – they were just too gorgeous. Funny enough, in response to my statement, she actually confessed that she intentionally packed her African pieces just to show off her pride, and represent. I applaud her. I was pleasantly surprised and moved by this level of consciousness. I have already put through eight orders in Ghana; I will soon be donning my high waist Kente pants – because shopaholics don’t quit.

Salman is one patriotic Ghanaian gentleman. In one particular session he elevated my already sky-rocketing African pride. In one of the evening sessions in Karuizawa (northwest of Tokyo) each group had to volunteer one person to do a five minute demo TED Talk as an effort to improve presentation skills. There was a long pre-registered list of presenters, however, in the very last minute Salman rose up to the occasion to give a very brief, yet exhilarating, history piece about the richness of Ghanaian history. I was the first to clap…I simply had to. He left me feeling intensely proud to be African. I was high on pride. Suffice it to say, two days later I found myself frantically searching the internet for African history books to quench the thirst for knowledge about my African roots…true story. Sadly, my country [Swaziland] doesn’t seem to have that many books on its history.

Initially this was going to be a lone-man post about my experience in Japan during the summer program, but I decided to make it a collaborative one. This will be a four part post, the first one being this one. The second one will be a reflective post from a fellow Yenchinger and BXAI scholar who also attended the summer program – Jackson Tse. Adutwumwaa and Salman wrote about their own experiences in Japan. They were delighted to oblige; theirs will be the third post. The last post will be a picture post – sharing some visuals. Enjoy!


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