EACH YEAR, the Japanese government shells out $5 million to conduct a
unique experiment: mix 270 people from every corner of the globe, throw them
on a ship and set sail for two months.
For anyone invited, it's an incredible gift, a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity to meet people from a vast array of cultures in one fell swoop. I
speak from experience: Last fall, I was selected to participate as one of 10
Floating past East Timor, having a conversation with a Bahraini Arab and an
Indian about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent invasion of
Afghanistan -- it certainly brought me a new perspective.
When I first boarded the ship in October 2001, like many Americans, my
heart was a heavy mix of grief and rage. I was unequivocally in support of the
"war on terrorism." I wanted justice. I wanted to feel safe again.
I still want this, but my new Arab friends from the ship altered my views,
softened my stance. They forced me to think, really think: What could drive
someone to such blind hatred toward the United States and the West?
Although my Arab shipmates universally condemned terrorism, they also
feared that military reprisals by the Bush administration would lead to an
endless cycle of violence while solving nothing.
The biggest guns, they explained, might provide the United States with
short-term protection, but only by addressing the deep-seated issues through
dialogue will either side truly achieve peace in the long run.
This is the philosophy behind Japan's program, which is called, "Ship for
Perhaps it wouldn't be such a crazy idea for President Bush to take a cue
from the Japanese -- sacrifice three Tomahawk cruise missiles from his budget
proposal and find a few paltry million to stick a few Afghans, Iraqis,
Israelis and Americans at sea together for a few months.
"Absurd. Naive," cry the hawks.
Squander our defense budget so 270 young people (ranging in age from 18 to
30) can mingle aboard a ship for a few months?
Unquestionably, for better or for worse, the United States has inherited
the role of cops of the world. But police protection is not all about brute
power -- it also entails community outreach.
Fanaticism will never be completely eradicated. But a truly strong defense
necessitates a heightened sense of international responsibility --
accountability to the have-nots of the world. The Japanese understand this.
Yet, even within Japan, there are plenty of critics, those who question the
wisdom of such audacious spending, especially with the sputtering Japanese
economy. No other government on the planet has a comparable program, footing
the bill for foreigners to participate in an international exchange.
"Many people do say it is a waste of money," says Tamai Saito, who is the
international exchange department chief of Japan's international youth
exchange organization. But Saito also counters that the ship is not only an
investment in Japan's future leaders, but is an investment in the future of
the world. She has been on four trips, once as a participant.
"If you experience it, you will know how deep the relationships will be and
the bonds that will be created," says Saito.
It is also a form of official assistance to developing nations, an
endowment in the future leaders of Sri Lanka, Mauritius and other smaller
nations invited on the ship. Further, it is a way of reinforcing ties with
larger nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom.
Despite the high price tag, it's a shrewd investment by the Japanese.
Especially now, the world needs programs like this more than ever.
Setting sail just a month-and-a-half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
the ship was a brilliant forum to analyze the state of the world from so many
I recall a conversation one night in the ship's library with a Kenyan
journalist, a British teacher, a Japanese university student and myself. We
very much disagreed on everything from the role of the United Nations, to the
war in Afghanistan, to the purpose of the Japanese grand bath on board the
Megumi Tsuda from Japan shared how the Japanese are still scarred 56 years
later by the horrors of the atomic bomb. Like most Japanese I met on board,
Tsuda was opposed to the war in Afghanistan. She mirrored the Japanese ethic -- after World War II, the Japanese government forever renounced war as a means
of settling international disputes.
Or my friend Sammy Kaboye from Kenya, who believed the United States should
have acted more swiftly after the U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998. He
felt that the United States hadn't given the situation enough serious
attention because it was in Africa.
Then Jackson Griffiths, from the United Kingdom, who opposed Britain's
support of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He rationalized that the al
Qaeda network was so complex, so deep, that a manhunt for Osama bin Laden was
like excising a tumor when the cancer has spread throughout the entire body.
We didn't solve the world's problems that night, but new perspectives were
shared and stereotypes were broken. In the end, as I headed back for San
Francisco, I realized that changing the world happens one individual at a time.
Jason Margolis is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He reported a story about the "Ship for World Youth" for the KQED's Radio program "Pacific Time," which is expected to air later this month.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle