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From Fukushima to Syria, CWAJ supports scholars

by Louise George Kittaka

The College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) is an independent nonprofit organization open to women of any nationality in Japan. From modest beginnings in 1949, the group quickly grew, bringing together both Japanese and foreign women with a common interest in education and cross-cultural exchange.

CWAJ is perhaps best known for its well-regarded annual print shows, with this year’s event slated to run Oct. 17-19 at the Tokyo American Club. However, members are also involved with such volunteer endeavors as offering English activities for Japanese returnee children and supporting visually impaired people and foreign students.

Another major part of CWAJ’s work is the awarding of a variety of annual scholarships in higher education.

“We’ve actually been supporting scholars ever since the organization started, but a formal scholarship program was founded in 1972,” says Joanna Chinen, the organization’s current director of scholarship. “CWAJ has evolved to meet the needs of the community, and we now offer them in four different categories.”

As befits an organization that fosters international friendship, two of these categories are for Japanese women to study abroad and for their foreign counterparts to study in this country. In addition, CWAJ has drawn on its long experience of volunteering with the visually impaired to establish funds for individuals to pursue higher education both in Japan and abroad. The scholarships in this category, which are open to both women and men, were the first of their kind in Japan.

The fourth and newest category are the Fukushima Relief Scholarships, awarded to students at the Fukushima Medical University School of Nursing and established in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. After assisting local professionals providing mental health care in Fukushima through several projects, CWAJ members saw a need for ongoing support.

The recipients of all the 2014 scholarships were introduced to CWAJ members at a recent luncheon event, and several of them spoke to The Japan Times afterward about their experiences and future goals.

Attendees where addressed by former CWAJ scholar Masako Egawa, who became the first woman to be appointed an executive vice-president at Tokyo University in 2009. Egawa’s scholarship in 1984 assisted her in pursuing an MBA at Harvard University.

By coincidence, two of this year’s scholars share ties to Syria, which is currently embroiled in a long and bloody civil war. Akiko Takeuchi, a nurse, is this year’s recipient of the scholarship for a Japanese woman to study abroad. Takeuchi majored in Arabic at university and went on to serve a stint in Syria as an officer with the diplomatic service after graduation.

“My experiences living and working in Syria led to an interest in health care, and I went back to school to qualify as a nurse after my return to Japan in 2008,” she explains.

Now Takeuchi is poised to set off for New York to start a master’s program in public health at Columbia University.

She plans to eventually return to Syria to support sustainable development through health-care reform.

“Along with my language skills and medical background, a knowledge of public health will be invaluable for working in this area,” she says.

Ghamra Rifai, winner of one of two scholarships for foreign women, hails from Syria and is studying for a doctorate in materials science and technology at the University of Niigata. Like Takeuchi, she hopes to contribute to recovery efforts in her homeland after completing her studies in Japan.

“I’d wanted to study abroad since I was very young. Almost all Syrians who go overseas choose Europe for its proximity, but I wanted to challenge myself and try something different, so I came to Japan.”

Rifai arrived in April 2011, just a few weeks after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

“Naturally, my friends and family were very concerned, but I managed to allay their fears as I was determined to go ahead with my plans,” she explains.

After the initial shock of finding out that her lectures were all in Japanese — not English, as she had been told — Rifai threw herself into her studies and now looks upon her proficiency in Japanese as an unexpected bonus. Currently working on a study of artificial skin that can help skin injuries heal without scarring, Rifai looks forward to putting her education in Japan to good use back in Syria.

This year’s other foreign scholar is Luna Wahab from Bangladesh, a Ph.D. student at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (commonly known as Sokendai). Wahab, who is based at the university’s Okazaki campus in Aichi Prefecture, is investigating the structure of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Her area of research could one day lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms responsible for such disorders as autism and schizophrenia and improvements in the way they are treated.

Accompanying Wahab to Japan were her husband, currently a visiting scholar at the same university, and the couple’s young son. Like most dual-career couples, it was a constant challenge for Wahab and her husband to pursue their busy careers as doctors back home in Bangladesh while raising a child. She says it was a leap of faith to bring the whole family over to Japan, but is delighted with how things have worked out.

“Fortunately, our son got a place in a public day-care center, which allows me to devote myself fully to my work while I’m away from him, and then truly enjoy the time we spend together,” explains Wahab. “Japan’s day care is excellent and I can’t speak highly enough of it. We were lucky, but I know there is a shortage of places nationwide. If the Japanese government is serious about supporting working mothers, it needs to move quickly to address this.”

The two recipients of this year’s scholarships for individuals with visual impairments are from different generations but share the common goal of breaking down barriers and opening up opportunities for those that come after them.

Born with a congenital disorder that affected his vision, Masaya Nakamura worked as a teacher for nearly two decades before his eyesight deteriorated to the point where he could no longer feasibly continue.

“I began as a high school teacher of Japanese and then moved into special education, teaching visually impaired and physically challenged students of various ages. My colleagues and students were very supportive, but gradually my vision worsened and finally I could no longer read printed words,” Nakamura recalls.

Upon quitting his job in 2008, Nakamura took the chance to return to university and completed a master’s degree. He is currently studying educational sociology at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and would like to move into teaching at the tertiary level after completing his doctorate.

“Compared to my days as an undergraduate over 20 years ago, the study environment for people like me has greatly improved. Digital media and online technology have enhanced our opportunities for learning,” he says. “However, what is still lacking is the infrastructure that brings together these services in an optimal way for users.”

Nakamura says that education in Japan should be trying to better meet the specific demands of individuals.

“Rather than separating students out into mainstream and special-education schools, we ought to look toward a more holistic approach that considers each student’s unique needs,” he says.

The second recipient of this year’s Scholarship for the Visually Impaired is Shotaro Iwata, who is pursuing a master’s in chemistry at Osaka University. While it is no longer unusual to find students with limited vision in the humanities fields, Iwata is something of a pioneer, being the first vision-impaired student to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry at his university.

“It is very challenging to conduct scientific experiments with weak eyesight but I have managed to get through with design modifications and with the generous support of university colleagues,” he says.

Iwata’s future goal is a successful career as a chemist in a world where he is evaluated on his professional skills, not his limited vision.

“I want to encourage other students like me to study science,” he says. “I hope the day will come when society sees vision impairment not as a handicap but as a characteristic that just requires a different approach to study.”

While this year’s current crop of scholars will be concentrating on getting through their chosen courses of study for the foreseeable future, they can look to 1984 alumni Egawa for inspiration for the future.

“In order to develop global citizens, we must embrace diversity, including nationalities and gender,” Egawa said in her closing remarks. “Thanks to CWAJ for setting me on my path to global citizenship.”

CWAJ: www.cwaj.org. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp