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KYOTO — The 49th Japan-America Student Conference kicked off late July 28 at the Kyoto International Conference Hall, and this time instead of focusing on bilateral relations, participants are looking at changes in the Asia-Pacific community.

The conference, considered the oldest and most prestigious exchange program of its kind, is being attended by 60 undergraduate and graduate students from both countries. The program is aimed at promoting one-on-one relations through a variety of round-table discussions, parties, field trips and other events to be held through Aug. 19.

Started in 1934, as U.S.-Japan relations were deteriorating in the wake of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the conference continued until 1941 and then was suspended throughout the war years. After a series of attempts in the 1950s, the conference was reborn in its present form in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

This year’s theme, “Exploring Our Roles in the Emerging Asia-Pacific Community,” focuses on the region’s growing political, military and economic importance. Nine committees have been set up to research issues ranging from World War II to economic development to the media. Over the next several weeks, students are expected to present research papers based on the central theme. “In the past, conferences have focused more on the bilateral relationship. But, with the growing importance of China, we decided that a more comprehensive theme was needed,” said Gretchen Hobbs Donaldson, executive director of the Japan-America Student Conference, Inc., which sponsors the event.

Past participants of the program include Japanese business and political leaders, including former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, as well as such prominent American Japanologists as Donald Ritchie. Conference sponsors at the opening ceremony read messages from Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton expressing their wishes for a successful event to strengthen bilateral friendships.

Over the past two decades, American interest in Japan at the university level has increased dramatically. However, with the decline of Japan’s economic clout and the rise of China, more and more U.S. students are now expressing an interest in China.

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