For Japanese high school student Takumi Masaka, traveling to New York City to play the role of a Syrian diplomat at a simulation of a United Nations conference was a life-altering experience that opened his eyes to differing worldviews.

Masaka, 17, is one of a growing number of Japanese students taking part in the Model United Nations, and he and another Japanese student representing Syria won an Honorable Mention Award at the event for high school kids from around the world in May, held partly at the U.N. headquarters.

With support from schools and corporate sponsors, more and more high school and university students in Japan are keen to take advantage of the debate and public speaking opportunity, which motivates them to stay abreast of global issues, learn foreign languages, especially English, and hone their group organizational skills.

“I learned that there are various ways of thinking in the world,” said Masaka, a student from Toin Gakuen School of Secondary Education in Yokohama whose debate team representing Syria was assigned the topic of “Eradication of Poverty.”

“I now have a dream to create a society without disparities,” he said.

Masaka and teammate Gen Okano from the same high school qualified for this year’s MUN session in New York as the winners of a domestic competition, in which students from a record 133 high schools applied. The topic of debate was food security in 2050.

As part of their research on Syria, whose territory has been partially seized by Islamic State militants, Masaka’s team had the idea of setting priorities for how to solve poverty in the country. “The Three Steps” approach, which first focuses on resolving conflicts, developing infrastructure, and lastly, promoting education and employment, drew support from other delegates, Masaka said.

Model United Nations started at Harvard University in 1923, decades before the U.N. was created. In the simulated conferences, participants, known as delegates, are placed in committees and assigned countries.

They conduct extensive research lasting months on the issues of the day in advance to formulate positions that they then debate with fellow delegates in committee.

Students learn about diplomacy, international relations and the United Nations. MUN teaches research, public speaking, writing skills, conflict resolution, consensus building, and perhaps most importantly, leadership.

In Japan, university students began MUN activities more than 30 years ago, and high school students followed suit in 2007 with the establishment of the Japan Committee for Global Classrooms, according to the committee. The Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO also supports MUN activities for high school students.

Aside from Masaka’s team, five other two-member teams attended the MUN conference in New York City from Japan, with the students often boasting exceptional English ability. Some of them participated in MUN club activities at their schools to pass the rigorous screening process.

“Unlike sports, MUN is not about winning or losing. What really matters is individual characteristics,” said Rinako Sonobe, a high school student who took part in the conference, in explaining MUN’s allure.

Yusuke Hashimoto, a teacher and adviser to the MUN club at Toin school, said, “MUN is an excellent opportunity for students to learn how to establish a basis for having discussions with people who may have different viewpoints.” This is especially valuable for students in Japan, he said, as “homogeneity is extremely prevalent” in a country with little ethnic or racial diversity.

The New York conference, called the Annual Global Classrooms International High School Model UN Conference, brought together about 1,500 high school students from about 20 countries.

Some major Japanese companies, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp., sponsor the MUN activity as part of their social contribution activities.

Rika Matsumoto, a sales manager of Japan Airlines Co., who was debriefed by students in June after their trip to New York, said the airline offers some air tickets for the delegation each year as JAL wants to contribute to raising youngsters who can further the globalization of Japan.

There is also a version of the forum for university students, and a delegation from Japan won a prize for the seventh consecutive year at one of the biggest MUN conferences for university students in New York in March.

Takumi Soga, a student from the University of Tokyo who belonged to the nine-member Japanese delegation, is undecided about his future profession but believes that whatever career he pursues, the skills fostered through his MUN activities will be invaluable.

“In the current era, even if I get a job in Japan, there will be fewer workplaces where only Japan is involved. So whatever job I take in the future, it will be necessary to have a global point of view,” Soga said.

Next year, the forum for university students, called the National Model United Nations conference, will be held in Japan for the first time. Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in Kobe will host the conference in November 2016, with the year marking the 60th anniversary of Japan’s membership of the United Nations.

“I hope many students will join the conference and enjoy the opportunity to learn on an international level,” said Sachiho Tani of the university, who represents a preparation committee for the event.

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