Cross Cultural Experiences : A Path to Understanding

By Bill Roberts

Bill Roberts, a volunteer worker at Oomoto in the autumn of 2001 and 2002, delivered the following speech to the Shirotori Rotary Club on Nov. 18, 2002. He was a guest of Mr. Etsuo Miyoshi, a local business leader and a member of Oomoto.

I want to thank the members of the Shirotori Rotary Club for inviting me to speak today. The last time I spoke to a Rotary Club was 35 years ago. As you will soon understand, this fact is relevant to what I have to say today.

This is my fifth trip to Japan and my second trip to Shikoku. In April 2000 I spent four days in the Iya Valley. This time I have been on Shikoku for five days. I cannot decide whether it is more beautiful in spring or in fall.

On my first trip to Shikoku I was with a group of artists from California. We stayed at a 350-year-old farmhouse owned and restored by Alex Kerr.

Perhaps you have heard about Alex Kerr. He is an American who wrote a book in Japanese entitled “Lost Japan,” which was published several years ago. He later published it in English.

In the book Kerr also writes about his experiences at Oomoto, a Shinto sect that promotes inter-religious understanding. On all five of my trips to Japan I have been a guest of Oomoto, staying at its headquarters in Kameoka.

This time I am here for five weeks, doing some writing and editing for an interfaith religious conference Oomoto sponsored in Kyoto. Last year, I spent three months at Oomoto working on several English writing projects.

Professionally, I work as a freelance journalist in Silicon Valley, California, where I write about technology and business for various magazines. I also write poetry and fiction but journalism pays the bills. Two days ago I attended a traditional poetry festival in Tokushima. I will write an article about it in English for the Oomoto Web site.

I gladly come to Japan to help with Oomoto’s projects for several reasons. First, I confess that I’m having a love affair with your country for reasons I will later explain. Second, I believe writers have a responsibility to use their talent not just to earn a living but also to help others.

Third–and this is my main message–I undertake these voluntary assignments for Oomoto because I believe that cross-cultural experiences are more important than ever as our world becomes more complicated.

I would like to elaborate briefly on each of these points by sharing with you some of my personal experiences.

In 1998 I began to study ceramics with Coeleen Kiebert, an artist and teacher in my part of California. Coeleen had been to Japan several times and had attended the traditional Japanese arts seminar that Oomoto used to conduct each summer.

Japan had never been high on my list of places to visit until Coeleen said she was taking a group of students to Oomoto to study the traditional Japanese arts for three weeks. I signed up for the trip and by the end of that visit I was enthralled with Japan, especially its scenery, culture and artistic traditions.

I returned to Japan with Coeleen in the spring of 2000 and in the spring of 2001. After that, the Oomoto Foundation invited me on my own to return to work on these writing projects.

After that first trip I was surprised at how much I liked Japan and how much I wanted to know it more intimately. In retrospect I should not have been surprised at all.

You see, my parents met in Japan after World War II. My father was a career Army officer and my mother was a civilian secretary for the Army. They were married in Tokyo in 1947.

I was conceived in Japan in April 1949 about three months before my parents returned to the United States, where I was born. So my first trip to Japan was exactly fifty years after I was conceived here, which makes Japan a special place for me. But I had to come here the first time to understand this and to feel it in my heart.

A second reason I make these trips to Japan is my belief that if you have a god-given talent then you should use it not only to earn a living but for some greater good.

I thank god every morning for the ability to earn a living as a writer. I know many people who have no craft and are not happy in whatever work they do. I am blessed to have found a craft that satisfies me so much.

I am also grateful that I can use my writing and editing skills to help Oomoto and a couple of organizations I work with at home. In this very small way I hope I can give back to society what god has so freely given to me.

The third reason I gladly undertake these voluntary assignments for Oomoto is because I believe in the importance of cross-cultural experiences, especially as our world shrinks and becomes more interdependent and yet more complicated.

As I look back on my 52 years, cross-cultural experiences have been one of the central themes of my life. I’d like to tell you a little more about this.

Growing up in an Army family, we moved often, both in the U.S. and abroad. When I was eight years old we moved to France, where we spent more than two years. Later, we lived in Germany for a year.

My parents always wanted to get to know the local people, their culture and customs. In France and Germany we became close friends with our neighbors. To this day we still write letters and now exchange email with three generations of one French family.

During my two years in France I was in third and fourth grade at the elementary school on the Army base. But I spent half of each day in an English-French bilingual program.

Here’s how it worked. A teacher and 15 students from a French elementary school came to our school each afternoon for about two hours. An American teacher and fifteen students, including me, would join the French kids to study geography, history, languages and other subjects together. Half the time we spoke English and half the time we spoke French. Those were the rules.

This was not only a good way to learn each other’s language but also a powerful way to learn about another culture at a highly impressionable age.

While living in Europe I also had the opportunity to attend a three-week summer camp in Switzerland with children from the U.S. and Europe.

Nearly a decade later, when I was 17 years old, I had another cross-cultural experience, which proved to be one of the big adventures of my young life.

I had been active in Scouting for many years and was chosen to represent my part of California at the 1967 World Scout Jamboree, held in the U.S. About 12,000 Scouts from all over the world camped for two weeks on the shores of a beautiful lake in Idaho surrounded by forests and mountains.

I was part of a group called the host scouts. We met each arriving troop and served as their guide, host and sometimes interpreter for the first several days of their visit. I used my French in this way.

I kept a journal and to this day I remember the words I wrote on the last night of the jamboree after the closing ceremony. Here is what I said—and remember this was at the height of the Vietnam War: “If only the rest of the world could experience the brotherhood and friendship we have felt these past two weeks there would be no need to fight any wars.”

Back in California I was invited to speak about my jamboree experiences at various civic organizations. And so it was that I gave a speech to the Rotary Club in Monterey, California, 35 years ago.

During my high school years I also was active in a program called the American Field Service, which sponsored exchange students from abroad and also sent Americans overseas. I was mostly involved in fund-raising activities and did not go abroad myself.

My own chance to study abroad came in 1971 while I was in college. I spent a year studying Israeli government and Middle Eastern politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, as a participant in the University of California Study Abroad Program.

I am not Jewish so my year in Israel was really two distinct experiences: One learning about Judaism and the other learning about Israeli society.

During my year there, two of the more significant activities were tutoring an Israeli boy in English once a week and working on a kibbutz for a month.

The kibbutz was interesting not only because there were Israelis working there but also because there were about thirty volunteer workers like myself from about a dozen different countries.

For the first 13 years of my journalism career I worked as a newspaper editor, and also had many opportunities to continue this cross-cultural journey of mine. I worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, France, and later I worked in London where I managed the Europe, Middle East and Africa region of a financial news service.

My newspaper career also included a three-year stint as foreign editor for the Detroit Free Press, which was America’s eighth largest newspaper at the time. As foreign editor I was able to participate in several study tours, in Germany, Poland, Hungary, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

And now during the past four years I have gotten involved with Oomoto. I have the opportunity now to learn about Japan and to contribute in a small way to Oomoto’s inter-religious efforts.

Mine has certainly been a nomadic life. But it has also been one of continuing to learn about other cultures and, I hope, to grow as a citizen of the world. I may be an American, but I am a human being first and there are more than 5 billion of us on this planet.

I believe it is more important for human beings to first recognize, emphasize and celebrate what makes us all similar—our humanity—before we deal with any problems that exist because of our national, ethnic or religious differences. Much of the conflict in the world comes from concentrating on our differences rather than our similarities.

This is just my opinion, but I have come to believe that peace and understanding among people cannot be legislated. Nations and their leaders can only sign treaties. Corporations can only sign contracts. It takes people like us, individual to individual, sharing their hopes, fears and life stories to make the world a safer, more compassionate and understanding place.

So in closing, I would like to emphasize once again the importance of cross-cultural experiences and urge you to do your part to help make those happen.

Here are some specific actions you might take:

–Take advantage of any cross-cultural opportunities you might have either by hosting people here in Japan or going abroad yourself.

–Support schools, scouts, religious organizations and other groups that engage in cross-cultural activities. I believe the Rotary Club in America has a scholarship program to send young professionals abroad to live and work. I don’t know if Japan Rotary is involved or not but it could be.

–And of course, no matter what your age, travel and see the world and get to know other people and other cultures. Study a foreign language.

I leave you with these thoughts, and I thank you again for giving me the opportunity to speak.

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