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Midshipmen Visit Tokyo, Build Bridges Across the Pacific

Posted on: July 16, 2014 08:00 EDT by Associate Professor Lee Pennington

This summer four midshipmen spent two weeks in Tokyo for a faculty-led cultural immersion opportunity sponsored by the USNA International Programs Office.

Associate Professor Lee Pennington of the USNA History Department led a Language Proficiency, Regional Expertise, and Cultural Awareness (LREC) trip, titled “Warrior Japan: Past, Present, and Future,” that sent midshipmen to cultural and historical sites in and around Tokyo.

 Pennington teaches courses on Japanese history, including classes on the Second World War and Japan’s military history.

The four midshipmen – Midshipmen 2nd Class Angela Carandang, Clint Livingston, and Katherine Rodrock and Midshipman 1st Class Alexandra Lundgren – toured attractions ranging from Buddhist temples to high-tech museums, many of which related to Japan’s samurai past or its modern-day experiences with warfare and national defense. In addition, the trip’s participants deepened their understanding of Japanese culture and society as they explored Tokyo from top to bottom – from mastering the city’s labyrinth of subway tunnels to surveying the city from atop the largest tower in the world.

Following a 12-hour flight from Washington, D.C., the midshipmen wrestled with having their internal clocks reset by the 13-hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast. But our intrepid explorers lost no time finding high-quality sushi at rock-bottom prices. Early in the morning on their first day in Japan, they visited the Tsukiji Fish Market for a fresh-from-the-nets sushi breakfast, followed by a visit to the Meiji Shrine (the resting place of Japan’s first modern-day emperor). Then, it was off to Tokyo’s Shibuya district to catch a glimpse of the trend-setting street scene that shapes pop culture all around the world.

The next day, a visit to the Tokyo National Museum helped to set the stage for the midshipmen’s investigation of Japanese culture and history. After the museum and a lunch of chilled noodles, the group made its way to central Tokyo to peer at the Imperial Palace from the Grand Plaza located just inside the inner moat of the former castle compound of Japan’s last shogun. Undaunted – and hungry for the famed sesame-oil tempura of Tokyo’s Asakusa district – the midshipmen trekked to Sensoji, the city’s largest Buddhist temple.

They rounded out the day by visiting the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower where, from 1,200 feet overhead, they marveled over how the most populous metropolitan area in the world spreads outwards to cover the Kanto Plain.

Four days into the trip, the midshipmen traveled south of Tokyo to visit the coastal city of Yokosuka, the homeport of the U.S. 7th Fleet. In Yokosuka, they met up with the members of an LREC trip led by Lt. Cmdr. Masato Murakoshi of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces, a visiting instructor at USNA.

Together, the two groups toured the Japan National Defense Academy, which sits atop a bluff overseeing Yokosuka, and tightened the bonds of trans-Pacific unity while enjoying lunch with the assembled brigade of Japanese cadets.

A highlight of the day in Yokosuka was reuniting with friends from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, who in recent years had spent time in Annapolis as visiting exchange students. When riding the train back to Tokyo, their group made friends and practiced their language skills with a group of giggling junior high students.

The goal of gaining greater insight into the history of Tokyo and of Japan’s samurai past led Pennington and the midshipmen to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, where shamisen players strummed popular tunes of the Edo Period (1600 to 1868) as the group perused displays and models that depicted the everyday life of samurai and other urban residents of Edo (now the city of Tokyo).

The following day, the group returned to the Sensoji Temple to better absorb the energy of Tokyo and join in the merrymaking of the Sanja Matsuri street festival.  Tokyo’s largest annual event, the festival involves parishioners from the city’s numerous small Buddhist temples parading portable shrines in and out of the main gate of the Sensoji Temple. More than one million visitors filled the streets surrounding the temple as the crowds watched the golden shrines being hoisted about on the shoulders of rowdy city dwellers.

Seeking refuge from the bustle of Tokyo, a day trip to the nearby city of Kamakura enabled the midshipmen to learn more about Japan’s feudal past by visiting historical sites associated with the Kamakura shogunate, which governed Japan from 1185 to 1333. The group toured the Engakuji Temple, one of Japan’s oldest Zen temples, which dates to the 13th century.

 A short train ride took the midshipmen to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a Shinto shrine associated with the Kamakura shoguns, and from there, to the Kotokuin Temple, home of the Great Buddha of Kamakura. Left open to the air after a destructive tidal wave washed away the building that housed it, the Great Buddha has towered over the wooded hills of Kamakura ever since the 16th century.

Back in Tokyo, the midshipmen went to the theater to enjoy an evening of traditional Kabuki plays and dances. A popular entertainment of the Edo Period, Kabuki is one of the world’s oldest forms of theatrical performance still actively practiced. Among the three plays sampled by the group was “The Arrowhead,” in which a warrior displays his prowess by sharpening arrows with bravado before galloping off the stage on horseback.

The midshipmen then visited three memorial sites in Tokyo which allowed them to broaden their understanding of the human consequences of the Second World War. Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery houses the unidentified remains of more than 350,000 servicemen of Japan’s now-defunct Imperial Army and Navy. The Showakan Museum highlighted the homefront experiences of the Japanese public during the war years and narrated the wartime and postwar experiences of disabled Japanese veterans and their families.

Filled with sushi and too-good-to-be-true ramen, the midshipmen departed Japan with a deeper understanding of Japan’s military heritage and its vital role in maintaining peace in East Asia. Visiting Tokyo left trip participants with strengthened language skills and a greater appreciation for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Moreover, the midshipmen gained a new perspective on Japan’s cultural uniqueness and Japanese influences on global culture.

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