30 Years, 30 Stories: Forever, For Always, For Love

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2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

What pushed you to take the plunge and study abroad? For our eleventh installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the experiences of JCMU 1989-90 alum Elycia Cook, and discover how her courageous decision to study in a country she knew little about at first soon evolved into an everlasting love of Shiga.


I remember it like it was yesterday: there I stood in the airport lobby, a scared young girl from the inner city of Detroit who had never left the metro area and the comforts of her hometown. After much convincing by a professor in the business school, I found myself just hours away from leaving the country, holding on for dear life to my granny and ten other members of my family crying and yelling, “I don’t want to go!”

Where was I off to? It was 1989 and I was boarding a plane to become an inaugural student of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU) in Hikone, Shiga, Japan.

Who would have thought that chance adventure would have completely changed the trajectory of my entire life? I sit here today thirty years later writing about the eternal impact of being chosen as an inaugural student of JCMU. So, buckle your seat belt and join me in my story of my lifetime love affair with Japan.

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In 1989, when Dr. Vivian Carpenter first approached me about the JCMU program, I responded “Why would I want to go to Japan? I do not know anything about Japan except Godzilla and Toyota, and I do not like either one!” Yep, this is exactly what I said then (which is hard to believe now considering I have owned three Toyotas and a Honda since then, and Godzilla cracks me up). If it were not for Dr. Carpenter’s belief in me, vision for my life and insistence on my expanding my horizon, I am not sure where I would be today.

Back to that life changing plane ride in 1989. As I sat in my very nice business class seat, I whimpered the whole way. I still remember one of the only 3 African-American women of the 29 of us inaugural students saying, “Oh My Gosh, why didn’t we leave her at the airport?” Thirty years later Sonya Vann is my best friend. Yes, I cried and cried and cried – after all, I had no idea what was in store for me 7,500 miles from everything I loved, was familiar with and that brought me comfort. If you look back you will quickly remember that thirty years ago, there was no internet, no cell phones and a call home on a landline cost upwards of a $1 to $2 per minute.

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We arrived in Tokyo in the middle of July. If you have ever been to Japan, let that simmer for a moment – and I do mean simmer, or maybe even melt. Then imagine going to a Japanese style Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), with communal open showers and a tub of water that we were all supposed to relax and enjoy as we sat in the buff. Then there was the traditional Japanese meal with a small piece of fish with the head and open eyes still attached, various color Japanese-style pickles (Oshinko) and yep they went there, NATTO!!! Let’s just say whatever tears dried up on the plane, the floodgates opened once again.

After a day or two, we arrived in Hikone. I do not know if you newbies know this but the actual building that you all know as JCMU was still being built at this point. The inaugural crew took over a space in the Maibara Cultural Center, yet we were housed in Hikone. What makes it more interesting is the boys were given apartments with no rules, no curfews, their own bathrooms and kitchens! The girls on the other hand were put in the nurses’ dormitory, where there were 12 mat tatami rooms to be shared with another JCMU student, communal showers, a 10pm curfew, a common kitchen, and one shared telephone. On top of this, even at 21 years of age and older you got it, no visitors of the opposite sex. Even if visitors were of the same sex they had to sign in and be out by curfew!! Imagine how that went over with us liberated American women.

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We also had a house mother, Obaa-san. Obaa-san an old lady, at least in her seventies. Obaa-san had no teeth, she was bow legged, slightly hunched over and always wore a smock and straw hat as if she worked in the rice fields daily. While I found the predetermined living situation to be quite sexist, I would do it all over to have Obaa-san in my life again. She was our JOY. She did not speak a lick of English and at the time we spoke no Japanese, but somehow I feel like we had great conversations daily. I still remember her, with her toothless grin, coming out of her room to do charades as she yelled the weather report, trying to get us to understand that today it was going to rain, so take an umbrella, or it was going to be blazing hot, so wear a sunhat! All too often we would just nod and keep going assuming that Obaa-san was just a little off her rocker, but now that I look back, Obaa-san’s weather report always seemed to be right.

Although Obaasan was our house mother, we thought she was an old woman who always went to bed early. We broke curfew all the time, climbing up the fire escape signaling one of the other students to open the door for us! We thought we were getting away with something. But when the program ended Obaa-san, describing my fluffy pink house shoes that was always left outside of the fire escape door, made it clear in her subtle way that she knew all the comings and goings of the JCMU girls over the course of that year!

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Let’s talk about the original JCMU operating out of the Maibara Cultural Center. Because it was just about two miles away and taking the train every day was expensive and inconvenient, the Rotary Club presented all of us with bright red, beautiful bicycles for our daily commute to school, through the beautiful rice fields that connected Maibara and Hikone. I still remember while I initially struggled to ride my bike up the hills, many senior citizen bikers would often fly pass me. I finally got the hang of it, often riding with my friends Sonya or Tonya on the red bicycle if for some reason one of us had a flat or left our bicycle at some party location the previous night. It seemed like we were the only ones in town with bright red bicycles. It almost seemed intentional so as to be able to easily identify us. As if 29 college-age Americans did not already stand out, in the small, homogeneous, rural city of Hikone, Japan.

I remember meeting the office ladies, “the Kitamuras” for the first time. If I am not mistaken one of the Kitamuras is still there and the other is married to one of my JCMU fellow classmates. Then there was Mock-sensei the center director, Teramoto-sensei our Art History teacher, and the various Japanese teachers. Then there were the Japanese students who were there studying English and also where I had the privilege of meeting Yuko Imai who, 30 years later, is still my sister and friend.

Learning Japanese came easy to many of us and for others, let’s just say they never quite got it. It was the same with our Art History class, I will not tell you the particular students that when the lights turned off for the many slideshows they saw it as naptime as opposed to a class time to learn about the many eras of Japanese History. But, nonetheless some of the best memories were created in Teramoto-sensei’s class.

Thirty years ago, foreigners were like local celebrities in Japan. People watched our every move. I still remember one day we did not listen to Obaasan’s weather report and it was monsoon like rain. Somehow we had to get home from JCMU to our beautiful dorm located just across the street from Hikone Castle. As we rode our bikes, trying to master the art of steering, pedaling and holding an umbrella, I still remember a news camera following us and appearing on the local news that evening pedaling and drenched, with the caption, “Gaikokujin (the Japanese word for foreigner) learning about life in Japan.”

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It seemed like everyone wanted to be our friend. Many were captivated with our western ways and particularly as an African-American woman, I cannot even begin to tell you how many questions I had to answers or myths and stereotypes I had to debunk about black folks. It did not matter how personal, ridiculous or obvious the stereotype was, we were often asked if they were true. I will just stop right here and let your minds wander and wherever it goes, yes, we were asked that too. But you know, somehow I was never offended because I knew it came from a place of curiosity and not a place of hate, as I have often experienced in America.

As I stated earlier, I did not want to go to Japan. I was terrified and for the first two months all I could think about was not having access to my favorite foods, talking to my grandma, watching my favorite shows, and going out on dates with some brothas in a car. I remember calling my grandma once and describing just how much I hated the food and all the food I wanted from America. A week later, a large box arrived, with over $365 in postage on this box. So what were the contents? About $30 worth of food to include jelly bellies, Kool-Aid, canned sweet potatoes and of all things a head of cabbage and a bag of potatoes. Not sure how the vegetables made it through customs, but potatoes and cabbage are readily available and cheap in Japan. I guess one could say, “It is the thought that counts?” But, it was my $365 left in a bank account stateside that was used for postage. At least many of my JCMU friends laughed but they still they came to my room to enjoy some of that golden Kool-Aid.

After about two months, I figured that I was going to be there for 10 months whether I liked it or not, so I decided to fully immerse myself. It was only then that I discovered the beauty and magic of living across the street from an almost 300-year-old castle. I started going to Sugimoto’s, the local izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) that smelled like a fish market, had several cats walking around to the point that you often found cat or human hair in your food and when you told Sugimoto-san, his wife would just take the hair out and give the food back to you. I discovered the Milkhouse Italian restaurant, which was the first time I had spaghetti that included ingredients other than tomato paste, ground beef, green peppers and onions. I do not know what it is about Japan, but they do pasta like nobody’s business. I also became friends with the owner of Born Free and many other local businesses and shop owners.

I will never forget the many homestays and the many cookies I baked to give as omiyage (souvenirs) to my awesome host families. Nothing in life compares to eating an obento (Japanese boxed lunch) under a cherry blossom tree during the magical cherry blossom season, or the incredible summer firework shows in your yukata and tabi. Oh how I long for another Japanese festival, a trip to Kyoto, a visit to Nara and Himeji, and to party once again in Osaka. Who can forget the pounding of rice to make omochi (Japanese rice cakes) for New Year’s? I can still hear the sound of our Japanese friends, yelling “Yosha, Yosha” every time the big hammer-like rice pounding tool hit the rice.

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But even as I describe all of that fun, my best memories lie in the many gatherings at the Booze Bar and Club Jilts. Nothing compares to the increase in business these establishments received as everyone looked forward to partying with the foreigners. It was often those nights at Jilts or at Booze Bar that left us sneaking up a fire escape way past our curfew, to slip on my fluffy pink house shoes that became famous for sitting at the fire escape door many a day as the proof of our late night shenanigans that somehow were never a secret to Obaasan. We were quite the attraction for these party spots in Japan. We often ended the night with all our drinks and food tab somehow covered. Maybe it was Koji-san, or Horie-san, and occasionally it was Mama Ishii who was at least 25 years older than us but loved hanging with the young foreign crowd. Today Mama and Papa Ishii are the Japanese grandparents of my two beautiful children and we have had the pleasure of hosting them in America twice.

It brought us much joy as we studied at JCMU and slowly began to speak the language, read Kanji, understand the history and culture and even comprehend Obaasan’s daily weather reports! We loved hosting American holiday events for our JCMU family both American and Japanese. We all became peas in a pod and although we were a group of random kids thrown together by chance, we created a family!! So much so that twenty years later we had our own reunion. So many of us remain best friends, and there are even a few that became husbands and wives.

When it came time to end the JCMU Hikone experience, I dreaded the coming of May 3rd, my departure date. Just like I cried daily leading up to coming to Japan, I cried daily as it was nearing time to depart. The JCMU building opened prior to our departure and our graduation ceremony was held there. If you have never been to a Japanese ceremonial feast, it is something that you must do at least once in your lifetime. It seemed like the whole town came to celebrate us. I no longer felt like a foreigner but a resident of Hikone. I even began to refer to myself as Blackanese. Somehow it all ended too soon.

I returned to America kind of a weird black girl from Detroit who could spoke and (somewhat) read Japanese, who ate raw fish and weird-colored Japanese pickles, who corrected everyone who dare butcher Japanese words’ pronunciation. I no longer said Care-ree-yoh-kee but Kah-Rah-Oh-Kay (meaning empty orchestra). There was no more Futan, but always Fu-Tone and the list goes on.

I finished my last year of college, graduating with an ache in my heart and a longing to go back to what had become home to me, Japan. Already it was beginning to feel like it was all just a dream. I took a job in Minnesota, but somehow I never could seem to fit in, the world looked so different to me and I wanted to experience it all. After only one year on my job, I applied for the JET Program and was accepted and returned to my beloved Shiga, Japan. Unfortunately I did not get placed in Hikone the first time, but I befriended several JCMU students there who became like sisters to me. I became a mentor, a source of emotional support and a friend. I later moved to Tokyo where I worked in business, living in Japan for a total of six years and mastering the spoken language. When I finally left, it was not because I wanted to, it was because it was time.

I returned to the States, determined to get back someday. I guess it was the right time, because I met my husband the day after I arrived in Colorado. But I always knew I would come back. I took a job that allowed me to travel back and forth to Japan rather frequently but it was always busy Tokyo. I had two beautiful girls naming them Aliyah and Milani, knowing that someday we would live in Japan again and I wanted them to have names that we iiyasui (easy to pronounce in Japanese).

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My wish came true in 2006 when my husband, my one-year-old, four-year-old and I returned to Hikone once again through the JET Program. JCMU looked so different, yet some of the staff was still the same. We spent two years in Hikone and I got to experience it in a different way as a mom, a wife and a 40-year-old woman. Not as many parties and definitely no Club Jilts, but the Booze Bar was still our spot. Navigating the Japanese school system was no easy feat. The Milkhouse had changed to a more upscale restaurant but the owners were the same. Sugimoto’s was not really an izakaya anymore, but there was Sugimoto-san, still there hanging out with his cats. As I had a few more pounds than before, my friend’s body frames looked the same, just with a few more wrinkles and a little more gray. But it was still the Hikone and Shiga that I remembered and loved.

Since returning in 2008, I have hosted so many Japanese students and families in my home. It is my way of paying forward all that was invested in me during my youth in Japan. I am still attracted to Japanese people, often running up to complete strangers and, after confirming they are indeed Japanese, practicing my Japanese on them just like they practiced their English on me when I was in Japan. I fondly refer to my daughters as Onee-chan and Mi-chan, the Japanese words for big sister and Milani dear. I prepare Japanese meals whenever I can invest the time in such a delicacy and I frequent sushi restaurants, always comparing them to the delectable Sushiyas that I frequented in Japan.

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Today, my passion for study abroad programs bars none thanks to the many experiences I have had in and out of Japan through JCMU, the JET Program on two separate occasions, life in Tokyo as an international business woman, hosting several Japanese students in my home spanning twenty years and once again living in Hikone as a family with my husband and beautiful daughters from 2006-2008.

Now, after 10 years, I will return to Hikone this summer with three teens, including my 13 year old daughter whose first language was Japanese as we lived there from the time she was 1 to 3 years of age. These young ladies’ lifetime dream has been to go to Japan. I feel so privileged to take them back to where it all started for me 30 years ago with JCMU. I hope to convince all of them but especially my daughter to go there some day as a legacy student!

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It will be like De Ja Vu to return during the 30-year anniversary of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. All three of the teens I will be bringing have been able to experience Japan, virtually in a way that many of us could have never imagined 30 years ago. It is because of JCMU that I am eagerly awaiting this upcoming adventure. I so desperately want America and Japan to always be allies. I also want our future generations to embrace internationalism, have a love for varying cultures, and have a heart for Nippon and to keep passing that love forward for generations to come.

I conclude by saying thank you to the Michigan and Shiga boards of education, Michigan State University, my mentor Dr. Vivian Carpenter, the staff and team of JCMU, the city and residents of Hikone, Japan, and finally my fellow inaugural students of JCMU for being a part of my journey, and for the LOVE relationship that I will always have with my beloved JAPAN!!!!

Elycia ReShonn Braswell Cook
Inaugural Student of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (1989-1990)

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