I remember being dumbfounded when a friend from Ritsumeikan commented during his time at Rutgers that “It’s hard to be an Asian in America.” Having been given no explanation at the time, I only found out later that he had been referring to the number of extracurriculars that American students must be involved in, in both high school and college.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two systems in this way: US schools stress well-rounded students while the college acceptance system in Japan is based almost entirely on raw test scores. It seemed fitting that, on paper, many of our friends at Rits were not involved in many clubs or sports and were uninterested in various social issues according to our survey. Yet, actually being on campus, talking to our friends, and especially visiting various civil society organizations painted a very different picture for us. One student was consistently late for our Rutgers-Rits get-togethers because of his heavy involvement with the Korean Students Club (rough translation) at Ritsumeikan. We didn’t get to see another friend until the farewell dinner because she was enrolled in a special inter-university program that required her to travel through schools presenting her research on a contested area of modern ‘civil society,’ the world wide web. More than half of the students we met on this program were student leaders for the IR program at Rits, connecting students across grades and heading numerous retreats on and off campus. At the Aozora Foundation and during the classes we had together at Rutgers, the students displayed a high level of interest and knowledge about both social and political issues, questioning authorities and putting forth community-based ideas for social development.
Yet, the interesting revelation was that many of the Rits students left class grasping for a concrete definition of ‘civil society.’ They didn’t believe that they were heavily involved in it, and didn’t think that they had anything other than academics to fill their resumes. I think that the main difference between American and Japanese civil society, at least at this age, is the fact that America has a name and a clear picture of what the term entails in our specific communities. We view civil society as a means to express our opinions and have some impact in the immediate or long-run society in which we live, viewing formal and informal organizations as a larger tool for our own goals.
Someone also suggested during our last lecture that the Japanese students were only involved in aspects of civil society that impacted them directly, or heavily interested them. In retrospect, this isn’t particularly different from the US. By our Western point of view, perhaps the Japanese students were not as heavily involved in organizations as we seem to be, or were downright apathetic on paper. However, the fact that our society emphasizes involvement encourages students at Rutgers to join various clubs in name only, signing into a dozen club meetings while only being involved in a handful. At our last meeting with Kelly, I listed a few clubs that I was heavily involved in, but knew then that I had only touched the tip of my paper resume. It was only when I saw the extent of the Rits students’ involvement in their communities and school that I realized our civil societies aren’t as different, or as clear cut as classes can make them out to be – it was simply that our civil society involvement leaves, and is intended to leave, a clearer paper trail.