Not wanted: My experience at an all Japanese International College
How much suffering is considered acceptable to learn and receive a formal education?
I asked myself this question every day when I woke up at the Hawaii Tokai International College, HTIC. HTIC is a branch of the Japanese institution, Tokai University, founded by Shigematsu Mastumae, with the following purpose: “To educate students to become enlightened global citizens who contribute to world peace.” Well, at least that’s what the website says, but the reality is much darker. I went to HTIC wanting to work in the government to try to help people from around the world, including my native Philippines since they had a certificate course in Peace Studies. However, HTIC isn’t truly about the materialization of peace, and instead, it’s about appearing to be peaceful. When I attended, I learned and experienced firsthand the worst aspects of Japanese society such as exclusion, racism, apathy towards others, and social issues.
In my first week of classes, students were placed in the theater room to watch a documentary about the origins of HTIC and its founder. I should’ve known that this meant trouble, but the opening scene was a recording of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horrifyingly, students from Japan in the theater room began to laugh hysterically, while 6 other American students and I sat solemn and astonished. If the Japanese students can laugh at that, then what else? I didn’t know much about Japan or its culture at the time and was allured at the opportunity to learn, especially since there were many Japanese students that I could learn from through proximity and potential friendships. But the admissions officer who sold me that making friends was easy truly did not know what went on.
In my dormitory room, I was lucky enough to have a roommate (I’ll call him Randy for his anonymity) who understood my situation and wanted to help me. Randy was older than me, and we talked often in English since I knew absolutely no Japanese whatsoever. After his departure, everything took a turn for the worst, and I was left with three other roommates who were not quite as friendly as Randy. Randy and I got along because we both had difficult childhoods and understood what it was like to be in the working class with full-time jobs and staying afloat while studying with the biggest class load possible. During this period, I had an extremely demanding job that required me to work the closing shift, but my other three roommates, who I’ll call the Pretty Boys, were not fans of my working situation or me in general. I was forced to return late at night, around 10 or 11 pm, and they would lament my job. I hated my job too, but I needed to eat. There was more to it than just being a little too active at night, though.
One night one of the Pretty Boys exclaimed to me in his best possible English, since they were still pre-college students, “Why do you go to school if you can’t afford it?!” I was offended, but not shocked. Many of these students came from privileged backgrounds, wore expensive ‘hypebeast’ clothing, and drove luxurious brand cars. I even heard stories about a former student who had dozens of speeding tickets and totaled another student’s vehicle. I, however, couldn’t drive because I have a visual disability from a combination of eye conditions. My disability is why I have to work so hard, be up so late, and make so much noise in the dark. I tried explaining this, but I was met with, “Why do you go to a normal person’s school then?”
To these students, not exclusively the Pretty Boys, I was not normal. I was everything they disliked: a poor, disabled, brown-skinned, outspoken advocate. This got to a point where they began to physically take action against me. I was told many times by the students to not talk in the room with friends online, despite the Pretty Boys having cross-room conversations with each other in Japanese. I was so desperate for any kind of social interaction, I begged them to let me talk to them. Nobody wanted to be friends with me, which pushed me to talk online with friends back home. I was denied. Then, one day they began locking me out of my dorm room, and I began living out of a backpack and duffle bag while the rest of my belongings was trapped in my room.
For a week, I slept on the dorm community couch in the kitchen and still attended class and work normally. Thankfully, I was saved by some students who took pity on me, but they were made fun of and ostracized by my tormentors. The housing staff did absolutely nothing for me saying that “everyone has sh*tty roommates in college, just deal with it.” I would’ve lived off that couch without the compassion of those boys and the inaction of the staff. There’s no way I can “deal with” a group of people who have strength in numbers while I was the massive minority.
Despite that, I continued to believe that somewhere deep down no matter how rich, racist, or ableist the Japanese students were, there were little humans inside of them who genuinely cared about other people. Everything told me otherwise and chipped away at my hope. Outside of the dorm, I was an active student in community activities to become friends with the Japanese students. I tried to start a club, which failed miserably since only the American students attended. I tried to join the basketball club that played intramural games, but again, I was faced with disdain and outcasting. I was never spoken to, cared about, or invited to be friends with any of them. Whenever we would meet to be carpooled to the park, I was never greeted, not even a simple hello or a greeting in Japanese. While waiting to be placed on a team, I sat alone and shot around on my own. I wasn’t ever able to share a laugh with anyone while playfully trying to steal the ball from a teammate. I was never afforded the opportunity, no matter how much passion I showed, for the game that I sincerely loved since childhood.
I wasn’t allowed to be happy. I pleaded with the advisor for help, and they met me with defensiveness instead of words of support. He defended the actions of the Japanese students and claimed that I should be more like them and that I was a problem, disregarding that I had no idea how to be like them. I didn’t even speak their language. After that, basketball was ruined. As I would come to find, most things I did at this school that I found interesting or fun were ruined.
Classes were my favorite, and it’s no surprise for a family lineage full of teachers from both my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandfather. Learning was my bridge to the world, since being blind meant that my brain had to compensate because otherwise, nobody would like me in an otherwise normal society. I found it funny at times since many of the classes contained lots of information I already knew, and that meant I had a unique perspective on the topics during class discussions or group work. To my surprise, nobody ever wanted to speak up during discussions or group work. I even had a professor, who the American students and I were close with, tell us to jokingly “shut up” to allow the Japanese students to speak. That didn’t even work without my professors directly asking the Japanese students questions. What the Japanese students did say, though, was less amusing. In a class designed around international relations, the majority of the students blamed China and foreign countries for what a student said verbatim was the “downfall of Japan.”
This was early into my time at HTIC, but as time and world events progressed, things got much worse. During the spring semester, the coronavirus completely turned our school into full online mode, which meant that students were a little more inclined to talk in class. In a class discussing Hawaii, many students expressed that they didn’t know that Hawaii and America at large had more than just Black and white people.
Then the summer rolled around, and two major events happened. The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the arrival of my Peace Studies courses. As a direct world connection to the field of peace studies, racism and racist acts like George Floyd’s unjust killing came as a working example of how the world was not at peace. Students claimed in classes that racism doesn’t exist in the US because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that other forms of racism aren’t real since there isn’t any violence. A Japanese student broadcasted to the class that he was afraid of sitting next to people who were dark-skinned fearing that we were criminals or violent. Students claimed that racism didn’t exist in Japan since there was an absence of foreigners, which begs the question: why are there no foreigners in Japan?
The simple answer is what I described, but worse: we are ostracized, seen as threats, misunderstood, and not cared about. Even a professor wasn’t spared criticism, who at outside of classes or at meals was made fun of for their ethnicity, called “smelly”, and mocked for their mixed ancestry among other things. Later during my time towards the end, students did and said much worse things. On the topic of Comfort Women and World War II, many students claimed that Korea and other victims should just get over Japan’s colonialization since it happened so long ago. What they didn’t realize was that my aunt was a survivor of World War II in the Philippines, who suffered trauma beyond description and to the point of tears whenever seeing any kind of blood or violence. In a presentation about Japan, a student claimed that places like Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, and Korea were willingly submitting territories of Japan, not colonies or occupied states. Students claimed in a human geography class that women were less valuable to society than men since they’re useless when pregnant. During discussions about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in Japan, students regularly denied or even went as far as to dismiss claims by going on their phones casually or standing up and leaving their computers while female classmates shared their experiences with sexual crimes. I was regularly disgusted, horrified, and enraged. In a fit of rage, I announced to my class that they were disrespectful and that I wished for them to never see my face again, a promise bound by the phrase, “On My Mama.”
However, I’m here now to say that I want them to see my face, works, words, and my feelings. I need them to realize their privileges and how their actions hurt people, whether it’s exclusion, racism, ableism, sexism, or overall apathy towards others. I still believe that the Japanese students I went to HTIC with are humans who can become conscious, pro-peace people.
The stereotype of Japan as a highly civilized and polite society needs to be rethought because making people feel like they’re unwanted or less than is more than hurtful or barbaric. It’s inhumane. If I have any advice, I’d say, “don’t support this place.” The staff did absolutely nothing whenever I filed complaints, talked to staff and counselors, or tried to hold students accountable. Money is better spent giving to organizations that fight sexism, ableism, racism, and class oppression. They teach more and take more action in the name of peace than this school could in a century.
About Karl Jason Climag
Karl is a second-generation visually disabled Filipino American student activist at the University of Hawaii. He graduated from a Japanese 2-year college with an Associate's Degree in Peace Studies.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Maya Kubota