Dr. Yasuyuki “Yash” Owada is a member of ICU’s first graduating class in 1957, and currently the chair of the Japan ICU Foundation’s board of trustees. In this interview, Dr. Yash talked with us about his life at ICU and gave his message to current students.
Ryoma Toratani: Thank you for taking time for this interview Yash. For starters, please tell me about your background/upbringing.
Yasuyuki Owada: I was born into a Japanese family in Manchuria, China in 1934. My father was a civil servant so that growing up I moved to many places. I lived in Morioka, Iwate, where I started my elementary school, then Totori, and Mito later. We evacuated to Iwaki, Fukushima the last year of the War. I lived in Fukushima City with my family where I graduated from high school. I was baptized at the Kyodan Fukushima Church.
RT: Why did you choose ICU?
Yash: I learned about ICU from, among others, Dr. Takeshi Saito, retired professor at the University of Tokyo, considered THE authority in English Lit. He was a senior founder of ICU. My parents had wanted me to go to a national university such as Todai, and gave me money for exam application for it. But, I spent it to buy a COD. I got in a lot of trouble later. More than anything, I liked the idea of ICU being utterly new.
RT: What was ICU like at that time?
Yash: When I entered ICU in 1952, there was no “university,” just a language institute. The Japanese Ministry of Education authorized ICU as a university a year later, thanks to ICU’s founders, especially Professor Daishiro Hidaka, a Kantian scholar, who was a former Vice Minister of Education, who had saved the Ministry of Education from the Occupation demanding its elimination. He was ICU’s founding Dean of Graduate Programs.
RT: What was your life like at ICU?
Yash: At that time ICU had a policy whereby no academically qualified student should be denied of admission due to financial difficulties. Such an ideal was made possible because of the support of the Japan ICU Foundation in New York, partner in the founding of ICU. In the early period, we had understood ICU’s tuition was among the highest in Japan. I had received scholarships for five consecutive years (since the first year of ICU was not counted for graduation), from a variety of individuals and groups such as US GIs stationed at Tachikawa US Air Force Base, a student group at Purdue University in Indiana, and a retired Greek cook living near Pasadena, California.
While I was attending ICU, I lived at Prince Kuni House, the first male dormitory, by the university’s dairy farm, now the site of the American School in Japan. There were about twenty male students, one housemother, Mrs. Takenouchi and one advisor, Professor Haruo Tsuru. We all lived together with the farm staff in this very large Japanese house. We had come from local areas of Japan, each bringing his own dialect, so that the life there was a bit like an international exchange program. Mrs. T remained our “Mother” away from home till we graduated, and Prof. T was like a young uncle.
RT: What did you study at ICU mainly?
Yash: I majored in Social Sciences, focusing on international relations. Those days, some of us boys thought it was lame to get good grades. One of us tried to graduate with straight Ds because D was still a credit worthy grade. But, he “failed” as he got one C in his last year. He worked for a national transportation company, learned the basics, and left there to run successfully a company in Chicago. I still believe your grades don’t determine who you are, and what your life will be after graduating. Except for those who go on to graduate studies.
RT: What is the most unforgettable thing(s)/memory in ICU life?
Yash: First, I’d say my life at Kuni House. I have so many memories from the days I spent there. Most of us moved out to the First Men’s Dormitory when it was built in 1954. But, I remained at Kuni House, living with some new younger students. One of them kept complaining that the Western toilets in Honkan were too scary. Eventually, he dropped out of school. Skipping classes occasionally was important. I remember spending hours with my friend(s), or reading, at the café, “Dai-ku” (Symphony 9th), located in front of Mitaka station. There is much you can learn outside of class, too.
Another unforgettable memory is informal, out of class talks with professors or university staff including telephone switchboard operators. Lots of life-long learning, particularly about life as learning, come from such talks with faculty, and seeing what they did with their lives. Imagine the surprise finding out that my first-year advisor, Dr. Bryn-Jones, an expert on diplomatic history, and Mrs. BJ would read Jane Austen aloud to each other on Sunday afternoons! Poem, maybe, but prose, too? What did this say about being married? Literature and life!
Because I needed cash to sustain my everyday life, I worked all five years on the campus. One of the first jobs I had was to work for the family of Dr. and Mrs. Carl Kreider. He was our founding Dean of the College, and my advisor after Dr. Bryn-Jones left. One Saturday, I asked Dr. Kreider if it was OK for me to take their youngest, little boy Stevie to Kuni House for him to find out how the boys lived. Dr. K’s response was, “Let me consult with Steve.” I think that’s the word he used, “consult.” That was a new language to me. My parents had never consulted with me about my life. They just told me. What a discovery about the notion of human dignity and respect for an individual!
RT: Please tell me about your life after graduating from ICU.
Yash: After graduating I went to Columbia University Teachers College. Professor Tsuru had just finished his doctorate there, and I, without knowing, followed in his footsteps. While working on my dissertation, I returned to ICU as a member of a research project on student values, directed by Dr. Maurice Troyer, the founding Academic Vice President of ICU. He and I had worked to get a 6-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. (Dr. Kazuo Hara of Psychology and Ms. Masako K. Yamamoto and two other graduates joined us. Much later Mrs. Y was instrumental in helping Trustee Tetsuo Chino, my classmate, to create the Friends of ICU program to support ICU in Japan). I also taught Organizational Behavior in GSPA, etc. But, soon I became sucked into the administrative work for ICU, primarily as Administrative Assistant to the new president then, Dr.Nobushige Ukai, Japan’s foremost authority on Human Rights, Administrative Laws and the Constitution.
The period of nearly 15 years, 1960s through 1970s, was a turbulent era of campus revolts all over the world. Japan had its own unique national agenda related to security and the role of students in university governance. At ICU, too, a significant segment of the student body strove hard to have their voice heard by the faculty and administration. While the means of opinion expression such as hunger strike, occupation of buildings, class boycott, etc., to which the vocal students resorted, produced no fruitful results, the university’s effort to restore order on the campus for productive discussion and resolution of issues failed just as well. President Ukai’s insistence on dialogue toward conflict resolution and sleepless nights were in vain.
In 1969, I joined the charter faculty of Johnston College (now called, Center for Integrative Studies) at University of Redlands. It is an experimental and experimenting college maintaining academic autonomy from the University. There I learned to learn with students. To maximize learning, students and faculty enter into contracts for courses as well as their graduation “requirements.” There is only one graduation requirement: cross-cultural learning. No grading, but narrative evaluation of learning process and results. In forty years, we now have national leaders in business, film industry, medicine, creative writing, art, social work, higher education, and so forth.
Interestingly, many of our graduates share the same characteristics as a number of the ICU graduates I’ve come to know: high initiative, willingness to take risks, courage to be self-accountable, cooperative, and most importantly, willingness to share.
RT: What do you expect ICU students to have/be like, as your Kohai? Do you have any message to ICU students?
Yash: Any kind of work you do contributes to the whole world in some way. Never think of what you do is too small or too insignificant. Have you ever raised a child? That’s a civilizational task! Have you ever thought of building a toilet? Do you know that’s a civilizational task?! There are 2.5 billion people right this moment in the world who have no access to toilets. Do you know how many million babies are dying because of it, right now? Can you build a paperless, waterless toilet? Of course, you can. Do it!