Aya Murata is more partial to Southern fried catfish than sushi with raw fish, but learning about another culture and teaching others about her native Japan are exactly why she’s in Conway.
Murata, 26, is the Japan Outreach Initiative coordinator at Hendrix College, a two-year position she started in August 2016.
She has shared her culture with public schools and the community — showing the ritual of making tea and the art of origami, demonstrating how to wear a kimono and answering questions from curious kids and adults, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .
“Every time I visit schools, there are kids who never met anyone from other countries, especially Asian countries. I’m so happy to be part of their international, intercultural education at those schools,” she said. “By meeting me, they can expand their horizons.”
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She is from Saitama, an area north of Tokyo.
“It’s a really big city, just like New York City, with tall buildings, but we also have lots of nature,” she said.
Murata has a degree in intercultural communications, and she worked for three and a half years at an international hotel in Tokyo.
She worked in the traditional Japanese restaurant in the hotel. Each day, dressed in a kimono, she served meals and also worked at the front desk to talk about tourism in Tokyo.
Murata has been to 13 countries on her own, and she loves the United States, she said, because people are friendly and welcoming.
“Since I was little, I was very fortunate to visit different countries and meet people of different cultures, different religions, different backgrounds,” she said.
The Japan Outreach Initiative is administered by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and The Laurasian Institution. The goal is to bring about a deeper understanding of Japan by sending coordinators like Murata to do community outreach and cultural activities.
Murata said building “human-to-human” relationships is the best way to understand each other and to dispel stereotypes.
“Politically, Japan and the United States have a very strong relationship, and I think we have to continue to keep this relationship. In terms of human-to-human relationships, I think it’s still developing,” she said.
Before being matched to Hendrix, Murata had never heard of Arkansas. Her grandparents live in a rural area of Japan, though, so Arkansas was not a huge shock.
“This is my first time to come to the United States. I was very excited. Through this job, I knew I would be able to meet many local people,” she said.
The language and Southern slang weren’t hard to understand, she said, “but the y’all, I didn’t know about it.”
Murata’s biggest learning curve — she had to get a driver’s license.
“One thing that surprised me — you have to drive a car,” she said, adding that she was used to public transportation.
Murata said she started taking driving lessons three months before she came to Arkansas.
“I’m still new to driving,” she said.
She took a deep breath when asked what she thinks about Conway’s many roundabouts: “Now I like them,” she said, laughing. “They’re very convenient, but I’ve seen accidents, too.”
Murata travels to public schools, including Conway, Cabot and Vilonia, as well as nonprofit organizations, to share her culture. In addition to making presentations, one of her favorite activities is to dress the teacher in a casual kimono, called a yukata.
“Kids love to see their teachers wear the clothes from different countries,” she said.
Claudia Courtway, assistant director of international programs at Hendrix College, said Murata has been “a whirlwind of energy since she arrived in August 2016.”
“She has such a passion for what she does and has such a humble and gracious way of sharing about her culture,” Courtway said.
Murata’s most recent and largest project is organizing the first Central Arkansas Omatsuri Japanese Festival, scheduled for April 7 at the brick pit at Hendrix. The free event, sponsored by Hendrix in collaboration with the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, will include Japanese food, games, entertainment and more.
It’s no accident that Murata was placed by the Japan Outreach Initiative program at Hendrix, where the president, Bill Tsutsui, is Japanese-American.
Tsutsui said he met the president of the organization’s foundation at a conference in Portland, Oregon, and the woman had heard of Hendrix and suggested to Tsutsui that he host a Japanese Outreach Initiative coordinator.
“I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea,'” Tsutsui said.
“What has really made the program is Aya as a person. She’s the best ambassador for Japan, and she’s perfect for Arkansas — she is so friendly. She is so open; she just wants to share all the great things about Japanese culture, especially with the kids in Conway.”
Tsutsui said it is “hugely important in the world that we live in to understand people from around the world.”
“You realize there are not that many opportunities in Arkansas to learn about Japan,” he said. People may experience Japanese culture through movies or food, but “there’s something special about having someone who is Japanese.”
Since Murata has been in the United States, she visited the Rohwer Internment Camp Museum in Arkansas. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were forced from their homes and housed in internment camps. Two were in southeast Arkansas, Rohwer and Jerome.
“I was very ashamed that I did not know about the Japanese internment camps,” she said.
She lives in the Japanese Language House, which Hendrix didn’t have until she came. About 10 students lived with her last semester, she said. She also started a Japanese Conversation Club at Hendrix, and a Japanese exchange student helps her teach other students.
In the language house, they cook Japanese meals and speak Japanese almost exclusively. Students also give presentations each month on a facet of Japanese culture or society.
“Everyone has a different interest in Japanese culture,” she said. “I would say many students first got interested in Japanese culture through anime or manga (Japanese comics). They may be interested in origami, Japanese art or, of course, food.”
Murata said she has given many sushi workshops, and she uses rice, teriyaki chicken, crab meat, cucumbers, “ingredients that people can get here.”
She also started the origami paper-crane project, in which the goal is to make 1,000 paper cranes.
“In Japan, we believe if we fold 1,000 origami cranes, your dream will come true. It’s also a symbol of peace.”
After an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, a little girl affected by the radiation started to fold 1,000 cranes while she was in the hospital.
In Conway, nearly 300 volunteers — faculty, staff and students of Hendrix and UCA, and middle school students and teachers — are helping Murata make the cranes.
“For Japanese people, it’s not that hard, but there are about 20 steps (to make the cranes),” she said.
The cranes will be displayed in the Student Learning and Technology Center at Hendrix until April, then be moved to the Mills Center to be near the painting Arrival at Camp Jerome, created by Henry Sugimoto. He painted the piece when he was at the Jerome relocation center.
Murata will return to Japan in August, but her hope is that she has helped deepen the connection between two vastly different cultures.
“One of my hopes is this will continue even after I leave,” she said of the outreach initiative. “When I got here, there was not much opportunity for relationships to Japanese culture. So many people helped me here. I hope the students will continue what I started.
“I want to be like a bridge to connect Japan with other countries in the world; that is my dream,” she said. “I know it is big. I like to have big dreams or goals.”
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.