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Spring Break Destination: Japan

Eight college students pose in front of samurai statue during educational spring break trip to Japan.

VMI cadets in front of the statue of samurai warrior, Kusunoki Masashige, at the Kokyo Gaien National Garden in Tokyo. -Photo courtesy of Col. Houston Johnson.

LEXINGTON, Va., April 12, 2023—Eight 1st Class commissioning cadets at Virginia Military Institute, along with their faculty leadership team, Lt. Col. Jochen Arndt, Col. Houston Johnson, and Col. David Gray, toured Japan during spring furlough as part of the Olmsted Foundation’s Undergraduate Program which offers overseas travel and cultural immersion opportunities to senior military college students. The fully funded trip is co-sponsored by VMI’s Department of History, the John A. Adams ’71 Center for Military History & Strategic Analysis, and the Center for Leadership and Ethics. Cadets were chosen based on their GPA, ROTC ranking, a written essay, and personal interview.

According to Arndt, the Olmsted Foundation’s mission for their undergraduate program is to “provide future military officers their first overseas experience in a non-English speaking country, with exposure to a national perspective, and a focus on the role of U.S. policy in the region. That is our mission too,” he said.

Johnson agreed, “We want to increase cultural awareness and competency in future officers, so they can do their job in a better, more sophisticated fashion when they are deployed overseas,” he said.

The leadership team chose to go to Japan this year, because it is a key U.S. ally in the Pacific. It is culturally and linguistically foreign, giving cadets a challenge to deal with those differences. “The team looks for locations that offer good opportunities to talk about culture, and U.S. policy and history, and that are compelling for the cadets,” said Johnson. In years past, cadet groups have gone to Germany, Poland, Israel, Vietnam, and last year to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The cadets prepared for the trip through a reading seminar to familiarize them with Japan’s history and complex historic relationship with the U.S., and Japan’s recently implemented national security strategy. “We even took them to the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. to talk with Maj. Gen. Sugai Hiroyuki, defense and air attaché, who talked to them about the new national security strategy. With all that knowledge, we then went to Japan,” said Arndt.

The group traveled to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. They visited museums, sampled different foods, traveled on the high-speed “bullet” train, learned the ethos of the samurai warrior, and learned how to prepare Japanese meals.

“Three standout activities we experienced were participating in an authentic tea ceremony, which has its origins in Zen Buddhism dating back to the 9th century; visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, where we spoke with an atomic bomb survivor; and having dinner with an Air Force officer currently studying in Kyoto as an Olmsted scholar. Talking to him, the cadets learned a lot about living as a foreigner in Japan, and got a vision of the Olmsted Foundation senior program,” said Arndt.

Johnson added, “Being chosen to be an Olmstead scholar is very prestigious. It is highly sought after by members of the armed services. It requires that scholar get a master’s degree, while living off-post in a non-English speaking country. The foundation pays for the degree and all living expenses.”

Arndt and Johnson concurred that the eight cadets in the group worked hard to fully immerse themselves into the culture and enjoy the experience. “They went to a car show and navigated the extremely complicated Tokyo subway system on their own. They were required to make restaurant reservations, and they all mastered all tasks asked of them. They woke early each morning on time, with an enthusiastic attitude to conquer the day,” said Johnson.

Cassidy Dufour ’23, an international studies major from Amherst, New Hampshire, and commissioning into the Air Force said, “The trip was amazing and learning about the Japanese culture was an incredible experience. I was shocked how you could literally taste the different cultures through the Japanese food, and when you walked through the shrines and temples, you could feel the nation’s complex history coming to life. We were blessed to have met incredible people who shared their stories, including a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.”

Susanna Kirchman ’23, an international studies major from Fairfax, Virginia, and commissioning into the Army, said “I enjoyed the mix of modern and old in the Japanese cities. Japan is very welcoming and kind to tourists. We had wonderful tours to different Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. I enjoyed trying new foods, and eating authentic ramen for the first time. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity, and I hope I can serve in Japan or other parts of East Asia after I commission.”

The program didn’t end with the groups’ return. A week later, the Japanese National Defense Academy near Tokyo sent nine cadets to VMI for a visit. The VMI cadets were able to apply what they learned in Japan, as they shared meals and hosted their counterparts in barracks.

Gray stated that fostering relationships with colleagues from an allied country helps build strong ties to the United States.  “As future officers, the cadets gained great insights that will benefit them in cross-cultural interactions, especially with such a valued ally in the Far East,” he said.

Planning for next year's trip is already underway.

L to R: cadets enjoy an authentic meal, cadets who traveled to Japan welcome their counterparts from the Japanese National Defense Academy, VMI cadets at the Yakasuni Shrine in Tokyo


Marianne Hause
Photos courtesy of Col. Houston Johnson
Communications & Marketing

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