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Lasting friendships of 50 years

Homecoming of former Kokusaibu alums

Bill Watanabe (left) and Eugene Tsuji (right) in C Space of Building 6

Bill Watanabe and Eugene Tsuji slowly sat down on the brand new chairs of C Space in Building 6, which was once a common room for international students back in 1967, when they studied at Waseda. “It wasn’t this clean then and was kind of old fashioned, with antique wooden tables,” said Bill. “We used to hang out here and play cards.”

Bill and Eugene, who are graduates of California State University Northridge and Chico respectively, were in the third cohort of Kokusaibu, Waseda University’s International Division. Established in 1960, Kokusaibu accepted American students, mainly from the Great Lakes College Association and the former California State Colleges, so that they can experience Japanese language and culture in the classroom, around the city and across the country in a course of a year. Bill and Eugene made this homecoming visit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their life-changing study abroad experience.

Eugene and Bill with their wives, and former Kokusaibu staff in front of Okuma Auditorium

Although they are of Japanese descent, Bill and Eugene are Japanese Americans, and they faced challenges due to the gap between the way they looked and the actual amount of Japanese they spoke while studying abroad. Bill, born in Manzanar during WWII, came to Japan to learn about his roots. Connecting with relatives in Fukushima and studying Japanese to better communicate with his non-English speaking parents were also part of the motive. Eugene, who is from Yuba City, CA, was unable to speak Japanese at all when he first arrived. “One of the most important Japanese words Bill taught me was ‘teishoku (a set meal).’”

Life in Japan

The political climate was high in the United States and Japan when the two came to Waseda. Martin Luther King was shot and murdered, and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Student rebellion aided by the All-Campus Joint Struggle Council continued unabated and soon escalated into violent struggles on university campuses. Such rebellion, mainly triggered in protest against the Vietnam War, was referred to as student power and became a global phenomenon. This was also a time when the famous Japanese actress Sayuri Yoshinaga was studying at Waseda. Bill said that he would walk around campus sometimes with hopes to come across her.

Photo by Bill Watanabe

Photo by Bill Watanabe

From Waseda University Archives

Kokusaibu students stayed in the homes of their host families and commuted to the university either from Takadanobaba Station, taking the bus or walking to save the bus fare, or from Waseda Station after catching the electric Arakawa Line tramway. Back then, there were food stalls serving all kinds of food along the tracks, and students could buy them for a cheap price. “$1.00 was 360 yen at the time, and I figured that yakisoba was about 50 cents,” Bill recalled. “I also ate my first gyoza there.”

During an excursion trip to Nara. A classmate feeding a deer. (Photo by Bill Watanabe)

As a part of their program, the students attend sumo matches, kabuki performances, and Soukei (Waseda-Keio) baseball games. They also had the opportunity to visit the Kyoto-Nara area during their excursion in November. Many of them also took advantage of the long breaks and traveled all over Japan and in East and Southeast Asia. Among their cherished memories, Bill and Eugene mentioned that the most memorable trip was when they went to Mount Fuji in October.

“Eugene, Mary, who is another friend of ours, and I took the train to Fuji Yoshida with high hopes to climb Mount Fuji,” said Bill. “We were poorly dressed and unprepared, and found out that the buses to the 5th station of Mount Fuji stopped running after August.”

Luckily, a priest from a Catholic church nearby let them spend the night. He also gave them proper gear to climb Mount Fuji, including shoes, and even drove them to the 5th station. They all climbed together and made it to the top of the summit, only to stay for a short while because it was very cold and windy. The way down, however, was much faster and more fun in comparison to climbing up. “This probably is not allowed anymore, but we came sliding down the ravels,” explained Eugene. “The shoes the priest gave us were ruined, but Bill and I made a donation to the church a few years ago in this memory.”

At the summit of Mount Fuji (Photo by Bill Watanabe)

50 years later

For Bill and Eugene, their Waseda experience of learning Japanese and immersing themselves in the culture (adventures such as the Mount Fuji trip included) became not only a cherished memory but a valuable asset in their professional careers. Bill received his Master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA and in 1980, became the Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, a non-profit charitable organization serving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders throughout LA County. For over 30 years, Bill made immeasurable impact in the community, and his Japanese language proficiency and understanding for Japanese people helped him do so. After serving in the US armed forces in Vietnam, Eugene, on the other hand, stayed in Japan for 20 years where he went onto graduate school at Sophia University and raised his family while traveling the world for various business corporations. Now, he resides in Vietnam with his wife.

About 45 students were part of their cohort, but Kokusaibu has now evolved into the School of International Liberal Studies, enrolling approximately 600 students. Moreover, Waseda currently has over 5,000 international students, the most in Japan, following their footsteps. Bill and Eugene only spent a year together at Waseda, but their friendship has lasted for these past 50 years. Bill said studying at Waseda University was one of the best years of his life. Eugene said that he was blessed. “I had no interest to study in Asia, but this total experience has changed my life.”