In late June 1998, I found myself seated across a coffee table from the emperor and empress of Japan, nervously eyeing a plate of perfect cherries placed before me by servants in white coats and gloves. I was one of four University of Hawaiʻi students invited to tea with the royal couple at their Imperial Palace residence in Tokyo.
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We were two Japanese and two American recipients of Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation awards—yet none of us knew what to do with the tube of rolled paper next to the plate of cherries. About three inches long, twisted shut at one end, it seemed a royal protocol blunder waiting to happen.
Empress Michiko sensed our bewilderment. “It’s for the pits,” she said as she picked up the tube in her right hand and gently placed a cherry into her mouth with her left. She took a few chews, and then with all the elegance possible in such a situation, demonstrated how to hide the unsightly pit by spitting it into the paper tube.
“She thought that up herself,” the emperor said, beaming with pride. The empress smiled appreciatively. Suddenly we were all less worried about protocol.
The royal couple has been charming UH scholars with palace chats since the early 1970s, when the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship began providing grants for a select few American UH graduate students to conduct research anywhere in Japan. Today the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation provides one American UH student with $45,000 a year for up to two years of study in Japan. Two Japanese students receive $25,000 a year plus full tuition for two years of study at UH. (Two additional scholarships are available to the Japanese scholars from the university’s Shidler College of Business.)
What’s in the name
The financial support is important, but the name makes the award special, says Earl Okawa, foundation president emeritus. Sharon Minichiello, one of the first scholars, agrees.
“Its prestige was a factor in my receiving a postdoctoral affiliation with the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law and in receiving the personal support of former Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer to study with him at the Center for Japan Studies at Harvard,” says the retired UH Mānoa professor of modern Japanese history.
“There are few faster ways to get someone’s attention in Japan—or with Japanese expats—than by telling them you have had tea with the emperor and empress,” says 1992–93 Akihito scholar Stephen Covell.
He recalls the empress standing on tiptoe to comment on how tall he was (Covell stands 6 foot 5), but it was the emperor’s name on his vita that helped him get into Princeton University’s religious studies PhD program. He now chairs the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University.
Within the intimacy of Their Majesties’ home, scholars witness mutual affection rarely, if ever, displayed in public. And they experience the royal couple’s sincere interest in their work.
Minichiello has met the royal couple on three occasions, as scholar, director of UH Mānoa’s Center for Japanese Studies and Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation trustee. “The emperor remembered the specifics of my research and asked me about it on all three occasions,” she says.
Origin of the program
Hawaiʻi business leader Ralph Honda created the scholarship in 1959, the year of Hawaiian statehood, as a wedding gift to the royal couple. The son of Japanese immigrants, he hoped a scholar exchange would promote U.S.-Japan relations.
His friend Shinzo Koizumi, then president of Keio University and the crown prince’s former tutor, obtained the emperor’s approval. Their Highnesses made a private donation to the fund when they visited Hawaiʻi the following year.
When Akihito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, the new emperor requested that the
scholarship retain its name as a reminder of its origins, Okawa says.
The Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation was created under Honda’s leadership in 1987 and supported by him until his death at age 96 in 2004.
Rising costs and economic downturns have created investment challenges, Okawa says. The foundation decided to support one scholar at a level competitive with other prestigious grants and sufficient to meet scholars’ living expenses. It is aggressively seeking new donors under Chairman Howard Hamamoto in the United States and Japanese partners led by business federation Keidanren and the Mitsui Estates Company in Japan.
Recipients on both sides of the Pacific are selected for academic excellence, personal integrity and professional bearing. Japanese scholars must be fluent in English; American recipients can spend the first year studying Japanese if they are not fluent enough to conduct their research. “Thus, all Akihito Scholars become bilingual and bicultural,” Okawa observes. Scholars are also expected to pursue goals that promote U.S.–Japan relations.
A lasting impact
When she applied for an Akihito grant to study at UH, Atsuko Kikuchi was more focused on completing her degree than improving U.S.–Japan relations. “Over the years and through experiences like meeting the royal couple, I’ve reached a point where I want to give something back to the two countries that influenced me most,” she says.
Now a professor of linguistics at Kansai University in Osaka, Kikuchi arranges for students from UH West Oʻahu to visit Japan and interact with her students. “Both groups go home with a positive and deeper understanding of the other’s country. I think that small contributions like this gradually build up to better relations and better understanding on a larger scale,” she says.
About 40 percent of the 132 Akihito scholar alumni have pursued careers in education, most at universities across the United States and Japan; mostly teaching courses related to linguistics, international relations or Asian studies. The rest are completing advanced degrees or working in fields from banking to government to science. Two former American recipients are Buddhist clergy. One is a retired pastry chef.
“Being selected for a scholarship that carries the name of the emperor is by itself a great honor,” 1994–96 Japanese scholar Ritsuko Kikusawa says. “But the deeper meaning is that one belongs to a network of people with diverse backgrounds, with different ages and specializations and with achievements in the public and private sectors. It opens up new windows of perception.”
Association with other scholars has led to academic collaboration, adds 1996–98 scholar and Wayne State University Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Dorn Lublin.
In July 2009, dozens of former Akihito scholars reunited in Honolulu to mark the 50th anniversary of the scholarship. The celebration culminated in a banquet feting the royal couple, who made the event the centerpiece of their three-day visit to the islands. More than 1,600 prominent local residents and foundation supporters attended the banquet, which also celebrated the royal couple’s golden wedding anniversary.
True to their tradition, Their Highnesses made time for a post-banquet reception just for former and current scholars. As I waited to thank them for their influence on my life, I was reminded of my day at the palace. As I was leaving, I glanced back at the coffee table and noticed that we guests had left our paper cherry pit tubes gapping open. The emperor and empress had twisted theirs closed to spare even the servants from the offending pits. Perhaps it is such sensibilities that divide the nobles from the rest of us, I thought then.
As the empress gently took my hand 11 years later and thanked me for my research and teaching, I thought maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, it is their efforts to close the divides between people through involvement in programs like the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship that makes this royal couple seem so noble.
For information about the scholarship, see the Japan America Society of Hawaiʻi website.
Meet four Crown Prince Akihito scholars
Recipients of Crown Prince Akihito scholarships pursue different studies and different career paths, but many continue their scholarship and teach new generations of students. Meet four of the past American and Japanese scholars.
Stephen Covell (MA in Asian studies ’93 Mānoa), 1992–93
While writing his Asian studies master’s thesis on medieval Japanese Buddhism, Stephen Covell spent the year as a Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation grantee studying classical Japanese language and literature at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Studies in Yokohama.
“The experience gave me the skills and many life-long connections that helped for year to come,” says Covell. “It also encouraged me to always look beyond my own narrow research interests and to seek opportunities to further develop Japan–U.S. ties.”
Covell, who received his PhD from Princeton University, is the founder and director of the Michitoshi Soga Japan Center at Western Michigan University, where he is chair of the Department of Comparative Religion. He also serves on the board of directors for the Japan-America Society of Western Michigan and the Midwest Japan Seminar.
Atsuko Kikuchi (MA in linguistics ’80 Mānoa), 1979–80
Atsuko Kikuchi says the year she was supported by the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation to work on her University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa master’s degree in linguistics was “the time that I studied the most in my entire life.”
It was also a period of self-discovery. “I learned to be proud of being Japanese from the Japanese-American friends that I made in Hawaiʻi,” she says. “Many of them retain the good qualities of the Japanese character that are slowly disappearing in Japan. I learned from them how to adapt to other cultures while still retaining my own identity.”
The opportunity to meet the royal couple was also a moving experience, she says. “I felt strongly that the emperor and the empress genuinely wished for peace and good relations between Japan and the U.S.,” says Kikuchi. “In this world where most of us are too busy thinking only of ourselves it was a humbling experience to meet people who seemed to have given themselves to others.”
Kikuchi, who received her PhD from the University of Auckland, says the skills she acquired in Hawaiʻi have greatly benefitted her career, but they have also allowed her help international students at Kansai University in Osaka, where she is a professor of linguistics. Among other activities, she volunteers to teach them the Zen principles behind kyūdō (Japanese archery) of which she is a devotee.
Ritsuko Kikusawa (PhD in linguistics ’00 Mānoa), 1994–96
Japanese scholar Ritsuko Kikusawa earned her doctorate in linguistics while she was a Crown Prince Akihito Scholar. Today she is an internationally recognized linguist based at The National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, where she is an associate professor of anthropology.
She is also an associate professor of comparative studies at the Graduate University of Advanced Studies in Kanagawa, Japan.
“It has never left my mind that all this goes back to the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship that I received at an early stage in my career. Every time I think of it, I’m amazed to see how far a two-year scholarship can bring someone,” she says.
Kikusawa was honored at the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation 50th anniversary banquet as a recipient of the Ralph Chikato Honda Distinguished Scholar Award for her pioneering work in the comparative grammar of Oceanic languages (including Hawaiian) and the reconstruction of the language of the first inhabitants of Fiji and Polynesia.
Her work on the ancient languages of Oceania also led to her discovery of how giant water taro (Cyrtosperma taro) was introduced into the Pacific area.
Elizabeth Dorn Lublin (PhD in modern Japanese history ’03 Mānoa), 1997
As one of four Crown Prince Akihito Foundation scholars to have an audience with the Japanese royal couple in 1997, Elizabeth Dorn Lublin says she was struck by “how gracious and unassuming” the empress was. “She epitomized the aloha spirit,” Lubin says.
Lublin used her Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation grant to conducted research for her doctoral dissertation on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s efforts to eradicate alcohol and prostitution in Meiji Period Japan. Her work is now available as a book from the University of British Columbia Press.
After receiving her PhD, she became an associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she was instrumental in creating an Asian Studies major and minor. She is working on her second book about the history of smoking in Japan.
Author Mark Hollstein (PhD ’00 Mānoa) conducted his dissertation research on Japanese and American media coverage of U.S. military bases in Okinawa as an Akihito scholar; he is now an associate professor of Asian studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka.