Faculty, grad students travel to Japan to explore pandemic response

Contact: Meghan Behymer

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—With more than 10 years experience living, conducting research and leading student study abroad trips in Japan, it’s safe to say that Dr. Stephen Covell, chair of Western Michigan University's Department of Comparative Religion, has a deep passion for Japan and its culture.


Japan Study Tour Group

Dr. Stephen Covell 
Dr. Wei-Chiao Huang 
Dr. Cynthia Klekar-Cunningham
Dr. Susan Pozo 
Holly Toner 
Dr. Brian Wilson 
Dr. Nicolas Witschi 
Taylor Woods 
Dr. Ying Zeng 

Covell's most recent trip to Japan in September 2022, however, may be one of his most unique, as he led a grant-funded study tour of Japan's COVID-19 pandemic response designed primarily for University faculty rather than students.

"I’ve always found the study abroad trips with students to be life-changing experiences for them, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do a ‘study abroad-like’ trip with faculty," says Covell. "This was a rare opportunity to bring faculty members who are not Japanese specialists to Japan in order to expand their research horizons and establish contacts that, ideally, would benefit their research and teaching in the long term."

The goal of the 10-day study tour, funded by the Japan Foundation, was to "enhance our understanding of pandemic response on multiple levels and to gain a general appreciation of Japanese culture." The tour included seven faculty members and two graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences.

This unique cross section of experts allowed for interdisciplinary thought and discussion on pandemic responses by Japan's religious organizations and universities, as well as current pandemic research.

Journey to Japan

Despite the fact that the trip's focus was on Japan's pandemic response, Covell says that when drafting the grant it was "...early enough that travel was still a hopeful possibility." The pandemic response had tightened much further by the time the grant was awarded in 2020. Still, nobody expected it to take another two years for the trip to become a reality.

During those two years, planning was particularly difficult as Japan and the rest of the world modified their policies in response to the pandemic. Ultimately, the trip had to be postponed. This also meant some of the initial participants were unable to attend, requiring participant substitutions and changes to the itinerary. In addition, there were a number of logistical concerns such as a severely limited number of flights, increased flying fees and reliance on a tourism agency to book hotels.

"Despite the many roadblocks, the trip was a great success. We met with numerous people, engaged in enriching discussion with various groups and came away with a deeper understanding of Japan," says Covell.

WMU faculty and grad students in Kimono shop in Ginza in Japan

On the first day of the Japan study tour, the group visited WMU alumna Mie Chietani's Kimono shop in the Ginza.

The tour began with a visit to Western alumna Mie Chitani's Kimono shop in Ginza, one of Tokyo's top shopping areas, where she gave a talk on Japanese culture that helped the group better understand Japan's pandemic response. The group also got to try on kimonos and learn to play the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument.

“As much as the lecture and discussion was enjoyed by all, I have no doubt that her kindness in sharing her culture and allowing everyone to try on kimono will be the lasting memory taken away by participants,” says Covell, noting that Dr. Wei-Chiao Huang and Dr. Susan Pozo of Western’s Department of Economics plan to visit Chitani in the future to discuss her business.

That first day was perhaps the most “relaxing,” as the following nine days were packed with lectures and tours of four universities, including Taisho University, Meiji Gakuin University, Sugiyama Women's College in Nagoya and Kyoto University; a guided tour of the headquarters of the large lay Buddhist movement Rissho Koseikai followed by a series of presentations from their various divisions (health, seminary, general affairs, etc.); meals and discussions with university students, faculty and leadership; and plenty of travel.

As intended, the trip was a mix of cultural immersion and learning about Japan's response to the pandemic. Dr. Covell says the group learned throughout the trip that ultimately the higher education response was similar to that of the United States in many ways—they were also navigating online education, shifting government policies and lockdowns.

WMU faculty and students listen to a lecture on the pandemic response in Japan.

"It's worth noting that, culturally, Japan is not known for hugging or shaking hands, so there was already some built-in social distance in that regard.  Of course, when you're on trains packed like sardines, that social distance goes out the window," Covell explains. "There's also this culture of masking in Japan, presumably dating back to the 1918 flu pandemic, so even if there wasn't a pandemic, you'd see people wearing masks."

Beyond the insights into the pandemic response, the participating faculty and graduate students were able to forge connections with counterparts in Japan and ideate on how their experience could be incorporated into their professional, academic and personal lives.

For Holly Toner, one of the comparative religion graduate students who participated, the trip was a great way to reinvigorate her passion for Japan she had gained studying at Rikkyo University in Ikebukuro as an undergraduate.

“I was able to make connections with many inspiring people, from business owners to scholars. Everyone that I met was filled with passion in their pursuits and it reminded me of the spirit you find within many people in Japan,” says Toner. “Though the future isn't completely clear, this trip re-ignited my desire to become more proficient in the language and hopefully, one day, I would love to work within a field in Japan that will allow me to focus on awareness and aid individuals on the Autism Spectrum as well as in other areas of mental health and grief resources.”

Dr. Ying Zeng, director of Asia Initiatives with Western’s Haenicke Institute for Global Education, took advantage of the opportunity to discuss a memorandum of understanding between Western and Sugiyama Women’s College in Nagoya that will lead to future student exchanges. Additionally, two of the faculty members have also dedicated themselves to studying the Japanese language in order to do more extended research in Japan.

"I feel extremely successful in this trip because, ultimately," says Covell, "this is what the Japan Foundation wants to see—established connections with Japan and incorporation of our experience into our research and teaching in the United States."

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