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BUILDING GLOBAL CONNECTIONS IN TIMES OF CORONAVIRUS

Inspired by its origins as an enlightenment coffeehouse, the RSA recently opened its virtual doors to global community of Fellows to host ‘Virtual Coffeehouse Conversations’. In early April, the very first coffeehouse travelled all the way to Japan. Tokyo-based artist Divya Marie Kato, who facilitated the event, shares her thoughts about this global conversation, and why building connections is so important during these uncertain times.





Sharing stories plays a fundamental role in building solidarity, which is why we wanted this conversation to focus on sparking connections and bringing the world that little bit closer together. Launched in 2011, the Japan Fellows’ Network champions "new ways to think, act and be in response to the challenges of our times" – and the Coronavirus crisis is certainly challenging us all in many different ways. 


At the time this conversation took place on 3 April, life in Japan seemed a stark contrast to what was happening around the world.  Although warnings had been issued, nothing official had been implemented, which meant that life for many was business as usual.  Many of us were left wondering who to trust and what was best to do.  Since then, however, the tone has shifted with Prime Minister Abe's state of emergency declaration for Tokyo, Osaka and five other regions in Japan.  


We started this hour-long discussion by inviting diverse Fellows in Japan to share their perspectives of the crisis and how it has affected their lives. During these presentations, we also got creative with a square piece of paper to create our own origami pieces.  We used this hands-on exercise to reflect on our own experiences, introduce ourselves and share our stories.  


The presentations by Fellows in Japan showcased the diversity and richness of our network, which spans various sectors, generations, and nationalities. We heard from Jane Best OBE, who runs an NGO called Refugees International Japan, and is currently based in the Japanese countryside. Kimie Hanamura, a co-founder of a design company, shared her perspective as a Japanese working woman and mother.  Kimie's origami stole the show – a beautiful Japanese crane! Brendan Barrett, a Professor at Osaka University, has been running video-based courses since 2002 connecting classrooms across Asia and the Pacific, and finds himself now very much in demand in the world of education. Finally, Kate Montgomery, an intern at the theatre unit tarinainanika, shared her thoughts as a young person continuing to work in the city of Osaka.


We then split into smaller groups, which allowed for more personal interaction between participants from various parts of the world – from Tokyo to Athens, Birmingham to Osaka, Melbourne to London.  Something that suddenly struck me at this point, was that we had only just met and yet the warmth and connection was palpable as we took turns sharing stories.


It was heart-warming to hear positive feedback from participants who celebrated the value of facilitating these international exchanges online, and the inspiring level of creativity, energy and goodwill amongst the Fellowship. “International solidarity in action!” clamoured one participant.


As another participant also noted, it was “a very pleasant way of connecting across the world. Our group commented on more communications being made, across the world and in their own organisations, new learning,  fellows helping out in their communities, becoming aware of silence in the neighbourhood, rather than the rush of planes and trains, and we began to raise our thinking about the future. We noted that it was good to make contact with other Fellows whereas hitherto we generally had less.”


As social distancing rules force us to favour digital platforms over in-person events, we can embrace more opportunities to break down physical barriers and connect Fellows’ stories and ideas for social change from all corners of the world. Other participants commented on this shift online: “It was great to see how disciplined it was considering many of us are still learning the culture of online meetings.  I would love to know more about how people have had to adapt their work style/schedule/planning.”


For the majority of us, the only thing that is certain is that uncertain days lie ahead.  As one participant remarked about his origami:  "I started with one fold not knowing what I was doing and then just kept going till I ended up with this!"  Starting with one fold and seeing where it goes seems to fit with how we're approaching our days recently.  Uncertainty dictates that all we can do is to take the next best possible step. Creative pursuits offer us the distraction, reflection and release of play.


On behalf of the Japan Fellows' Network, I'd like to say a big thank you and arigatou gozaimasu to all who joined this online conversation.  Based in Japan, this was the first time we had seen so many Fellows gathered in the same space and connecting in this way brought much needed comfort during these difficult times.  Once we get through this, we hope to meet you in person here in Japan one day!


Finally, if you'd like to try creating your own origami...

Here's a video showing you how to make your own origami crane or 折鶴 orizuru.  The crane is a bird of happiness and hope in Japan and is our best loved origami.  It’s a symbol of luck, longevity, hope and healing and we hope you enjoy making your own at home.  Video Here


If you'd like to keep this conversation going, share a picture of your completed crane and let us know where you are in the world and how you're getting on.  Take care and stay well.

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