Hello! from IHJ Fellowship Alumni

Since its inception in 1952, the International House of Japan through its multitude of intercultural and intellectual programs have facilitated in-person and in-depth dialogues and other forms of exchanges for thousands of young and established professionals from across Japan and the rest of the world. Stories of their experiences reflect how human diplomacy can plant seeds for understanding, friendship and cooperation across societies. The impacts of education and cultural exchange activities are difficult to measure as it is not about simply obtaining a degree or certificate but what one does with that knowledge and skill to effect positive change in industry and society. These stories from I-House fellowship alumni allow insights into how the I-House has lived up to its mission to “contribute to building a free, open, and sustainable future through intellectual dialogue, policy research, and cultural exchange with a diverse world.” And through these alumni stories, the I-House seeks inspiration and guidance to carry on its mission into the future.

#1 “Advancing women and humanity through words and ideas”

Alina Rastam (Malaysia), Writer, Teacher, Poet (Asia Pacific Youth Forum—participant 1996; participant and rapporteur 1997; rapporteur 1999)

“The pen is mightier than the sword” as the saying goes. Alina has been using her pen (or computer keyboard) to make a positive difference in Malaysia since her first job in 1995 as a journalist writing features on social justice issues such as women’s rights, AIDS, fundamentalism; as well as on culture, literature and the arts for the national daily, the New Straits Times. As a writer and editor, she helped produce seminal works on women in Malaysian society. Her teaching—from critical thinking to creative writing—has helped to expand intellectual horizons and empowered a new generation of advocates for women’s rights in Malaysia.

In May 2023, her poetry book, All the Beloveds, was selected by Aesop, the Australia-based premium skincare product company, for its “Women’s Library” project at its stores in Malaysia. This book, the project website says, “enacts a search for meaning and resolution through the private griefs and sorrows, the moments of deep love and illumination, and the sudden experiences of grace that are part of our daily lives.” Through a rigorous selection process, Aesop chose twenty Malaysian women writers for its Women’s Library. Aesop purchased books by these authors and distributed them free of charge at its stores. Further, Aesop invited four writers amongst those selected, of whom Alina was one, to do public readings of their works and media interviews on issues such as the state of women’s writing in Malaysia. The project was a resounding success as reflected by the long queues outside Aesop stores to examine the books and engage with the writers. As societies emerge from the shock of the global COVID pandemic, perhaps more individuals seek to understand what is truly meaningful in their lives.

Indeed, wisdom comes with age and experience. It is in this spirit that the I-House asked Alina to reflect on whether and how her experience in the Asia-Pacific Youth Forum (APYF) has influenced her perspective on life, her work, and views towards Japan and Japanese society.

Let’s first hear about what prompted her to apply to participate in the APYF program and what she thought of the experience. “Intellectual stimulation” and “interaction with young people from other cultures,” she said. This sounds like a perfectly logical response considering her diverse schooling experiences in Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom. She found all three forums she attended as “extremely rich and rewarding, helping me to broaden my mind in terms of understanding issues and concerns in other countries in the region.”

What makes the APYF distinct in her memory and sticks out as a most rewarding experience were foremost “the friendships formed and cultural experiences we participants were fortunate to have access to.” She lauds APYF organizers for giving substantial free time to participants to interact with each other and learn about each other’s cultures outside the structure of the program agenda. The thoughtfulness of the organizers and a special memory stay with her to this day:

I will never forget, for example, hiking up the pilgrim path on Mount Haguro dressed in white, and carrying a pilgrim’s staff and once we reach the top, undergoing a ritual which involved us all jumping over a fire pit and then visiting a beautiful temple. This experience resonated deeply with me and resulted in my reading a lot about Japanese spiritual traditions and beliefs after the forum. I brought my pilgrim’s staff back to Malaysia and still have and treasure it. This is not, I believe, an experience many visitors to Japan can have, and I deeply appreciate the forum’s organizers’ efforts in making it possible for us to have it.

And how has attendance in the APYF affected her views of Japan and Japanese society? The experience, she said, motivated her to develop an interest in Japanese literature, reading works by Japanese authors as well as works about Japan by non-Japanese writers. In fact, she just read Days at the Morisaki Bookstore by Satoshi Yagisawa and The Traveling Cat Chronicle by Hiro Arikawa. Her image of Japan and appreciation of the complex feelings people in the Asia-Pacific region have for Japan, too, were profoundly affected.

I remember that the war [World War II], and Japan’s role in Southeast Asia, came up at one of the sessions and led to an emotional and heated discussion. I am glad it did. I was in my 20s then and did not have much knowledge of what older Malaysians experienced in the Japanese occupation [of Malaya]. My parents did not talk much about it. Later, I read books and talked to people who told me what they had seen and [how they had] suffered during that time. What was done then by Japanese troops to Malaysians and others in this part of the world can never be erased. I am glad though to have had my experiences with the Japanese people I met through the APYF to provide me with another perspective of Japan and the Japanese people. I have never forgotten the kind and quiet thoughtfulness of Isamu Maruyama or the grace and friendliness of Michiko Yoshida [program officers for APYF at the time at the International House of Japan].

What would you say then about the importance of programs like APYF? Alina says programs such as APYF and the work of the International House of Japan are “vitally important to building lasting friendships and bonds of care and understanding across the world that can be a strong bulwark against the atrocities of WWII from happening again.”

We live in a time of such uncertainty, of so much turmoil and instability. The threat of war…entire industries have disappeared…the [COVID] pandemic leading to so much breakdown of social connections, and more isolation, alienation and loneliness. In my view, what will save us in the end is deep and lasting bonds between individuals who choose to care about each other, no matter what else is going on in the world, remembering that in the end we have many things in common, wherever we live. Our common humanity, for instance, and the fact that we all share this earth and are deeply implicated in what happens to it. I believe that organizations like the International House of Japan plays a very important role in fostering communication and personal bonds across differences. I hope that the International House of Japan will consider having more programs like the APYF.

Towards a renewed relationship—as an alumnus—with the International House of Japan, Alina is ready to share her passion for literature, creative writing, the arts and intercultural dialogues. As the International House of Japan continues its outreach to alumni across the globe, there are many more insightful stories to share. Will you be the next alumnus to tell your story?

For more about Alina and her work and writings:

Alina lives in Kuala Lumpur and spends her time writing and teaching (and rescuing and caring for animals in her community). With parents who saw Malaysia came into being as an independent nation in 1957 and part of a generation that worked to realize the potentials and aspirations of its peoples, Alina and her siblings were encouraged to excel in their education and to use their intellect and energy to promote pride in Malaysian culture and the betterment of all peoples in Malaysia. Educated in Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom, Alina excelled in her academic endeavors. Her skills as a writer were evident at an early age when she won multiple writing awards in her secondary school years. Her writings in her university years also received recognition and secured her scholarships for education.

Clearly writing is her strength and her means to make a difference in the world. Early in her career, Alina was a feature writer at the New Straits Times. Her stories covered many subjects including violence against women, AIDS, migrant labor issues, poverty, fundamentalism, as well as culture and heritage and literature and the arts. She then moved to write about the arts for The Edge, a leading business and lifestyle paper in Malaysia. The intersects between culture and society, especially women, have since become a central focus of her writing. She was co-editor of a report titled “The Women’s Agenda for Change” published in 1999 to urge political parties in Malaysia to add women’s issues on their agenda. In the 2000s, her work to advance the voices and welfare of women expanded in new directions. Amongst her many endeavors, she was a scriptwriter and consultant for a Malay-language TV program aimed at educating young women on financial literacy, sexual and other health issues, and career building. She was also editor of The Rape Report: An Overview of Rape in Malaysia, the first comprehensive study of its kind in the country to empirically compile and analyze data on rape including social attitudes, as well as A Pioneering Step: Sexual Harassment and the Code of Practice in Malaysia, another ground-breaking work that brought attention to this problem. At the same time, her love of literature never abated. Alina began teaching courses on literature (not surprisingly including a course on women and literature). Her own writing on literature, the arts and social issues also regularly appeared in many local newspapers and magazines. Further, combining her knowledge about women’s issues and her skills in communication, she ran a program to deepen thinking about social justice and media issues and to develop writing and critical thinking skills among young women writers to foster the next generation of advocates for positive change.

In the last 15 years, her writing extended into creative works: producing Diver & Other Poems and All the Beloveds, two collections of poetry as well as teaching adults and minors in creative writing. The COVID pandemic disrupted lives across the globe and prompted many to take stock of what is truly meaningful to their lives. Thus, while work briefly slowed down for Alina in the last few years, she recently found her works the center of attention when her volume All the Beloveds was selected by Aesop Malaysia’s Women’s Library project. Aesop, the Australia-based skin-care product company, hosted readings by the chosen writers at its stores across Malaysia. This work “enacts a search for meaning and resolution through the private griefs and sorrows, the moments of deep love and illumination, and the sudden experiences of grace that are part of our daily lives” says the project webpage.

For more on the Aesop Malaysia’s Women’s Library project

For more on Alina’s poetry book All the Beloveds (2019)

For more on Alina’s poetry book Diver and Other Poems (2007)