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Japanese peace boat to test American waters

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The Peace Boat circles the globe educating passengers about the world outside their own country. (Courtesy of James Benson)

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The Peace Boat, a Japanese nongovernmental organization, has begun actively recruiting Americans to join its voyages. (Courtesy of James Benson)

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Passengers on board the Peace Boat gather for the ship's Sports Day festivities. (Courtesy of James Benson)

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Aneka Hewitt tells Japanese passengers aboard the Peace Boat about her life as a New York high school student. ***Please note small file size: 1600 pixels by 2400 pixels.*** (Courtesy of Aneka Hewitt)

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Aneka Hewitt teaches dancing on board the Peace Boat. ***Please not small file size: 1600 pixels by 2400 pixels.*** (Courtesy of Aneka Hewitt)

At first glance, it looks like any other cruise ship--hulking and bright white. But instead of playing shuffleboard and getting massages, passengers learn about the perils of nuclear proliferation and global warming.

Peace Boat is coming to America. In operation in Japan for nearly a quarter of a century, this nonprofit group--in the form of a ship--sails passengers around the world to expose them to other cultures and ways of living.

“It’s really about direct experience and the humanization of different issues and problems,” said Maiko Morishita, a Peace Boat staff member. “You hear about poverty in Africa and then you do a home stay. It’s only a day and you can’t even really be in their shoes, but you’re in their home and they give you their food and you know they don’t have much. It humanizes the issue.”

The passengers on the ship have been almost exclusively Japanese, but now the group is working to expand its mission by opening its first international office in New York. The staff has begun recruiting Americans for three annual voyages, which carry about 900 passengers each to roughly 20 countries over three months. Their eventual goal is to establish an American peace cruise.

“Today, the world is dominated by the U.S. in terms of political and military power,” Tatsuya Yoshioka, the president and co-founder of Peace Boat, said in an e-mail interview. “It is important now for the U.S. young people, who have a huge potential to influence the world through their government, to have an opportunity to understand through direct communication what is going on throughout the world and what people are thinking about the United States’ politics and influence.”

This idea of influencing government through grassroots action spurred Yoshioka to found the group in 1983. Frustrated that the Japanese government never adequately admitted to its aggression toward other Asian nations during World War II, he and some other Japanese college students chartered a boat to cruise neighboring countries and ease lingering tensions through frank and friendly discussions.

Since then, Peace Boat has visited more than 80 countries. Roughly 50 guest educators join each voyage to lecture on global issues like gender inequality and the spread of AIDS, as well as problems specific to ports of call, like the hardships faced by Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

While at port, passengers participate in volunteer work and cultural exchange programs. A recent group visited a children’s home in Mumbasa, Kenya, where they sang songs with children orphaned by AIDS and presented them with school supplies.

“I think more Americans need the education you can get on Peace Boat,” said Allison Boehm, one of three employees charged with setting up Peace Boat U.S.

She speaks from experience. “Now, when I hear about Pakistan, it’s not just a country. It’s a place where my friends live," she said. "It’s made me a lot more sensitive to what’s happening in the world, and it’s given me more motivation to help the world.”

For now, the team in New York is working to bring groups of Americans onto the boat. A small team from the Art Miles Mural Project, which plans to set up 12 miles of murals next to the pyramids in Egypt in 2010, has signed up for the next voyage. The artists plan to paint on board and in each port, where groups of passengers and locals will work together.

“The project’s not about the murals. It’s about the process, about bringing people together,” said Joanne Tawfilis, the project’s executive director.

Peace Boat is also working to attract American students by offering academic credit for a semester-long program beginning in fall 2008.

“People would get a sense of how Americans are hated and why,” said Janet Gerson, co-director of the Peace Education Center at Columbia University, who is helping Peace Boat develop its academic program. “It’s important to understand how privileged we are to be separated from violence. We live so well and we’re so clueless about how people suffer and how it’s not their fault.”

Some group supporters fear fundraising will be a challenge.

“There’s plenty of money in America, but I think lots of people are skeptical about the potential for peace,” said Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, an international network of organizations, which provides office space and support for Peace Boat. “We have to persuade people not to stop hoping.”

Rising oil prices have presented Peace Boat with its biggest financial hurdle. “It’s not the most fuel-efficient ship around,” Morishita said, adding that the group is searching for a more environmentally friendly vessel.

Despite the challenges, Peace Boat has already affected the lives of some Americans. Aneka Hewitt, 16, a junior at the High School for Global Citizenship in Brooklyn, N.Y., spent a month on the ship last year. With memories of the children she met at a Kenyan orphanage still vivid, she has been raising money to help other students from her school ride Peace Boat this summer.

“When you learn from a book, that’s OK, but you don’t fully get it until you experience for yourself. You have to go out and see it,” Hewitt said. “People have their differences, but we are all still people. All the conflicts that go on because people think they’re so different are so pointless.”

Hewitt also founded an organization to raise money for the Kenyan orphanage and has already collected $1,200.

“To see someone who lived in a place so different, who had so little, I couldn’t just come home and pretend it never happened,” she said. “I had to do something to make a change.”

E-mail: emh2149@columbia.edu