Hundreds of spectators gathered on the wooden decking of Yokohama’s Osanbashi international terminal to wave goodbye to Peace Boat’s 86th Voyage this Friday. Some huddled around home-made placards bearing the names of friends and relatives onboard, others held aloft renditions of Yokohama’s Bay Bridge, and one group had outfitted themselves in Santa Claus getups for the occasion, their white beards catching the November sun.
Parallel to the concourse, the engines of Peace Boat’s current charter, the Ocean Dream, rumbled into life. From here the ship – a repurposed commercial cruise liner built to accommodate more than 1000 passengers – would sail for Kobe, before visiting 17 other ports in 14 countries in a southerly circumnavigation of the world along the route first sailed by Ferdinand Magellan during the Age of Discovery.
Vit Mlcoch, one of a small minority of non-Japanese passengers onboard, jostled for position on the port side decks, shouldering a space between clicking cameras and waving passengers. Close by, Brazilian Consul to Japan Marco Farani, was giving a speech on the significance of the three-month journey. “As diplomats we try to do what Peace Boat is engaged in doing: promoting more solidarity among people and more fraternity in the world,” the Consul said.
Growing up under communism in the former Czechoslovakia – a land locked country – Mlcoch dreamed of traveling the world. Years later, when living in Vancouver, he would make regular excursions to the port to watch the cruise liners come and go. Most were gargantuan vessels en route for Alaska that docked for a few hours and then left, but Peace Boat – which had sailed all the way from Japan – stayed for two nights. “In North America, cruise ships are a kind of floating shopping mall. I liked Peace Boat. You actually do something on board,” he said. When Mlcoch was laid off from his forestry research job recently, he used part of his severance pay to fly to Japan and join over 800 other passengers on Peace Boat’s 86th Global Voyage for Peace.
Cases like Mlcoch’s are unusual; few North Americans have heard of Peace Boat. But in Japan, the NGO is a household name.
Peace Boat was founded in 1983 as a civil society response to government censorship of Japan’s past military aggression in the Asia Pacific. Disenchanted with the education he and other students were receiving at Japanese universities, which he claimed had “become more and more [like] factories to produce economic warriors,” Yoshioka Tatsuya and three fellow students at Tokyo’s Waseda University chartered a ship to visit Korea, Singapore, and eventually China; learning first hand about the effects of Japanese occupation. “I thought, we couldn’t trust our government, the media, or text books, so let’s go there to see the people,” Yoshioka said.
For Yoshioka, who in those days used a local fast-food restaurant as Peace Boat’s office, chartering a ship was the most economical way to visit multiple ports. However, he soon realized that the neutral political space of international waters afforded participants the opportunity to examine contentious issues such as the enslavement of so-called “comfort women” by the Japanese army during the Second World War.
In the years following Peace Boat’s founding, voyages became increasingly frequent, and more geographically expansive, with the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1992 marking the end of the Cold War. Driven in part by Japanese demographics and the large stratum of older Japanese, today’s Peace Boat global voyages are comprised of a particular mix of retirees and students, with the latter receiving subsidies in return for volunteer work related to the organization on land.
Bolstered by a sister office in New York, a network of staff in major cities around the world, and the granting of special consultative status with the UN’s ECOSOC in 2002, Peace Boat also began to internationalize. The NGO now conducts tri-annual global voyages in addition to shorter learning excursions around the Asia Pacific. Funds generated by Peace Boat’s sister travel agency Japan Grace are redirected into expanding Peace Boat’s diverse range of campaigns and activities, which include conflict resolution, nuclear disarmament and disaster relief.
For Yoshioka, Peace Boat’s mission is as relevant today as it was in the early eighties. “Ten years later, the Cold War finished, and we expected the world’s situation, and the East Asian situation, to become more harmonious and co-operative. But in fact it is the other way around. And over the last few years it is really remarkable that Japanese society is becoming nationalistic again, especially among young people.”
In the run up to next year’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the Japanese occupation, Yoshioka cited the recent debate in Japan over Article 9, the re-emergence of the school textbook issue, and the continued downplaying of Japanese military exploitation of “comfort women” as evidence that Japan – and other former and current colonial powers – has not done enough to come to terms with their past.
In addition to paying participants, Peace Boat’s 86th voyage will be a temporary home for more than 20 guest educators – an array of artists, journalists, academics and activists who will deliver lectures and seminars on the boat – and around 50 volunteer staff, including English and Spanish teachers, and bi and tri-lingual interpreters.
Kay Makishi, a volunteer English/Japanese interpreter from Pennsylvania, learned of Peace Boat while working as a coordinator for international relations at a local government office in Fukuoka, under the Japanese government sponsored JET Programme. “As soon as I saw the poster, I knew I would join,” she said. “I’m really passionate about connecting people from different backgrounds.”
Recently, Makishi completed the Shikoku pilgrimage, a 750 mile walk between venerable sites on the Japanese island. The pilgrimage follows a circular route, closely linked to ensou, the Zen circle. “You end where you start, but through that process you go through various struggles and experiences, and encounter different people. The journey itself is your goal, not a specific location. When I was finished I didn’t end up anywhere new, but I was a different person,” she said.
Makishi said that although she expected the group experience of Peace Boat to be very different from the solitude of Shikoku, she saw parallels between the two circular journeys – in particular she was interested in the experience of living off the grid and connecting more with the people and places around her.