In 1983, four young university students in Japan made a decision to respond differently to a problem gripping their region than anyone else in the nation. They did not know it at the time, but their decision would later lead to the creation of an international “floating village” called Peace Boat that has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people and continues to grow in scope and impact more than 30 years later. What did these young people do differently? They decided to listen to the perspectives of people on the other end of the problem—and not only that, but also charter a boat and travel across seas and borders to meet them in person.
The perspectives they heard came from people in other Northeast Asian countries who were angered by Japan’s move to revise its history textbooks in a way that would downplay—even whitewash–the country’s aggressive actions against its neighboring countries during World War II that led to the deaths of approximately 20 million people in Asia and the Pacific. The young college students listened to those who were angry, saw with their own eyes places that had been affected by Japan’s bellicosity, and established new ties of friendships with people in Korea, China and other countries.
When they returned to Japan and reported back what they had learned and experienced, others expressed the desire to also learn about issues firsthand, and so a second trip was organized. And then a third, and a fourth…until every year hundreds of people began participating in what became known as Peace Boat regional voyages. The purpose of these voyages was to establish dialogue, reconciliation, and new bonds of friendship between ordinary citizens of countries that had experienced conflict in the past, and that were still experiencing hostile flare ups.
After a number of years of coordinating voyages in the northeast Asia region, Peace Boat organizers felt that dialogue and people-to-people diplomacy were needed not just in their corner of the world, but in the rest of the world as well, so from 1990 they began organizing Peace Boat Global Voyages for Peace. Today, more than three decades since those university students first decided to reach out to others across borders, Peace Boat has organized 87 global and regional voyages, visited more than 100 ports in 80 countries, organized 1,860 study, cultural exchange and responsible tourism programs for approximately 60,000 people from all ages and walks of life, and created partnerships with numerous communities and non-profit organizations around the world. It has also garnered consultative status with the United Nations, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its commitment to peace.
Every year, Peace Boat organizes four global voyages that each take approximately 1000 people to 20 different countries around the world for three months, creating an international “floating village” that gives people an opportunity to learn while traveling, and also share what they know. Numerous educational and cultural programs are organized by Peace Boat while the ship is sailing, and participants also have the opportunity to organize their own activities onboard, such as discussions, workshops, lectures, or art and music events, which fosters a dynamic, creative environment onboard. In ports, participants have the choice of joining study, exchange or sightseeing programs, or simply having free time and organizing their own activities. Whether helping to revive traditional agriculture in Tahiti by planting taro, delivering blankets to a refugee camp in Jordan, or staring up in awe at a Moai statues in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), there is always something engaging happening while traveling with Peace Boat.
As Peace Boat’s range of voyages has expanded, so have its projects and advocacy work. More than a decade ago, when people on Peace Boat saw kids in Eritrea playing football with plastic bottles because they had no soccer balls, they began gathering donated balls and delivering them to communities in need, leading to the creation of Peace Boat’s Peace Ball project. Today, the Peace Ball project delivers sporting goods around the world, organizes friendly matches with local youth, and last year helped to build a new soccer ground for street children in Brazil. Over the past decade, Peace Boat has also helped to eliminate landmines from vast tracts of Cambodia through its PMAC campaign and build schools on land that was once uninhabitable through its special study program that brings participants to Cambodia. The PMAC project also gives participants a chance to meet with landmine survivors and learn directly about the lingering consequences of war and recovery efforts. In 2005, in response to a large earthquake in Japan, Peace Boat began carrying out disaster relief activities, and was so effective that it began providing disaster relief around the world, including in Indonesia, Algeria, Pakistan, China, Chile, the Philippines, the United States, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Today, it is Japan’s largest trainer of disaster relief volunteers, and has been credited with helping communities recover and restore their local industries after the Great East Earthquake in 2011.
At the heart of Peace Boat’s activities is the conviction that what affects one community is also of concern to the larger international community, and our world is so interconnected that we cannot say “those issues are their problems,” no matter how geographically removed or culturally and ethnically different we may be from one another. Travel gives us an important opportunity to experience connectedness, to meet in person, those who might otherwise remain two dimensional images in a magazine to us, and to witness both the resilience and fragility of our communities and the larger natural world. Travel also exposes us to new perspectives, and shakes off old dust from our eyes.
I participated in a Peace Boat Voyage in 2006, and went on to sail seven more times around the world with the organization, forming friendships with unforgettable people along the way: bright teenagers in a remote village in Kenya, survivors of Agent Orange in Vietnam, young musicians in Venezuela, Palestinians and Israelis searching for a non-violent solution to conflict, indigenous artisans in Panama who are successfully maintaining their heritage and taking technology and other aspects of modern society in stride, and so many more. Through Peace Boat, I’ve also floated in the Dead Sea, danced with kids in Madagascar, helped reforest part of the Amazon in Brazil, and traveled to so many places I never imagined I would experience directly.
I am Mexican American, and from a small town in a remote part of California, and from time and time, I step back in awe and think of how all of these connections and all of my incredible experiences are the outcome of four university students in Japan deciding 32 years ago to take a different approach to a problem: travel across borders, and meet directly with those on the other side.
To learn more about Peace Boat, visit www.peaceboat.org, and follow the organization on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/peaceboat?fref=ts