Tokyo Institute of Technology: Students’ 688 Tanabata wishes fill Taki Plaza with hope

Hisao & Hiroko Taki Plaza, Tokyo Tech’s new student exchange hub on Ookayama Campus, was filled with hopes and dreams as the student community celebrated Tanabata, Japan’s Star Festival, between June 14 and July 26. A total of 688 tanzaku — colorful paper strips on which people traditionally write their wishes during the celebration — decorated the halls of the student-centered facility when the event came to a close in late July.

While acknowledging local traditions, the “Tanabata — May your wishes come true” event also offered a safe and creative way for local and international students to interact at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to restrict conventional exchanges. Students visiting the venue not only wrote down their wishes, they also read the wishes of other students, and at times left replies which they hung on bamboo branches nearby. The use of tanzaku as a medium for discreet communication opened up new perspectives among both students and the Student Support Center, which helps to organize and conduct events at Taki Plaza.

Student perspective: A new sense of unity and identity
Isolation and loneliness caused by the new normal have affected many students. The tanzaku express the individual thoughts and feelings of hundreds of members across the community, and the positioning of these messages on the bamboo shoots shows the similarities and differences between students who don’t know each other. The ability to share visually these feelings leads to communication without conversation, and that in turn creates a sense of unity among Tokyo Tech students. The opportunity to demonstrate one’s presence on campus with an individual message of hope can also form a sense of belonging as a member of the Institute.

Throughout the six-week event, students were free to visit the Tanabata area to read the tanzaku messages of others, and to write and display their own. These interactions functioned as one substitute to in-person gatherings and first-time encounters, which remain difficult due to COVID-19. Despite the brevity of the wishes, many visitors could quickly relate, create their own expressions of identity, and surprise unknown fellow students with replies that communicated agreement and empathy.

Communication and exchanges also expanded into the virtual space as students took photos of their own tanzaku and shared them with friends and classmates through social media.

Student Support Center perspective: A new angle to student exchanges
Student exchange activities have becoming more challenging during the COVID-19 era, but this event demonstrated that they can be done successfully while maintaining appropriate safety measures against infection. This event also functioned as an intersection between student exchange activities and support for autonomous learning — it promoted both interaction among peers and self-reflection.

One Tokyo Tech faculty member suggested that the activity of writing thoughts on tanzaku may be a form of self-counseling for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. By noting down their wishes, students may be looking back on their life achievements so far, repositioning themselves in the Tokyo Tech student community, clarifying their goals and expectations, and taking a new, positive direction in their student lives.

As the event progressed, the change in the content of the wishes was also an interesting development. Early messages were focused on personal, day-to-day wishes and desires, while those that appeared later expressed bigger visions and perspectives on broader society.

For the Student Support Center, which was in charge of operations, this Tanabata celebration provided useful ideas on how to realize student exchanges in severely restricted environments. In that sense, the wishes of certain faculty and staff have already come true. May the same happen for Tokyo Tech’s students.