Journey to Japan

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By The Staff

My enchantment with faraway places began as a child reading stories about people of different cultures. My determination grew to visit destinations around the world.

As School Library Media Specialist at Thaxton Elementary School in Bedford County, I was recently given such an opportunity as a participant in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program. Along with 200 educators from around the country, I embarked on an exploration of Japan on Oct. 14.

Participants spent three weeks immersed in Japanese customs learning ways in which our societies are alike and different. The Japanese government has fully funded this program for 10 years as an expression of gratitude towards the United States for its support of Japanese education through the Fulbright Program following World War II. My mission is to share these cultural experiences with students and broaden their perspectives of the world.

St. Augustine wrote, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only one page." I want my students to read every page and by doing so become more compassionate and responsible global citizens.

Each individual holds a unique perception of the world. The stereotypes that I held of the Japanese culture prior to my journey were some that many Americans might recognize. I viewed Japan as a very serious, structured, and technologically advanced country. Having some of the highest test scores in the world, I anticipated seeing a state of the art educational system. Knowing that Japan?s life expectancy is extremely high, I assumed they must have very healthy living practices. I wondered how the relationship between our two countries developed so quickly and powerfully despite the animosities of World War II.

Many of my perceptions were both affirmed and challenged during my visit. I soon discovered that our people are more alike than different and that each country can learn greatly from the other.

What I learned most from the Japanese people is the courage that it takes to move forward. Much of their country lay in destruction only 62 years ago. Japan was viewed with animosity by most of the world including America. Today our countries are both allies and friends. Hopefully, this relationship can serve as an example to the world that peace is possible even amid the worst of conflicts.

While visiting Pearl Harbor this past July, I was saddened by exhibits depicting the tragic slaughter of our American soldiers as they were preparing to celebrate the Christmas holidays in 1941. The personal stories and the family losses were the hardest to imagine. Certainly, there could be no better reason for a country to enter a war than the United States had following that surprise attack on Dec. 7.

Many questions came to mind. Would I be able to forgive those that initiated the attack if it had been my father, brother, husband, or son killed that day? Could I learn to trust such a country? The questions were impossible to answer because I was not personally affected by that atrocity. However, I am amazed at the forgiveness expressed by many Americans who lived through those horrors.

Likewise, my visit to Hiroshima, a city completely destroyed by the first atomic bomb, left me with a similar since of awe. Americans certainly felt justified in using whatever means it took to end the war but I could not imagine the Japanese feeling the same way especially those that lost family members to the horrible effects of a radiation bomb. I was sure they must feel some bitterness towards our country. More than 140,000 of their citizens, parents, spouses, and children lost their lives by the end of 1945 and many more thousands in the years since. America won the war and had some vindication of the tragedy at Pearl Harbor. Japan lost and had none.

The Japanese people were not destroyed by World War II. Rather, they rose above that failure to develop an economically sound and peaceful nation that harbors no resentment towards the United States for its losses.

Several teachers in our group asked survivors about their lack of anger. The daughter of one survivor spoke on behalf of her father who recently passed away. Whenever her father spoke of the war, he always offered an apology to Americans for the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. She vowed to honor his memory by doing the same.

Another gentleman, who was 13 when he directly experienced the bombing, said that he now understands using the atomic weapon may have been in the best interest of America and maybe even in the best interest of Japan because it ended the war and prevented thousands of additional deaths. However, he quickly added that it definitely was not in the best interest of the people of Hiroshima who continue to be devastated by its effects.

None of us could argue with that response. He further said that the Japanese do not hold a grudge against America.

They hate war and nuclear weapons as a result of the devastation but not the people of our country. All people want the same things for their families and make decisions based on the best interests of those they love. He attributed much of Japan?s positive outlook towards our country to the respect with which our soldiers treated their citizens when Americans came to rebuild Japan following the war.

This attitude seemed incomprehensible until I directly experienced the sincerity of their feelings. I have visited several foreign countries and have never felt more welcome as an American than I did in Japan. Direct survivors of the war eagerly asked to speak and be photographed with us. It is rare to find citizens defeated in war accept their losses with such grace. The Japanese truly live one of their popular proverbs, ?We learn little from victory, much from defeat.?

The kindness of the Japanese people is astounding and my most vivid memory. Great hospitality was shown to us throughout the entire journey. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up, lived, and worked in the Central Virginia area my whole life. Living in a small town, I am accustomed to the friendliness and helpfulness that people demonstrate towards others. I certainly never expected such an atmosphere in one of the most populated cities in the world.

Having traveled to most of the major cities in the United States, I expected Tokyo to be similar in crowd size, noise, congestion, and problems. I was pleasantly surprised as I entered the Tokyo subway system during rush hour one morning. There were thousands of people hurrying to work but the only sound to be heard was that of feet as they moved in unison toward the trains. There was no graffiti anywhere and no loud noises except for the strange American teachers trying to figure out in which direction to travel.

Despite their obvious rush, several Japanese business people stopped to help with directions. They even led us to the correct platforms. Such helpfulness was the norm for our trip and not the exception. On countless occasions, people stopped to offer assistance as we stood on sidewalks looking confused. They would lead us up and down streets until we found the places for which we were looking. Then they would rush off so as not to be late to work.

The Japanese people made every effort to speak in English and communicated so much better than I would have been able to had the roles been reversed. Employees of various places that we visited would stand outside and wave until our bus had completely disappeared from view. Never were we made to feel as if we were intruding although many times we were.

To say I felt welcomed is a complete understatement. I may forget many details of my visit there but I will never forget how honored the Japanese people made me feel. They seemed just as considerate of each other. No one spoke on cell phones on the subway or in crowds. When children and adults were sick; they wore masks to school and work so as not to pass along germs. Such kindness surpassed my expectations.

A highlight of my trip was staying in the home of a Japanese family for two days.

The Masamis had two daughters, Saho, 8, and Kaho, 5. Armed with a dictionary, I was able to experience daily Japanese life. The children taught me how to play games and make origami. We went to festivals, shopping malls, and swimming practice. The happiness of their family was evident and their home not so different from American households. I was offered the best of everything; food, rooms, gifts, and adventure.

My most precious gift was a family portrait drawn by the girls. It included Papa, Mama, Saho, Kaho and me. The identity of the giant blonde American in the center of the picture was easy to determine. On my final day in the city of Sakai, Mrs. Masami drove all the way across town to bid me farewell. Saho and Kaho mailed their first letter before I had even finished unpacking.

Hopefully, they too have received my correspondence which includes a special message from my students at Thaxton Elementary. I now have friends on the other side of the world that will remain in my heart always. Although many of their words were foreign to me, the warmth, friendliness, and love shown through these wonderful ambassadors were abundantly clear.

My perceptions of the educational system in Japan were definitely challenged. I expected a modern technological marvel and found instead something reminiscent of Norman Rockwell?s America. I anticipated computers everywhere. I saw the complete opposite.

The elementary school, junior high, and high school that I visited each had one computer lab and nothing more. There were no computers in classrooms, no overheads projectors, no CD players, and no SMART Boards or interactive systems. There were few manipulatives and most instruction was lecture based. I was shocked.

Japanese schools were similar to American schools of previous decades. There was little collaboration among teachers, few special services, and no individual education plans. Rather, the whole system was group oriented and students were expected to learn.

Parents also placed high expectations on students and we were told that rarely did homework come back incomplete. Parents felt honored if their children were given extra assignments. Students were also expected to demonstrate responsibility in other ways.

There were no cafeterias in the schools. An outside company brought food carts for each classroom. Groups of students donned sanitary gowns and masks to serve lunch to their classmates and teacher. I had the pleasure of eating such a lunch including soup, fish, vegetables, and milk, served to me by a group of first graders. Not a drop of soup was spilled as it was moved from the big pot to our bowls.

Following lunch, students were expected to clean the school building. They filled buckets with water and proceeded to wipe the hallways and classrooms on their hands and knees with rags. They even vacuumed the principal?s office. Our group of teachers was mesmerized since most of us could not imagine such a practice taking place in American schools.

Japanese parents and educators clearly wanted to learn about our schools and the innovative techniques we use in America just as we found ourselves sentimental for some of the traditional educational practices of the past. Visiting Japanese schools reminded me of a more innocent time in American education. Parents supported schools, educators were greatly respected, and students were expected to take responsibility for their learning, behavior, and the cleanliness of their surroundings.

I envisioned Japanese students as very orderly, well behaved, smart, and serious. I quickly discovered that children are the same on both sides of the globe. They are remarkably able to communicate with people of all languages.

Our group of educators greeted students as they calmly walked towards school one morning. One little first grader took off running ahead of the group with uncontrolled laughter oblivious to those trying to control his outburst. He quickly captured our hearts as he reminded us each of specific students in our own schools; those who are easily excitable and bursting with energy.

Later, we were welcomed with a school assembly. About 300 uniformed students awaited us in perfect lines. They sat, moved, and rose as one unified body to sing, ?Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,? in perfect English. Their performance was both beautiful and emotional.

Examples of this contrast between structure and free spiritedness were apparent throughout the day. Students giggled in the back of the room when the teacher was talking and jumped up to take pictures with the Americans regardless of what they were supposed to be doing. Yet with amazing speed, they could get back into formation, bow, and say, ?Thank you for what you taught us today Teacher.? There were shy students, studious ones, class clowns, and attention seekers just like in every American classroom. As I entered the first grade classroom for lunch, I found myself tackled by 20 little bodies trying to whisper in my ear. As they told me their best secrets, I have never been sorrier that I could not understand Japanese.

Individuals in Japan are known to have long life spans.

After spending three weeks immersed in the culture, the reasons became very evident. Fish and green tea are staples at every meal, there seems to be little sugar added to anything, portion sizes are about one third the sizes of American meals, children and adults lead active lives, and they build strong relationships inclusive of all generations.

While in Japan, I ate things I never thought I could or would including orange salmon eggs, raw fish of every variety, and way too much seaweed. I could not bring myself to try the slick eel ice cream but did manage to eat the green tea flavor. Many things make me thankful to be an American. Prior to my trip to Japan, I never thought I would rank McDonald?s and a glass of Southern sweet ice tea high on the list. We truly eat well in America.

In addition to walking or riding bikes to school, most children in Japan participate in club activities several days a week. Some of their after school activities include swimming, rhythmic ballet, kendo, karate, soccer, baseball, softball tennis, table tennis, basketball, music, and art.

The Japanese value people of every generation. They are taught the importance of team work. Often, grandparents live with their children as was the case with the family with whom I stayed. These strong relationships seemed to foster an air of cooperation rather than the competitiveness that is so often found in our culture. A Japanese proverb sums up their philosophy best, ?A single arrow is easily broken, but not 10 in a bundle.? Individual success is not as important as the success of the group.

Traveling to other countries always makes me more aware of just how blessed we are in America. As famed anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, ?? Knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.?

The individuality of our people and our vast open spaces are our most noticeable gifts. Everything in America is larger including land, houses, cars, food, toys, and yes, even people. We represent progressiveness and prosperity to the rest of the world. Americans have such a great opportunity to influence other cultures. The American spirit of independence and the generosity with which we respond to the needs of others are respected by citizens of many nations. The dignity with which American soldiers treated the enemy following World War II paved the way for an enduring friendship between Japan and the United States.

I am privileged to teach in Bedford County, home to the National D-Day Memorial which was established to honor our World War II veterans. Because of their courage and sacrifice, America prospered and helped another country build a truly special democracy. Hopefully, the bond developing between the children of Bedford and Japan will serve to remind those veterans just how much the world continues to benefit from their gift of service. Those soldiers truly represented the best of America. It is my hope that the group of American educators with whom I traveled left the same positive impression with those we encountered in Japan. I certainly learned much from the generosity and compassion of the Japanese people.

The biggest winners in this exchange will be the children impacted by this journey. If they learn to respect others despite differences and to appreciate the best in each culture, the future will be very bright.

At Thaxton Elementary, our students will have a chance to learn about Japanese culture, money, geography, earthquakes, literature, art, history, and schools as they compare to our own. They will create books about Japan, model a typical Japanese school day, and correspond with Japanese students. We will display our work at the school and on our Web site as well as offer to share it with community organizations.

As author and history professor John Hope Franklin wrote, ?We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.?