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Six Hundred U.S. Teachers Will Travel to Japan: Want to Go?


Two teachers who visited schools in Japan as part of a special Fulbright Memorial Fund program share their experiences. Learn how you can participate in 1998!
by Glori Chaika and Joan Bunge

Teacher Glori Chaika writes:

The Fulbright Memorial Fund (FMF) Teacher Program is an extraordinary opportunity for primary and secondary educators. It provides first through twelfth grade teachers and administrators with the chance to participate in a three-week study visit in Japan. Sponsored by the Japanese government, a joint United States and Japanese commission selected 500 American educators to travel in three groups in June, October, and November 1997. [Read about 1998 opportunities at the end of this article.] The educators went to different parts of Japan to experience first hand Japanese education and culture. The commission's hope was that these educators would return to their schools with a deeper understanding of Japanese society and values, and that the Japanese people would gain a better understanding of American culture after interacting with them. I was fortunate to be part of the program in its incipience. Like the blind men who each touched a different part of the elephant getting a totally different idea of what the animal was, we teachers who were sent to different parts of Japan returned with different ideas of what comprised the "real" Japan. These were some of my experiences.

I, like the other teachers from all over the United States, arrived for orientation in Los Angeles Friday, October 31, and the following morning flew to Japan via United Airlines. That night I stayed in a centrally located hotel, but was so tired and disoriented, not knowing what day much less what time it was, that sleep seemed more appealing than exploration.

My first morning in Japan I was taken on a whirlwind tour of Tokyo. I saw the Senso-ji Temple, the Menji-jingu shrine, the Tokyo skyline from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices, and then on the way back to the hotel passed the Imperial Palace.

The next day lasted from 9:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. I listened to speeches from the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission, an overview of Japanese primary and secondary education, and an overview of the program in which we were involved. Then we broke up into groups. We heard additional lectures on the specific areas of education in which we were interested.

Later I watched a kyogen or farcical drama performance, and listened to koto and shakuhachi music. At night I heard additional speeches, and while munching on food I could not identify or recognize, individually thanked the people who made participation in the program possible. As I listened to the strange sounds of the shakuhachi music and ate my unidentifiable food, I thought of the words spoken by Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ: "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."

I tried to use the phone to call my husband, but instead of my husband someone with an Arabic accent answered. Had I accidentally called Saudi Arabia? That day I felt my senses overloaded by the newness of everything.


The next day I left Tokyo, one of twenty educators -- each from a different state -- as we started our journey to Morioka in the Prefecture (state) of Iwate in northern Honshu, the main island. Iwate is the least populated but largest prefecture in Japan. When the poet Basho had arrived there, he had called it "The end of the Earth." I had packed snow boots, a parka, gloves, wool socks, warm underwear, and dry cereal from home just in case I needed something to settle my stomach after overdosing on squid or seaweed. I took the Shinkansen, or "Bullet Train," a train that attains speeds as high as 185 miles per hour. I literally watched the world whiz by.

What a surprise Morioka was! A modern city of 300 thousand, traffic noises assailed my ears from the traffic jam outside the Shinkansen train station. So much for arriving at the "end of the Earth." I began to peel off some of the multitudes of layers of clothing I was wearing. The weather was like November in New York, not Siberia.

After dropping off luggage in the hotel, my group began the first of many visits to local people who had made the trip possible. At every occasion our group brought gifts as tokens of our appreciation. The government or school officials made speeches, and our group made speeches. Our group rotated presenters so each of our twenty members had the opportunity to present our gifts.

Then I went to Iwate University to observe a class training future teachers of English. The professor invited our group to sit in on the class so his students could practice their English. The students were very shy, so when I presented my group's gift to the professor, I spoke in Japanese. When the students saw how poorly I spoke their language, they seemed to feel less embarrassed about how they spoke ours, and conversation began to flow.

Part of my group's experience included a home stay with a Japanese family. My home stay was to be in Shizukuishi, a small town in Iwate at the base of Mount Iwate. The night before our home stay my group was briefed on what we might expect in a traditional Japanese home. There, our guide told us, one wears one type of slipper in the house and a different type of slipper in the bathroom. One should never wear house slippers into the bathroom. We were told one knows the bathroom is occupied when one sees the house not bathroom slippers outside the bathroom door. To take a bath we were told to first sit on a stool outside of the tub and clean off. The tub was only to be used to soak. Since the hot water is reused by all family members, one does not drain the tub when through. In a traditional Japanese home one sleeps on a futon on the floor that is taken up each morning and put into a closet as the room is used for other purposes during the day.

I filled a small notebook with caveats, and packed a small bag with gifts and a Japanese/English dictionary as I prepared to meet my traditional Japanese hosts.


When I arrived in Shizukuishi, I was ushered into a room with many people clad in kimono on one side of the room and our disparate group of Americans on the other as host and guest were paired off. I had flashbacks to high school dances, girls on one side and boys on the other thinking, "Pick me." My host mother turned out to be a beautiful woman who spoke nearly flawless English and wore modernly styled clothing. My host family ran an inn where the Japanese go to get a Western experience, so I stayed in a place with Danish furniture, African prints on the walls, Western beds, and a Western toilet and tub with instructions in Japanese to help the Japanese guest know how to use them. I was offered Danish and coffee and among other things had eggs and sausage for breakfast. Traffic noises woke me in the morning. I could have been anywhere. The more people from different nations I meet, the more I realize that people of the world are more similar than they are different.

Another experience in Iwate was a trip to a ryokan . The ryokan I stayed in was an "onsen," or hot springs. When there my group shed western clothes and wore yukata, cotton light-weight versions of the kimono. We left our shoes at the ryokan 's door and wore slippers, which we removed when we entered our rooms, tatami-matted ones with futons laid on the floor for a bed. At the ryokan we bathed communally with the inn's other same-sex guests. I was given a small towel the size of a wash cloth. The proper placement of it after scrubbing? On top of my head. Of course. I don't usually get naked with women I don't know, and when wet step outside when I'm on top of a mountain where the air temperature is about 25 degrees to get into a tub filled by volcanically-heated mineral water , but I did.

After the communal bath, we dressed again in yukata and prepared for dinner. We ate sitting on the floor and used chopsticks to eat a dinner of foods I couldn't name, many of which had eyes and suction cups, and each of which was in its own beautifully presented dish. After dinner we put on geta, a slatted wooden sandal and, still wearing our yukata, took a van to a near-by ryokan for karaoke. All at the other inn was dressed as we were. That entire day was almost surreal, and it will be an experience I think I will always remember.

During my stay in Japan I learned to adjust to a society who, like Great Britain's, drives on the left side of the road not the right. I learned that the pages in Japanese books like those in Hebrew texts turn from left to right not right to left as do pages in American texts, and that the Japanese often read and write in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. I learned how to put on a kimono, not a task one does quickly. One first puts on a white jacket-like top and long slip. Then one puts on the kimono, adjusting it by placing the left side over the right side, tying it tightly at the waist, and hiking it up until it is the correct length. One places many ties around the waist including a thick, pretty obi or sash, adds special socks that are like mittens, in that they go in at the big toe so as to accommodate the thong-like slippers. The look is especially beautiful on a thinly built person.

During my stay in Iwate I participated in a traditional tea ceremony, practiced Zen meditation, tried my hand at origami and calligraphy, and came in third in a wanko soba noodle eating competition the object of which was to eat as many plates of buckwheat noodles in 30 minutes as you can. When I returned to Tokyo, I saw Mount Fuji, Torii shrines, and Daibutsu, the Great Buddha. I rose before four a.m. so that I could see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in Asia. I saw the catch of the day be brought in and auctioned off. At night I saw Kabuki Theater and on the weekend I went to museums or watched people surf on the other side of the Pacific, but the majority of my time I spent learning about Japanese schools.


My weekdays often extended from 8:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. as I observed classes, spoke to administrators and teachers, ate school lunch with the students, and observed and helped students clean the school after class. In the late afternoons I visited municipal officials or the Superintendent of the Board of Education to hear about their educational philosophy and to thank them for providing United States teachers with this educational opportunity. In the evening we frequently had briefings to prepare us for the next day.

As I visited different schools, I saw some excellent teaching and some truly horrible teaching. I saw some darling children and some real behavior problems. I saw schools with modern equipment and schools in old buildings with little equipment. I saw happy children and teachers, and I saw bored children and overworked teachers. Although I believe American schools have smaller class sizes and American teachers tend to move about the room more than our Japanese counterparts, I felt a strong bond with the teachers I saw, and I could say many of the comments listed above about American schools.

There were several other facts that I discovered about Japanese schools. The Japanese junior high through high school students that I saw wore uniforms. Though the Japanese have an extremely high literacy rate, only a first through ninth grade education is compulsory. Students must pass an exam and then pay to attend high school or college. Many students attend cram schools or "juku" after school to help them prepare for high school or college exams. It is very important to many Japanese families that their children are not only permitted entrance into a high school or college, but that their children enter the RIGHT school, which will then assure them a satisfactory job in the future.

Japanese schools place great emphasis on the high school and college entrance exams and frequently teach only the material that those exams test. Educators in my group who were involved with math and science curriculum told me the Japanese were very advanced in those areas, but I saw no creative essay writing or poetry writing taught, and Iwate is an area that prides itself on being the home of many great writers. Creative writing is not one of the subjects tested on the entrance exams so it is not emphasized.

I felt some concern, too, about the quality of the English text used in the high school I saw. Though the school I saw emphasized grammar over speaking English, I found many grammatical errors in the text. The text was written by a Japanese company, and no one there apparently caught the errors.

The American teachers selected for the FMF program reflected the diversity of the students we taught. The teachers had different skin and different hair colors. Included were African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic teachers. Among the 200 teachers selected to go this November was a teacher who was deaf and two teachers in wheelchairs. The Japanese teachers and students I saw reflected no diversity. I did not see any children of different races or with any visible disability in any of the schools selected for me to see. In general, I thought Morioka's was a school system that has accomplished much, especially in the lower grades and in math and science, but still might have room for improvement in other areas.

If we brought a group of Japanese teachers to America to visit schools and participate in home stays, and sent one group to an Indian Reservation, another to Harlem, another to the Amish country in Pennsylvania, one to a Los Angeles barrio, another to a Hasidic community in Crown Point, etc., how different America would look to each group. If a foreign teacher spent three weeks in any of those areas, that teacher's image alone would not be an accurate reflection of America. We educators sent to Japan in November 1997 were sent to islands and areas of those islands different from those to which the educators who went in June and October were sent, and these areas are different from the areas to which the educators selected in the future will go. We will all have different experiences. As more and more educators are brought to Japan through the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, and we share our stories, slowly a true picture of Japan will emerge. I am like a blind man who felt one piece of the elephant. I do not have a clear idea of what the whole of Japan is really like. Therefore, it is with great anticipation that I look forward to hearing about the experiences of the educators who follow me. If my experience sounds interesting, apply. I'm sure your experience, however different it is from mine, will be interesting, too.


Teacher Joan Bunge writes:

I was deeply honored to have been chosen as a participant in the inaugural Fulbright Memorial Fund (FMF) Teacher Program this past June. Our group of 102 elementary and secondary teachers spent two days in Tokyo. We were then divided into five groups. Each group traveled to a different prefecture (state) for a twelve-day stay that included a comprehensive itinerary. My group visited the beautiful prefecture of Oita on the Kyushu peninsula. Our stay included visits to a variety of schools, a college, landmarks, and local industry. Each teacher in the group spent one night with a host family in Oita.

When the whole group reconvened in Tokyo, we had five more days for discussions, lectures, presentations, and cultural activities. I was inspired to write a poem as part of our group's final presentation.

The FMF experience provided me with a unique opportunity to further my professional interest in multicultural education and my personal interest in travel. Most importantly, perhaps, it helped to dispel some preconceived notions of what I expected to see in Japanese schools. The elementary schools I visited were warm, child-centered, joyous places that nurtured the "whole" child. Students were actively engaged in a great variety of activities; music resounded in the halls and artwork was abundantly evident. In America, our educational goals tend to be measurable and based primarily on student performance. In Japan, the national curriculum places equal emphasis on developing a love of nature and a richness of sentiment.

This experience helped me to gain cultural insight into a unique country. I heartily encourage other colleagues to apply for the FMF Teacher Program and to make that global connection for themselves.


Now, after a successful inaugural year, FMF is preparing to select another 600 participants to go to Japan in 1998. Those first- through twelfth-grade teachers and administrators, who will be selected by a panel of educators in March 1998, will participate in three-week study visits as guests of the Japanese government. They will travel in three groups in June, October and November 1998, and will be among a total of approximately 5,000 teachers to take advantage of this opportunity for intercultural study in the coming years.

To learn more about the 1998 program, you can read an online press release. That release includes comments from other teachers who participated in the 1997 program. Or check out full program details on the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program Web site.

Who is eligible to participate? Teachers of grades 1-12 and primary and secondary school administrators are eligible. Interested educators can request an application by calling 1-888-527-2636. Applications may also be ordered through the FMF Web site via an online order form. But do it today -- because applications to participate in the 1998 study visits are due January 16, 1998!

A note of caution from teacher Glori Chaika: "Different school systems react differently to educators' absences. Some educators' costs of gifts for Japanese dignitaries, gifts for the children in the classes visited, and costs of buying artifacts to bring back to the classroom were covered while others bore those costs themselves. Though most school systems gladly paid the educators' salaries while away, there were a few who placed theirs on leave without pay for the three-week program. It would be a good idea to find out your particular school system's policy prior to going through the application process, and make your decision whether or not to apply based on this information."

Glori Chaika teaches gifted 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a published author who has won a Distinguished Teaching Award from Duke University. She was awarded a Fulbright Memorial Fund scholarship to study school systems and teacher training programs in Japan during the fall of 1997. Ms. Chaika was named the 1997 Elks Teacher of the year in her Louisiana parish.

Joan Bunge has been an elementary ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher for fifteen years in the Jefferson Parish (Louisiana) Public Schools. She teaches English to non-native speakers, grades K-5, in a pull-out resource center. She was granted a Fulbright Memorial Fund scholarship for a three-week study/visit to Japan in June, 1997.

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