By Ron Leir
The “Land of the Rising Sun” got a rise out of some 60 ninth-graders at Belleville High School last Tuesday.
Two representatives of the Japanese Consulate General’s office – public relations specialist Jesse Taylor and Goro Watanabe of the Ministry of Education – wearing traditional Japanese garb – visited a World History class.
They’d responded to an invitation extended by social studies teacher Gary Klotzkin to bring their “School Caravan” program to schools in the metro region to share information about Japan and its culture in engaging ways.
They showed the students videos about Japan, highlighting traditional music festivals, like the four-day Awa Odori event held in Tokushima Prefecture, typically featuring 100,000 dancers and attended by four million spectators.
They also discussed “curious customs,” such as the ritual of greeting people – family, friends and outsiders – by varying degrees of bowing, the deeper the bow the greater the sign of respect.
Participants in Japanese tea ceremonies are accustomed to sitting on their heels and users of Japanese bathrooms shouldn’t be surprised to find toilet seats (“washlets”) heated during winter.
On the subject of earthquakes, Taylor told the students that Japan experiences as many as 1,500 “seismic occurrences” annually and that the pagoda (tiered towers with multiple eaves) structures, so pervasive in Japan, are built to withstand those shocks.
“They won’t fall, they don’t topple over in an earthquake,” Taylor said. “They’ve started to build skyscrapers the same way.”
Japan’s user-friendly climate is such that in January, “you can go skiing in the north and then take a fast train south to Okinawa and go to the beach,” Taylor noted.
Students learned from Taylor and Watanabe that such inventions as the mechanical pencil, battery and box-cutter, all derived from Japan. The DVD originated from Japan and the U.S. at about the same time, they said.
The freshmen also got an interactive lesson in the use of chopsticks. Students sitting at different tables were put through their paces attempting to lift pieces of popcorn and pass them along to their buddies with their Japanese “utensils” as fast as possible.
Before leaving, the visiting “ambassadors” gave the students gifts, including travel posters and the like.
And, in case the students still have unanswered queries about the Far West, they’ll have an on-hand resource right at their fingertips to find the answers.
As part of a “Tomopachi Junior Fellows Student Exchange” program arranged through the Japan Society, Yoon Lee, a 10th-grade Japanese exchange student from Kobe, Japan, has been visiting Belleville and attending classes at the township high school. Her 17-day stay, hosted by the family of BHS ninth-grader Savana Delgado, ends March 31. She’ll present her findings to her Japanese peers when she returns home.
And, this summer, BHS 11th-grader David Herrera will be journeying to Japan for three weeks to do research on Japan. He was one of only 10 students selected nationally to participate in this program, according to Klotzkin.
Yee, who has good command of English, told The Observer that Japanese students “are required to learn English in high school and junior high school.” As part of their training, students must “make a presentation in class and debate in English,” she said.
Asked her impressions so far, Yee said: “Americans are not shy. They tell you what they are thinking. Japanese people are very polite but they are shy. Everybody has been kind to me here.”
Also: “They have big portions of food here. I like hamburger and pizza. Japanese portions are small.”
So far, Yee has found her Belleville sojourn to be “very exciting. It’s fun meeting someone from a different culture.”
Herrera said he applied for the exchange program “to be exposed to another culture so different from our’s.” And, to get a running start on his summer enterprise, he’s just begun “teaching myself” Japanese.
Other than the fact that he’ll be staying with a family in Yokohama, Herrera said he hasn’t been provided much advance information about the trip.
Still, he seems more than ready for his adventure.