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The Japan 2006-2007 Weblog:

January 7, 2007: Education in Japan

Japan's schools are divided into six years of primary school (grades one to six), three years of lower secondary school (grades seven to nine in the USA), and three years of upper secondary school (grades ten to twelve in USA). For many years, Japan has had very important tests between each of these levels to determine entrance to which school at the next level and to determine entrance into which college or university or other schooling, if any.

These tests have led Japanese students in general to master required areas of knowledge and Japanese students have scored well when tested against students of other nationalities. Not all is well with the Japanese system, according to some experts, however. It is common for students in Japan to attend "cram" schools in addition to their regular schools, so that they might earn higher scores on the tests. I have heard complaints from teachers that, because of cram schools, some students do not always complete their regular homework.

The pressure to score well can stress students. There are reports of suicide in extreme cases. There have even been examples of schools being dishonest in what they report to authorities in order to make themselves and their students look better.

Teachers also note that no test can test everything important, and these high-stakes tests are no exception. But, because scoring well on the tests is so important, schools and teachers tend to teach to the tests and leave out other things. There may not be time to teach creatively or encourage creativity or encourage thinking or enhanced values.

There is movement in the Japanese government to reduce the importance of these tests, because of problems like these. The movement in the US government in the opposite direction seems ironic with these circumstances.

Sunday, December 10, 2006: Pictures of Christmas Lights in Japan

Christmas lights are seen in commercial and civic centers in Japan just as they are in other places in the world. Enjoy a few Christmas lights as seen November 2006 around Tokyo and Kyoto. Pictures!

Thursday, November 30 2006: The trip back home

We're heading home today! Luggage was outside the room by 7:50 am, hotel checkout was by 9:50 am. Our bus left about 10:30 am with checkable luggage on a separate truck. We arrived at the airport a few minutes after noon, checked in, and went through security and customs. My seat, 38E, is in the middle of the plane. We took off at 3:32 pm Tokyo time (1:32 am Detroit time). Because were flying east and crossed the International Date line, we arrived in Chicago about 11 am their time (CST). Of course, we didn't fly backwards in time, but it looks that way. The plane to Detroit was much smaller, but more comfortable in some ways. Our flight was to take off at 1:30 CST, but was delayed on the runway by weather problems both in Chicago and in Detroit. We were supposed to get into Detroit at 3:34 pm, but didn't arrive until about 4 pm.

This day has been very long. To give you an idea, the 4 pm time is 6 am Friday Tokyo time. That means I got out of bed 24 hours ago and still haven't gotten back into bed. This has been a very long day, indeed.

Note: I have so far in these writings covered mostly happenings, rather than thoughts. I plan to write more thoughts, so please check back occasionally. I also have many pictures to share.

Sunday, November 26: Inuyama Castle and tea house After breakfast, we visited Inuyama City to visit Inuyama Castle, a National Treasure. Stairs in the castle were very steep, each step being over a foot high. Jo-an Tea Ceremony House, another National Treasure, was moved to nearby Uraku-en Garden. We visited that, too, and had tea nearby. The grounds and the buildings were beautiful and the setting peaceful. We visited the museum of Ichiro Suzuki on the way to the house. His many awards are tastefully displayed in a building adjacent to his house. There was time to relax before lunch at the house. Takahito-san printed pictures from his computer of my stay, then gave them to me. He helped me label my Kyoto pictures on my computer so I would know which shrine or temple was which. They drove me to the bus at city hall where we said our goodbyes. The three of us in front of one of Komaki's Peach Buses. Takahito and Naomi Funabashi really are special people.

Saturday, November 25: The Funabashis, Kyoto

Every once in a while you meet special people who have the potential to positively change your life. Little did I know when this day started that this would be such a day.

We packed separate bags for Tokyo and to travel with us for the next two days. We had breakfast and boarded the bus for city hall to meet our host families. We sat on one side of the room. Our host families sat on the other. After short official speeches, we were introduced to our host families one by one, in both Japanese and English.

My special people today are Takahito Funabashi and his wife Naomi. They, along with delightful daughters Tomomi and Waki, are my host family. They will grandly redefine for me what it means to be a great host.

We go to the house for lunch and Takahito-san asks whether I'd like to see Kyoto. Kyoto has many shrines and Naomi-san is from there. Sounds good to me. We drive to a nearby train station, take a train to Nagoya, then take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. He has planned that we will take a taxi tour in the afternoon and a sightseeing bus in the evening. The taxi took us to several shrines, the most impressive being Kinkakuji Temple (known as the Golden Pavilion).

Golden Temple></div>
<p>It then took us back to the station where we boarded the bus. Traveling past several sights, we stopped at a fancy Japanese restaurant for dinner. Our other stop was a theater featuring Gagaku (court music), Kyogen (traditional comic play - The Cudgel Play), Kyomai (traditional Kyoto style dance), and Bunraku (traditional puppet play -

Traffic was very slow so the bus did not stop at a hill top to overview the city, but returned to the train station. Kyoto station is huge, but we find our way and do some shopping.

The shinkansen takes us quickly to Nagoya. The front central part of Nagoya station has a Christmas display of lights this time of year. The most unusual aspect of this beautiful, extensive display is a multistory slide show extended outward with scenes outlined in gold and white lights. Another (standing room only) train takes us to the local station. We drove home. I, as the guest, took the first bath, as is tradition. Bedtime was about midnight.

What a full and wonderful day!

Friday, November 24: Family, High School, Dinner

Sarah and Aaron set up Skype and a web cam so we could send audio and video both ways. I received a call from Sarah almost as soon as I plugged in my camera and launched my program. What a great thrill to talk to and see Barb and Sarah, Aaron, Susan, Tim, Marie and grandchildren Rachael and Andrew and Patrick and Emily as well as Mom Lemanske. It was so much fun that we carried on for several minutes, the next best thing to being there. They were between dinner and dessert and at about 5 pm Thursday while I was at about 7 am Friday here in Komaki city, Japan. We bridged the miles and the hours.

Today's school visit was Aichi (I chee) Prefectural Komaki Kogyo High School, a technical school. We toured the school after our formal introductions and a presentation. We visited classes and saw lots of equipment, both old and new. After lunch, I visited a computer class learning and practicing loops and arrays in BASIC. The long class period went until after three pm.

We made a cloisonne "art" piece and experienced a classical Japanese musical performance of a flute-like instrument, a stringed instrument, and drums, then we said our goodbyes.

Our good group dinner at 6:30 in the hotel was followed by viewing pictures of each other's families and homes. We gathered at the third floor lounge to plan our final presentation for Tokyo. Developing the possibilities was actually fun as we enjoyed each other's company.

Pictures of the day are expected at the school's website at http://www.komaki-th.aichi-c.ed.jp/.

[updated 20061201]

Thursday, November 23: Parents, Museum, Castle

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. and it is a different holiday here. Our group met for two hours with parents this morning, had the local pork specialty lunch, and went back to Nagoya this afternoon to see the Tokugawa Art Museum showing how the shoguns and families lived. We saw the original, world famous Illustrated Tale of Genji from the twelfth century. This stunning masterpiece of bright colors and gold leaf is shown but one week a year. It's absolutely beautiful. We came the right week, that's for sure. The illustrated books I purchased are only a shadow of the original.

We next visited Nagoya Castle. A quick historical lecture preceded our brief visit to the five-story castle, of heavy wood timbers above a high stone foundation, and its grounds. It's quite impressive.

All of this and I'm back in my room writing this about 5:30 pm and it's only 3:30 am in the eastern U.S.A. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. I'm going out shortly with a group. We plan to gather as a single group tomorrow evening for a lavish dinner here at the hotel.

A few of us went to the Chinese restaurant for a delicious (again) dinner followed by dessert crepes down the street.

Wednesday, November 22: Toryo Junior High

Today's visit was to Toryo Lower Secondary School (Junior High). Their plan was to show us what the school is like, rather than to give us special presentations. Formal introductions and a presentation came first. We had a chance to use the computer lab to see the web (mostly in Japanese) and send emails.

Third period classes include Japanese, social science, math, science, and English. Fourth period classes include PE, art, music, home ec, and technical skills. We had school lunch in rooms, helped students clean the school, and participated in an active English lesson.

A debriefing Q and A session and formal goodbyes ended our visit to the school.

The school's friendly webmaster took many pictures that he has posted on their website http://www.komaki-aic.ed.jp/toryo-j/ . Just follow the links in English at the lower left.

Saturday, November 18: Fish Market, National Museum, Conversation

Up at 4:15am, I met with a group leaving for the fish market at 4:45. Among those in the group were Judd Grosshans (DC), Steve Lantos (MA), and Professor Naoshi (new-she) Kira (Ed.D.), Japan Professional School of Education. Naoshi has worked at Steve's school, so they have known each other. Naoshi guided us well as he used the opportunity to see sights of Tokyo he has not seen for years. We saw many types of seafood at the market, some of it still alive. A huge tuna in the auction area sold for $30,000, we were told. Our sushi breakfast was in a small restaurant seating maybe 15 at a bar with sushi chefs behind it. We wandered about the market keeping watch for quickly moving workers and propane-powered mini-trucks. We were intruding, essentially, on a factory floor producing food, so we were double careful to help each other stay out of workers' way as we observed and took photographs.

Next stop was the grounds of the emperor's palace. The public is allowed access to some of the grounds, including a natural area on the east side of the grounds. Naoshi and Steve were the only ones with me after the fish market, the others going different ways. The next destination: Ueno (pronounced like bueno without the b) and the National Museum.

Lunch was a set of octopus dumplings. The verdict: not great, but better than most Americans would think. We met a group of American women and children from a local US base. They were setting up food distribution for local transients. They are part of Japan Second Harvest (http://www.secondharvestjapan.org). [updated 20061201]

The museum's second floor was a selected portion of Japan's national treasures, a delightful exhibition. Traditional tea houses dot the area behind the museum. We enjoyed a brief rest at an outdoor cafe, then went to see the original location of Naoshi's school of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and friends. By then, it was time to head back to he hotel. I crashed for about an hour before we went out to eat near the hotel. Naoshi and his wife, with us now, found a place for us to eat. The four of us continued our conversation over a delightful dinner. (Thank you, Steve.)

This day turned out so different and so much better than I had planned. Naoshi-san made all the difference. I enjoyed talking with him on Japanese and American education, economics, and politics as we experienced some of the wonderful sights of Tokyo together. I definitely want him to contact me if and when he gets an opportunity to study in Ann Arbor. The other days in Japan have been good - this has been the best.

Thursday, November 16: Education and Japanese Government and Economy

Today was full of fancy events with fancy buffet meals. Mr. Tsutomu Kimura, President of the National Institution for Academic Degrees, spoke first on Japanese Education. There is good news, but that's not all. Japanese children have large amounts of knowledge but lack "ability to learn and think by themselves" and "apply this knowledge." He attributes this to excessive competition for university entrance exams. Students need room to grow and need a more developed social and moral sense.

These problems are relatively recent. Japanese have valued education for centuries. Even common folk have enjoyed mathematics problem solving applying special techniques. Years of high stakes testing and national control of education have taken their toll. Considering what some want for USA schools, this is fascinating.

Part of the tenth anniversary celebration at JFMF groups is a panel discussion between three Japanese and three USA superintendents. The moderator is Tsutomu Kimura. The superintendents are Kentaro Sato (of Chiba Prefecture), Sumiko Yahara (of Komatsu City), Hiroyasu Abe (of Kesennuma City), Margaret Planner (Assistant State Superintendent of Wisconsin), Leonard Rezmierski (of Northville, MI), and Donald Metzler (Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Callisburg Independent School District, Texas). The superintendents have been working together in pairs on international projects.

I was more impressed with the USA superintendents than I expected. A hazard of being a superintendent is having the many demands of the job separate you from the day to day realities of your classrooms. But these had good ideas and examples to share of cooperation and projects between districts in our two countries. Of course, they could not help bragging about their districts' programs, and teachers and students indirectly.

I was particularly impressed with the insightful comments of Donald Metzler of rural Texas about the damage being done to education by current national policy. He was proof that informed thinking does not always come from places you might expect.

After lunch was information and discussion about the Japanese government from Professor Hiroya Ichikawa of Sophia University here, and Yuji Tsushima, very influential member of the Diet (House of Representatives).

Japan's economy was the final discussion of the day by Professor Takahiro Miyao (talk to a hero, and the cat's meow).

Thanks to all these people for taking the time to share their information and ideas with us.

The ending activity? A fancy and elegant reception honoring the tenth anniversary of JFMF Japanese visits.

Wednesday, November 15: Exploring, Tempura, and Diet

The weather this morning was beautiful as we had an elegant breakfast (by grade level), a general orientation session, and a host city orientation. By shortly after 10am, we were ready for our sightseeing by chartered bus. Our first stop was Asakusa and lunch at Sansada at 11:10am. Excellent tempura was served in traditional Japanese style with shoes off sitting at low tables and on pillow cushions. That means no chairs, folks.

We had precious few minutes to explore a shopping street and the ancient temple before meeting at 12 to board the bus. The 1:00 hour found us visiting the Diet (Parliament) building including the chamber of the house of representatives. Our bus took us past Tokyo sights as we traveled. Some highways are multi-level to save land. This put us several stories above land sometimes and in tunnels other times.

We settled down to traditional Japanese theater at the hotel (3:30-6:00). Don Kenny presented Kyogen, followed by Mark Oshima and friends performing Kabuki.

We eagerly changed from our professional clothes of the day to more casual clothes for evening exploration and dinner. In cooler weather and a light rain, my group found a small restaurant with customers seated in chairs around a rectangular "bar" with a conveyor belt of sushi dishes moving around the chefs in the center. Customers make their own tea from a green powder and hot water from a spigot. Then, just take small plates of food from the conveyor as you are ready to eat it. Differently priced foods are on plates of different patterns. So, when you are ready for the bill, the waitress counts your plates by type and you pay accordingly. It was an efficient way to serve and the whole meal was only about $4.

Tuesday, November 14: To Tokyo and Dinner

This day officially began when our plane crossed the international date line. I slept some on the plan, but haven't been in a bed since "yesterday" morning in San Francisco. The plane flight was about 5300 miles and 10.5 hours long. Narita Airport (near Tokyo) greeted us with clear skies and a balmy 16 degrees C. Clear skies, light breeze, temperature in the 60's, and a chance to walk around and take pictures all were welcome.

A long bus ride in the Tokyo "rush" traffic gave me about 15 minutes to get ready for dinner. Luggage was still in transit, so not much was possible anyway.

JFMF arranged for us to eat with Fulbright alumni. I was fortunate to eat with Mr. Hisao Sasaki, journalist. He studied at NYU and covered many stories, including the Cuban missile crisis, our US national political conventions in 1968, and the Vietnam war. He introduced us to several Japanese foods prepared in traditional ways. We ate in a 52nd floor restaurant in a nearby triangle-shaped office building. He guided us back to the hotel so we could finish up the day in our rooms.

Monday, November 13: Orientation & To Japan

Sunday's schedule was packed with the flights to San Francisco, meetings at the hotel orienting us to the program and to the Japanese culture, and a reception at the hillside home of Japanese Consul General Makoto Yamanaka. He is very gracious to offer his house, himself, and excellent food. We arrived back at the hotel about 8:30 pm, 11:30pm eastern time. We really enjoyed the quality hotel beds after the long day that went from 3:15am to around midnight eastern time when we went to bed. I enjoyed talking with roommate Peter Perry, music teacher from eastern Maryland. Peter also has an interest in technology. He set up a music computer lab at his Rockville school with a $40 thousand grant.

This morning's activities included breakfast, doing email and updating my website, going through check-in and security, and boarding the plane. The plane took off about 11:40am San Francisco time.

I am enjoying meeting and talking with others of the 200 teachers in this Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) program. We are an interesting and varied group.

The flight from Chicago O'Hare to San Francisco yesterday morning featured video screens with in-flight information like airspeed, altitude, distance traveled, and distance to go in metric and English units. Maps labeling sights observable from the windows, and large scale maps alternated with the other info. It's probably old news to some of you, but I enjoyed it. The sky was clear most of the flight and the sights were beautiful. Watch for some pix soon on Flickr.

The first movie showing in our cabin is Prairie Home Companion. Weird and a bit slow, it's not a bad way to spend part of a long plane flight.

Sunday, November 12: The Sendoff

It's now 4:45am. Sleeping time was short so far. The alarm went off at 3:12, so I'm looking forward to getting more sleep. I'm excited thinking about upcoming experiences. There will be much to share with family and students, all of whom I will miss until I return.

Barb, Sarah, Aaron, Rachael, and I had a relaxing dinner last evening. The food was excellent and the companionship wonderful. Marie gave me a send off call yesterday with several good travel tips. We heard from Susan who had earlier mailed photos of Emily and Andrew along with a message and personalized cards from Andrew and Patrick. Susan and Tim will find things much easier once they have their house sold in Grand Rapids.

At school, Alex, Sohan, and Rob have started an adventure into an increasingly accurate computer simulation of a marine biology environment that they will learn to mold and extend. I hope they see the possibilities of adventure and learning in their work.

Sai, Ashray, Jaspsreet, and Jay are assembling many web pages on Tokyo to inform and guide my visit as they inform other visitors to the web site.

Nick, Andrew, Brooks, and Uma are similarly assembling many webpages on Michigan, especially southeastern Michigan where we live. We plan to use this to introduce others to our area, especially Japanese students.

Last modified 5/17/14 by B L Webster. © 2015 by B L Webster.