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West Meets East to Learn About Culture

Peter Nosco (standing) with Joan Kramer, library-media instructor at 32nd Street School, and Kimio Tanihara, former assistant project director and a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, before leaving for their field studies in Japan.

photo: Irene Fertik

Most educational missions to Japan seek insights into the nation’s efficient management style or its rigorous school system. But the Toyota corporate headquarters or a Japanese high school wasn’t on the itinerary of Peter Nosco’s seminar in Japan for a dozen U.S. educators.

Instead, Nosco’s Fulbright-funded expedition, July 13-Aug. 12, had a purely intellectual purpose: to impart instruction on Japanese language, art, philosophy, religion and history, so educators could bring this knowledge back to their respective schools.

The idea was to infuse the curricula of the American schools – primarily community and four-year colleges – with rich new material about Japanese culture.

“The project was intended to teach these educators about a very different part of the world,” said Nosco, professor of East Asian languages and cultures. “What experiences do we share? What sets us apart? What kinds of things can we learn about each other? How can we learn to be more fully members of a global community in these last days of the 20th century?”

Nosco’s proposal for the “Short-Term Seminar in Japan on Japanese Culture” was ranked No. 1 of 29 projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the 1998 Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program. The $70,000 Fulbright grant subsidized about three-fourths of the trip’s cost for the educators, who were nominated by their respective institutions.

The project was sponsored by USC’s East Asian Studies Center in cooperation with the Asian Studies Development Program of the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii.

Geared for a select group of schools and educators, the seminar was aimed at institutions whose curricula did not previously explore Japanese culture in a meaningful way, Nosco said. In addition, the applicants had to be personally interested in and committed to learning more about Japanese culture. Another goal was to reach institutions with a large proportion of minority students.

Each educator was required to develop a curriculum based on some aspect of Japanese culture studied during the trip. Ultimately, all of the curricula will be compiled in a resource handbook of syllabi available to schools throughout the country via the Web sites of the East Asian Studies Center and the U.S. Department of Education’s Asian Studies Development Program.

Nosco calls this follow-up curriculum project “the enduring legacy of our efforts. … I’m pleased that we appear to be right on track in accomplishing it.” He said the expenses for the follow-up project were being funded by one of the college’s East Asian research grants for 1998.

The dozen educators participating hailed from all regions of the country, from New York to Washington state, and from Georgia to New Mexico. Nine teach at colleges or universities, many of them community colleges. The remaining – including one instructor from the 32nd Street/USC Visual and Performing Arts Magnet – teach at elementary schools.

Joan Kramer, the library-media instructor at 32nd Street School, planned to bring back materials for slide shows and media presentations as well as books about Japanese philosophy, religion and art. Because she will be describing a personal experience, Kramer thinks the magnet school’s diverse student body will be interested and responsive.

“Children in this country don’t have a wide experience of other cultures,” she said. “This seems like a fabulous way to get an in-depth learning experience in a short period of time.”

Another local participant was Arlene Inouye, a speech and language specialist in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A third-generation Japanese American, Inouye will develop a curriculum for teachers at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. She also hoped to get in touch with her ancestral roots.

“In terms of human relations, I think [a curriculum on Japanese culture] will help break down the stereotypes held by kids and the teachers who teach them,” she said, noting that Roosevelt High School is made up mostly of Latino students who are isolated from Asian culture.

During the four-week crash course, the educators took a whirlwind tour of the country, taking in sights that ranged from the ancient temples of Kyoto to the memorials at Hiroshima. Before and throughout the trip, they also received an intensive series of Japanese language lessons.

Each day’s tour was accompanied by a related lecture by Nosco or a guest speaker. The emphasis was on aspects of traditional culture, Nosco said.

For instance, in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, the participants explored temples, shrines and other cultural sites. They took several day trips to places such as Ise, the site of the most important Shinto shrine, and Nara, the 8th-century capital of Japan.

In nara, a place of exotic temples and Buddhist art, they experienced one of the larger themes of the trip: the dramatic impact of Chinese civilization upon Japan, Nosco said.

“We saw temples and artwork reflecting how Chinese forms of Buddhism became the first important forms of Buddhism in Japan. A major theme throughout the program was the rich diversity of Japanese culture,” he said.

One of Nosco’s lectures discussed denominational Bud-dhism, and how specific movements appealed to different social classes. Another looked at the features of Japanese aesthetics that remain prominent today; afterward, the educators watched and took part in a demonstration of the traditional tea ceremony by members of the Tea Ceremony Club of Ritsumeikan University. Other lectures examined the concept of renewal in Shintoism and the displacement of the warrior, or samurai, class.

In tokyo, formerly called Edo and the political center of Japan for the past 400 years, the educators looked at how traditional features of Edo culture remain today.

From Tokyo, the educators visited Kamakura, the political center of Japan in the 13th century. Nosco took them on the same tour he led for President Steven B. Sample and a group of USC trustees during their Asian expedition last year, visiting Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and the celebrated Great Buddha (daibutsu) statue.

One highlight in Tokyo was a lecture on the cultural dimensions of Japan’s foreign policy by Mitsuhiro Saotome of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, former Japanese consul in Los Angeles and director of Japan’s Information and Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

Another was a stroll through the districts of Harajuku and Omotesando led by Asian Magazine correspondent Carol Hui, an authority on Japanese youth culture. These are the “in” places where Japanese youth congregate, replete with flea markets and music clubs.

Nosco, who has won two previous Fulbright awards, was asked to submit a grant proposal for the Fulbright-funded field study in Japan through the East-West Center’s Asian Studies Development Program.

“I have great admiration for the goals of this program,” Nosco said. “I feel I’ve gotten a great deal from this profession and this project has represented an opportunity for me to give something back to it.

“The trip was in many ways an intellectually, physically and even emotionally exhausting adventure, and so it is immensely gratifying that we appear to have accomplished all the goals set out for the project at the outset, and that the participants seem universally to have found it a fulfilling experience.”

West Meets East to Learn About Culture

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