2016 International Educators to Japan (IEJ) Program
Victor M. Raga
San Antonio, TX, USA
IIST held the International Educators to Japan (IEJ) program over 19 June-30 June 2016. The aim of this program is to bring educators from Europe and the US who are involved in the education of Japanese schoolchildren to Japan to experience the Japanese education environment, as well as Japanese history and culture, so that they can utilize that experience back in their own teaching environments. Here one of the 29 educators participating in this year’s program, Mr. Victor M. Raga, Principal of Raba Elementary School from San Antonio, gives his impressions of the program.
Soon after arriving at the airport in San Antonio we realized that we were taking the scenic route to Japan due to canceled flights. Nevertheless, twenty-five hours later we arrived to the friendly Japan.
Along the flight to Tokyo my wife, Iris, and I had plenty of time to watch movies that we normally would not watch together; and talk about how our time in Japan would be spent. The fear of the unknown started to settle in as we realized we were traveling across the world to a country we could only dream of visiting. As soon as we arrived in Japan we began to experience the kindness and hospitality that everyone shared with us. All the videos of do’s and don’ts went out the window and with everyone willing to help they were not needed. As Hattori San (director of IEJ Program) greeted us at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel we could not wait to go to sleep and get our rest.
To begin to put this experience into words is a very tough task. Emotions pulling in every direction from beginning to end. The first day in Japan we met who would be lifelong friends that came together with education in common. Our group worked well together and it felt like we all knew each other. The orientation seminar brought the IEJ program to life and we started our experience, an experience that one can only imagine. How many people can say that they experienced the wearing of an authentic Kimono? Well we did. The beauty of every single garment shared with us was simply breathtaking. It took about 15 minutes to dress the ladies and a lot less with the guys. Soon, the group was dressed and the feeling from everyone was of gratitude to the ladies who got us dressed. I can also say that you get the feeling of grandeur.
As we soaked in the Kimono wearing experience, we prepared for our demo lesson in an elementary school. We were welcomed to the school with open arms by the principal, staff, and of course the students. We truly enjoyed the visit and those who taught lessons expressed that it was a priceless experience. We had lunch with students in their classroom. Lunch was served by students in the classroom. After lunch, students were responsible for the cleanup as well. This is a different practice as we are accustomed to. I was truly amazed by the students’ talents as they showcased a brass ensemble band comprised of students in grades 4th to 6th but sounded like a high school band.
Still in awe of Tokyo we now got ready for our move to Hiroshima and Kyoto. As we boarded the fast moving “Shinkansen” or bullet train thoughts of not making it in the train before the doors closed crossed our mind. Needless to say, we all boarded safely and prepared for a four hour trip to Hiroshima. One of the most humbling experiences I have ever been a part of. Seeing the dome from a distance and then closer as we approached it was surreal. As we walked through the Peace Park, rang the Peace Bell, and saw the Children’s Peace Monument filled with paper cranes made by children around the world is what made this a grounding experience. As I reflected on the past I looked at how we guide our present to establish our future, it became clear that we can ensure that peace resonates through us all and not have history repeat itself. Living in harmony with the world was a common message.
Our visit to Miyajima Island (Itsukushima Shrine) was filled with views, peace and silence. We got to experience a traditional wedding and go up to the pagoda. There the views were spectacular and the peaceful silence allowed for detachment from the everyday fast paced world.
The most beautiful place that I have ever seen, Kyoto. We thought that by this point we had seen it all but we were nowhere near what we were about to experience. We toured Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion) and the beauty was too real to be true. We encountered Maikos (apprentice geikos in Kyoto whose jobs consist of performing songs, dances, and playing Japanese instruments for visitors during feasts) at the park and experienced an open market where we had the opportunity to purchase genuine Japanese items, buy drinks, or get some food. More on food later on.
Our home stay was quite enjoyable in Nara. I will be honest here. The fear of not knowing where and with whom you were going to stay for the next two days was nerve wrecking. Our family welcomed us to their home with open arms and were made to feel at home. We stayed in a traditional Japanese style home with Junichi and Mikiko Komatsu. Their home was beautiful and their family was so nice. Junichi and Mikiko took us for a walk around their neighborhood and we visited a couple of ancient Imperial Mausoleums. On our last night we ate and had some drinks. We made cranes and played with handmade tops. Most importantly we established a lifelong bond. Parting ways was hard. I think all participants had either tears or a knot in their throat.
We made a full circle back to Tokyo. Where we prepared for our final group presentation and had the opportunity to have a day of field work. Here is where I would like to touch base on the schools, food, and transportation. Understanding the school system in Japan is quite an undertaking, given that we are used to western world practices. From hiring teachers to daily activities in and out of the classroom we are different yet alike. Alike in that we see the passion in every adult as rooted in education and every student. Different in that students are responsible for serving their food and cleaning after themselves. As a school principal I can say that the focus for my questions to administrators surfaced from an administrative perspective and noticed some differences in the hiring process and finance. We all enjoyed seeing the students engaged in their studies in both public and private schools.
The food in Japan is so decorative and exquisite. The time that goes into meticulously preparing the food is without a doubt something to be proud of. We appreciated the hospitality at every restaurant and although due to allergies and personal taste we did not experience it all. I know that fellow participants shared wonderful stories about their experiences with sushi and other Japanese foods.
Transportation, at first, was a little overwhelming but when we took the risk to venture out and explore we understood the rail system. When it is rush hour in Japan it is train and pedestrian traffic. Something caught our eye and in case you are ever in Japan the yellow tiles with bumps and dashes is braille. It assists the blind when walking around the city. Although the large number of inhabitants in Tokyo, people learn to live in harmony and respect each other. There is always order and people are patient and helpful to one another. They are aware of their environment and the balance between both allows for a harmonious Japan.
Thus our trip to Japan ends and more important than the souvenirs we get to bring back we bring a life changing experience that will impact us forever. We are grateful and thankful to all the people who helped make our trip a memorable one. There are many hours of work goes in to plan this IEJ program. So to everyone from IIST especially organizer of IEJ, HATTORI Ryuichi, WAKITA Kinuko, KAWANISHI Aki, HIRAYAMA Yumi, HARIMA Shuichi, and TOYOYAMA Akiko, from us all, Thank You (arigatō gozaimashita) from the bottom of our hearts for showing us and allowing us to embrace the beautiful Japan.
(Original article: English)