Trip to Japan
- Created: 08 August 2011
From May 9- 30, 2011 I led a group of nine undergraduate students to Japan as part of the course Rethinking Power of Art: Art Education For Social Change in Japan. We had prepared for this trip as a class since February, with meetings on Japanese culture, language and service learning programs. But when the tsunami hit on March 11 everything became uncertain. Naturally, the parents and students were terribly concerned about Japan as well as their own safety in traveling there. As we followed the news I was not sure the trip would go ahead. It was an emotional time. But when the situation had finally stabilized and UM gave its approval for student travel to Japan we departed from Detroit as planned.
The purpose of this trip was to experience first hand what art can do to improve people’s lives and their communities. Due to decades of economic decline and an aging population Japanese social programs have been severely cut back. But in Shiga Prefecture – the sister state to Michigan and our destination - citizens have stepped up to fill the need, starting non-profit organizations to ensure that children and people with disabilities continue to have opportunities to make art. During our three weeks in Shiga the students and I learned about how people organize and implement their own programs, what social entrepreneurship can be, and the benefits of a supportive local government.
For most of our trip we stayed in the small town of Shigaraki, in a rural part of Japan. We lived in the residences of an institution for people with mild cognitive and mental disabilities, Shigaraki Seinenryo. During our stay we got to know many of the residents and this was wonderful. While many could speak Japanese I was not able to translate as I could not understand what they were saying. So it was our students who found alternative ways to communicate and over the course of our stay friendships formed between our students and the residents. I was very proud of our students for the way they stepped up, initiating activities with residents and around the building. For example, the students were constantly taking photos and some of the residents wanted copies. So, as promised, the students took the extra time and effort to go into town, print out the photos and pass them out much to the excitement of the residents. Some students also had great patience, repeating the same conversations each morning with particular residents - a routine that had come to be anticipated with great enthusiasm. With all their effort and care I feel very hopeful about these students’ futures.
With Shigaraki Seinenryo as our home base, we branched out into the community. We visited three elementary schools, three museums, spoke with many community leaders, visited two colleges, spent time at four institutions for people with disabilities, attended a BBQ with local artists, took a tour of the town of Shigaraki, participated in a hands-on ceramic workshop at the Shigaraki Ceramic Park Museum, took a hike to the waterfall in the mountains, and participated in a traditional tea ceremony.
Between all these scheduled activities there were many more individual experiences where our students really felt connected to the people of Shigaraki. There was a wonderful group of volunteers who so generously spent time with us, and the practical assistance from the Shiga Government –providing ground transportation and guidance -made all that we did possible. We were extremely fortunate to receive an ELF grant from the UM International Institute and funding from the Aikens International Travel Initiative. All this support made this trip possible for our students.
Here are my reflections on of some of the highlights of our trip:
-At the elementary schools our students were treated like celebrities, giving so many autographs their hands were worn out! At one school, we participated in an art class for special education students. Once again, our students really impressed me with how patient, caring and involved they were with these young children. The fact that some of the children were not able to speak seemed to free our students from concerns of language and they found creative solutions to communicate with them. At another school we made origami cranes alongside children who were working hard to send 1000 cranes to the earthquake affected region of Japan.
-Japan has well-established vocational and educational programs for people with disabilities. During our visits to some of these institutions we were introduced to wonderful weaving, painting and paper making studios, and a job training area for laundry work and organic farming. Our students worked alongside people in these programs and it was an eye opening and inspiring experience to see people with physical and cognitive disabilities being trained for independent living in a society that expects contribution from all citizens.
-At Shiga University the art education department offered a mini course for our students: package design using origami techniques; an introduction to traditional woodworking tools; and a class on how to build an art history curriculum for elementary school students. At the end of our visit there was a lively social exchange between the Shiga and A&D students, and I think this was a really significant and inspiring event.
-One afternoon I met with the Governor of Shiga, Yukiko Kada. She was very interested in the purpose of our trip and invited me to talk with her about A&D engagement programs. We discussed many subjects, not only art and community, but diversity and environmental issues. I was impressed by her knowledge, her openness to new ideas, and her understanding of the connection between art and other social issues. Since being in office, Governor Kada has created an Art and Community Department that promotes art to improve the quality of citizens’ lives. It was wonderful to see this progressive administration and their support of this trip is greatly appreciated.
-Our schedule was packed, but during one of the few free days our students decided to venture on their own to Osaka, a three-hour train ride away. They wandered around, shopped, ate, went to a public bath and stayed overnight in the lively, wilder part of town. I was glad they wanted to be independent but was so worried while they were gone. When I finally saw them again at the train station I was overwhelmed with relief! But I could also see they had looked out for each other.
-For many of us the highlight of this trip was our all day visit to Miho Museum. The idea behind this museum is that we should learn about art through direct experience of nature. To that purpose the museum has its own organic farm that provides food for their traditional restaurant. So in the morning we spent time on that farm and our students helped to harvest produce, chop wood and prepare rice in the traditional manner. We were served lunch in a beautifully restored 300 year old farmhouse and it was the best meal of our trip, rewarding all our senses.
In the afternoon we entered the museum, a beautiful building designed by I.M.Pei where the architecture and surrounding natural landscape become one. We toured the museum with one of the curators and learned about art education programs for school children led by artists and curators. These people volunteer their time and expertise to draw on the museum’s vast collection, introducing art history and techniques to the children. During our tour we also learned about the origin of anime through a 12th century scroll Chojugiga. This long, horizontal scroll depicts a fable world where the animal characters mirror the petty and noble dramas of human society At the end of this viewing we had a very interesting discussion with the curators, and I was so proud that our students spoke up to contribute to this discussion.
For people of my generation the gateway to Japanese culture was Zen Buddhism or gardens or traditional craft. But I now realize that for our students’ generation that gateway is anime, manga, gaming and pop culture. For example, one student did a lot of gaming, became interested in Japanese sword fighting techniques, followed this to a study of martial arts and finally became fascinated with Japanese culture. On this trip I discovered how connected these young students already feel toward Japan, and I realize that I need to adapt and try to understand where their interests come from.
Though exhausting, this was a great trip. Several years ago I began talking about it with Shiga government officials and it took me a year and a half to organize the trip working closely with community leaders, museums, non-profit organizations, and Shiga officials. While I can not think of doing another trip like this right now I am sure that with rest and time I will work hard again to develop another trip for our students to experience a different side of Japan, and with that a stronger relationship between Michigan and Shiga Prefecture.