Cultural comparisons

By on January 25, 2009

Visitor from Japanese Ministry of Education studies the American way at Kaneland

by Lynn Meredith

Learning about one another’s cultures is an eye-opening experience, and it was one that the fourth and fifth grades at John Stewart Elementary School had when Sayaka Iwamura from Japan came to visit. But they weren’t the only ones who learned a thing or two: Iwamura did as well.

“The biggest thing I was surprised at was everything is so big,” Iwamura said. “Houses are big, cars are big, food is big. When I go to the grocery store, the cart is big, so people buy a lot of things.”

Iwamura stands in front of the two classes at John Stewart Elementary School in Elburn on a cold and snowy day. Buses have been running late; teachers and students are scrambling to get the school day started. Iwamura and ESL Coordinator Katie Henigan themselves were running late as they drove in from DeKalb. Iwamura explains to the students about snow in Japan.

“We get snow, but we don’t have that much snow,” she said.

Soft-spoken, she is dressed in a kimono borrowed from art teacher Bonnie Whildin. Whildin purchased the piece in Japan two years ago when she went there on a Fulbright Scholarship. Iwamura shows the assembly pictures of cherry blossoms, bullet trains, shrine temples and baseball. Excitement stirs when she mentions the Japanese player who plays for the Cubs, Kosuke Fukudome.

Suzanne Girsch’s fourth-grade and Stephanie Thatcher’s fifth-grade students have been e-mailing back and forth with Iwamura as part of a reciprocal learning project that also included Kaneland High School exchange student Ryoko Kawaguchi, who is also from Japan.

Iwamura came to this country as part of the 2008 Long-term Educational Administration Program (LEAP) in order to improve her English skills, learn about the operations of the International Program offices at Northern Illinois University and the educational system in the United States, and then report back to the Ministry of Education in Japan.

She and nine other Japanese members of the 2008 LEAP program came to the U.S. in March. They spent six months at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., taking intensive English courses and traveling to national parks in the west.

“I enjoyed a lot the scenery. It is very vast,” Iwamura said.

On this day, the students have placed posters in the front of the Learning Center listing what they already know about Japan. In this column they have indicated that Japan is in Asia, that the people eat a lot of fish and that students go to school six days a week. The next column lists what they want to know about Japan. Sumo wrestling is high on the list, along with wondering why Japanese students go to school six days a week.

Their questions are answered not only by Iwamura, but Gina Dunham, who went to grade school in Japan, as well as from Whildin, who visited schools in Japan.

The Stewart elementary students learn that Japanese students not only attend regular school, but they also attend “school after school.” Students go to school from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week. Parents commonly pay extra for a sixth day of instruction. Boys and girls go to separate schools. Students eat in their classrooms, not in a cafeteria. If the teacher is unable to come to school, they don’t get a substitute but teach themselves. They walk to school, wear slippers in class and brush their teeth after eating.

Iwamura herself is learning about the differences in the two countries’ educational systems. She will write a report on what she observes when she returns to Japan.

“In Japan, you have to study hard before entering college, but it’s easier to graduate. In the U.S., it’s a little easier to get into college, but harder to graduate,” Iwamura said.

She said that the Japanese government decides the curriculum for the entire country. The relationships between student and teacher are more formal in Japan.

“Even though teachers encourage students to raise their hands to ask questions, the students don’t want to let other students know what they are thinking,” Iwamura said.

Iwamura lives in Tokyo and works at the Ministry of Education from 8 a.m. until midnight each day. She grew up in Yamanashi, Japan, a small town about two-and-a-half hours by car from Tokyo. She misses her family and friends, but saw them on their visit to New York. It was the first time her family had come to the United States.

Iwamura has seen a lot of the country, from Florida to Banff, Canada, New York City to Las Vegas. She tried rock-climbing in Montana and enjoyed the adventure. But she really liked traveling by car on the open road.

“One of the things I like here was the road trips. Four of us drove all the way from Montana to Illinois,” Iwamura said.

With all the positive things she had to say about her experiences here, from friendly people to good food, one thing she did not like.

“I liked Chicago, but I went downtown and my wallet was robbed. It was taken out of my backpack,” Iwamura said. “It’s safer in Japan.”