Speech contest aims to pull nation together

by Angela Jeffs

Up until a few years ago, Tom Gerrard was an entrepreneur with an eye to mainstream business. He then underwent a radical shift of attitude and interest, changing the name of his company in 2004 from Comm Pro (Communication Professionals) to Global Learning.

He is also a board member of ACE — the Association for Japan-U.S. Community Exchanges — which promotes goodwill and understanding between the place of his birth and the country that as a permanent resident he now calls home.

Meeting near his office in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba, Gerrard talks about Global Learning’s first initiative: the Global Kids All-Japan Speech Contest, which he launched in Japan earlier this year, and for which he’s actively seeking entries before the cut-off date of Sept. 30.

“Right now, kids have the time to put something down on paper. When they get back into school after the holiday, that’s when teachers can advise and get their entries ready for submission. The next two months are all-important.”

Getting the contest up and running has not been easy, he admits, for any number of reasons. “I’m in quite a learning curve.” But he’s not easily put off. “When my grandfather died, I penned a motto for my future: ‘Success is having a positive influence on the lives of others.’ I adopted it for GLI, and this is what drives me now.”

Rather than go to university, Gerrard opted for a Graduate Equivalency Diploma, leaving school at age 17 to start his own company. He sold native American arts and crafts, traveling to and fro in his native Oregon, and up and down the West Coast.”

It was fun, and I made money to live, but little more. So I moved into storm-window glass. I was cold-calling house to house, but with the government funding installation to help conserve energy, it was not too hard a sell.”

In 1983, he went back to school, or to college rather, to study international marketing and economics. Then in ’86, entered Waseda University in Tokyo as an exchange student. “I arrived with a travel guide tape, took it from there.” With language skills quickly up and running, he went to work part-time for a Honda subsidiary.

“But I was all study, work and no play. So I began going to a small bar in Shinjuku, and ended up playing chess on a regular basis with the bartender. Eventually he asked me, ‘I never see you in female company. Are you gay? No? Then I just happen to know a very nice girl . . . ‘ ”

Gerrard went to a party organized by the bartender to be introduced, got stuck in a corner with four girls, one of whom he liked very much, when up came his friend and said, ‘Oh, I see you’ve met already then. . .’

Yuri was in clothing design and well traveled. She now acts as the company treasurer and bookkeeper, and helps out in other areas when Global Learning and Comm Pro (now the company’s marketing division) are stretched. “We have four full-time staff, three part-timers, and around 60 translators, editors and writers under contract.”

Gerrard’s team handles anything business related, from company establishment and investor relations to event planning and marketing tool production (Web sites/videos/CDs/DVDs/ brochures).

They win awards too: most recently the Gold Prize at the 2006 World Media Festival in Germany, for a corporate public relations DVD — The Untravelled Path to the Giant Stack — for Nippon Mining Holdings. (His client list is long and impressive.)

The interest in education blossomed after first his son was born, and then educational systems began to appear online. (Alexander, now 13 and “very gifted” according to Dad, is responsible for creating the stick children of the contest’s graphics, including a chain of stick children holding hands around the world.)”

It worries me how much time kids spend in front of screens. The computer is such a powerful tool for learning. But there needs to be child-adult interaction, so that parents can help their children. This is especially lacking in Japan. There is nothing wrong with games, as long as they are educational rather than distracting and time-wasting.”

With $200,000 to develop an educational system and library that would help Japanese society to grow rather than wither on the interactive stem, he made contact with two of the world’s most reputable educational companies producing interactive educational games.

“The grand plan was to obtain the licensing for educational materials from one or the other, re-engineer the programs and present them to Japanese investors.

For 19 months, negotiations went well, then everything fell through. I’m still interested but. . .” It was a hard blow. Contemplating what to do, Gerrard came up with the idea of the first-ever, corporate-sponsored nationwide speech contest in English. (There are lots of speech contests throughout Japan, but most are local to town and prefectures or regions, or promoted by newspapers and magazines.)

The Global Kids All-Japan English Speech Contest is open to nonnative English speakers (irrespective of country of origin) being schooled in the Japanese public/private school system. It is not open to native speakers, or returnees who have spent more than a year abroad.

Entrants are invited to write on one of three topics: Environmental Problems in Japan; How I will contribute to the World in the Future; and Japanese tradition(s).

The four age groups (11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18) will be judged on merit, and the top 100 entries will be asked to record their work on a video or CD. The best 10 will be then selected to present their speeches before a live audience at the Suginami Kokaido (auditorium) in Tokyo on April 2, 2008.

“We will be awarding prize money and trophies for the top three speeches in each category, as well as trophies to fourth and fifth places — a best idea award, and the most humorous. There will also be a special prize in each category from the sponsor, ACE.

In the Japanese system, he adds, competition is encouraged between the differing age groups. “We will be judging across the board.”

Earlier this year, Global Learning sent fliers, and posters to 3,500 public and private schools throughout Japan, addressed to principals, and those in charge of English education. The response? “Truly terrible.”

Now Gerrard can see the errors made. “We’ve learned that villages, towns and prefectures all have different rules and attitudes. Kanto refused to cooperate because we’re offering prize money. Most of the wards in Tokyo found a reason for not participating. But in Niigata, three phone calls by a sympathetic government official enabled hundreds of information packs to be delivered to the juku (cram schools), English language schools and public schools in the area.”

For 2009, Global Learning will be better prepared. Yes, Gerrard pledges, however this first contest turns out, it will not be the last. The roots are planted, dug in deep.

“The founder of ACE, in addition to a deep interest in U.S.-Japan relations, is big on education too. I’m hoping he can get me in to speak with the Education Ministry. Their backing is vital for gaining a good rapport with local governments and schools.”

Plus, there is the problem of media coverage — or lack of it — to overcome.

“Japanese newspapers have shown no interest in reporting on this, possibly because they see it as a clash of interest. But, really, that’s so short-sighted. They are doing what they do. We want to pull the whole country — the whole of society — together.” Gerrard is convinced the contest is needed. As taught in Japan, English is an embarrassing thing for all concerned. The government itself admits that this is a barrier to overcome.

“I believe English will help young people gain pride. Winning this contest can only be good for the child, good for the school and — when this contest goes Asian and then truly global — good for the country.”

For information and/or an application form, phone: (03) 3366-7642; fax (03) 3366-76 43. URL (in Japanese only): http:www.gkspeech.jp