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Quest to gain, impart knowledge drives expat

Aileen Kawagoe taps all avenues to learn, share information among foreigners

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

The importance of education informs Aileen Kawagoe’s life view, although early on she turned down the chance to become an educator like her father.

While in high school, Kawagoe declined a scholarship that could have led to an opportunity to study education at Cambridge or Oxford University. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or teacher, something safe, but I was attracted to nonprofit organizations or the United Nations,” Kawagoe says with laughter. “I wasn’t exactly an activist, but I was young and idealistic, and I wanted to make a difference.”

Different, but with a common link: Kawagoe, the moderator and editor for the popular Yahoo! group and blog, Education in Japan, witnessed firsthand the importance of education in the days following the March 11 Tohoku earthquake, when the sensationalized headlines of foreign media and lack of reliable information turned her website into a lifeline for many members.

The Yahoo! group usually averages 190 new messages each month, but March saw over 900 exchanges, as members shared information, searched for reliable and accurate sources of guidance, and attracted the attention of nonmembers throughout the foreign community in Japan.

For Kawagoe, the earthquake and its aftermath reinforced her ideas on the goals of knowledge: “What is the goal of education? It has got to be related to real life, it must be practical; it’s about how we use the information we have, and what we choose to learn. Education is a lifelong practice or habit, and especially in a time like this, it is the best time to show our children the importance of education, of knowing things quickly and accurately, and to have the proper skills to use our knowledge.”

Kawagoe started gathering knowledge with an international focus from an early age. Raised in a mostly Malay section of Singapore where navigating multiple languages and cultures was the norm, she walked past Indian, Malay and Arab shopkeepers to reach her home beside a Chinese opera company in the neighborhood.

Kawagoe chattered in all the local dialects while shopping around town with her mother and studied French and English later at school. Such a multicultural and multilingual background helped lay the foundation for her work as a foreign policy analyst in international law for the Singapore government.

After turning down the opportunity to study education in England, Kawagoe focused on a career in criminal law in Singapore. “I loved everything to do with criminal law, and I really hankered after joining something like Amnesty International,” she admits. After graduating in 1989 with her law degree, Kawagoe worked for a few years in Singapore, but the law firm she joined had recently merged with a corporate law firm. “I would have had to handle property and conveyancing matters or shipping law, things I wasn’t really interested in.”

An avid traveler during summer vacations, Kawagoe moved to London to study for her master’s of law degree, specializing in international law. “The University of London network of colleges in the 1990s was really the intellectual hub of human rights, Amnesty, and for international law issues. It was also a hotbed of student activity,” she recalls.

Meanwhile, London and all of Europe were struggling with terrorist activity, with intensive IRA bombings in London. The first night Kawagoe moved into the international dormitory, there was an explosion at Paddington Station, the nearest to where she was staying.

Learning and living in a frontline area of social change propelled Kawagoe even more toward working for society. After completing her master’s, she returned to Singapore and promptly joined the foreign service. “It was easy to get a job actually, with my background as a lawyer,” Kawagoe admits, and soon focused her knowledge on foreign policy, research and U.N. international treaty work.

She first came to Japan on a program sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency while working for the Singaporean government. In Tokyo, she met her future husband, a Japanese taking part in the same JICA program. The two courted long-distance for a few years before chances arose for both of them to work in Hong Kong.

Kawagoe left her job in the government and used her experience and education to work in the media for two years. She helped in the startup of an American broadcasting company in Hong Kong. To Kawagoe, the work was similar, but with a different focus: “I started with research and reporting, and later moved up to production. All my work experience has been to do with sifting through information, processing what is happening now, evaluating the sources.”

After a few years in Hong Kong, now married with one child, Kawagoe’s husband suggested the family move to Japan, and she agreed. It was not immediately a smooth transition.

For someone accustomed to blending easily in a multicultural world, Chiba Prefecture of 1999 proved a new kind of challenge. As a non-Japanese speaker, navigating kindergarten and public schooling posed the greatest challenges. “It was difficult to find any sort of resource in English on the Japanese education system at first. You move into a community that is all Japanese-speaking, and in those days it was quite uncommon, if you lived outside of Tokyo or Yokohama, to find another foreign face.”

Kawagoe immediately searched for ways to help her children’s language acquisition. “It was never an option not to be bilingual for my children. It is really better if they are trilingual in Chinese as well, but it has been difficult finding resources. I still hope they will pick it up. They do have the interest, but it is always on the back burner, waiting to be moved up.”

While her children started at Japanese public school, she began researching ways to after-school at home in English. As she used her skills of research and writing, Kawagoe decided to share her experiences and gather knowledge by starting an educational newsletter and later the Yahoo! group.

She made connections with other after-school homeschooling, bilingual parents in Japan, including Katherine Combs, an American who had started website, Homeschooling in Japan. The two joined forces, Kawagoe adding her educational newsletter to the Homeschooling site, while Combs used Kawagoe’s Yahoo! group link to share information about homeschooling activities or planned outings.

When Combs moved back to the United States in the early part of the 2000s, the combined site had grown significantly. The two sites decided to split off once more, with Kawagoe keeping the general, educational topics forum, while another homeschooling connection, Angela Bartlett from Nagasaki, continued the Homeschooling site to discuss specific topics relating to curriculum and guidance in homeschooling.

Kawagoe added the Education in Japan blog in 2008, and the amount of information and pooled resources sometimes surprises even herself. “We’re receiving over 500 hits a day on our Community Blog, and the Yahoo! group continually engenders lively and intimate discussions. Education is always going to be important, to parents and researchers, to teachers and administrators, and ultimately, for the children themselves.”

She has been approached several times about the possibility of turning the online resources into book form. For now, with her two children in local school, running the online blog and forum is enough, without taking too much time from her children’s bilingual education. “Obviously when kids are going to school full time, it is hard to add extra work on the side. Kids baulk, since they don’t want to do extra studying, but it pays off after a few years. My kids are beginning to be proud of their ability to read and write in English.”

In the wake of the March earthquake, Education in Japan site members found a quick response that put all of Kawagoe’s education and experience to the test: “Being foreigners, many members were in the dark as to what was happening. It was imperative to have access to information in English, so we began translating TV and news announcements as they were broadcast or we put up press releases, posted notices from the various embassies or transcripts from various sources, including Tokyo Electric Power Co. or International Atomic Energy Agency reports. We solicited advice from experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nuclear division. All the members shared information quickly and pooled resources from all over, even before local newspapers — my role was only to facilitate.”

To Kawagoe, the most important part of education is how you use it: “Many of us have put so much into our lives here, we’ve invested in our kids, in education, in businesses. We talk a lot about education for our kids, but we as parents, first and foremost, must educate ourselves on the reality of the crisis we are facing.”

For more information, see the Education in Japan blog at www.educationinjapan.wordpress.com