Building bridges across continents and cultures

by Kendall Manlove

Twelve Japanese elementary-school students gathered at Yoyogi Elementary School in central Tokyo on Saturday, May 10, to play games, cooperate with and learn a little about a similar group of students at an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea via Webcam on the Internet.

They did this despite being hundreds of kilometers away, not to mention being unable to speak each other’s language. The body that sponsored the activity, Pangaea, named after a prehistoric super-continent, is a nonprofit organization located in Aoyama, Tokyo, whose mission is to develop bonds between children that transcend language and cultural divides.

The students warmed up with a game of koetsuna, or “vocal tug of war,” in which groups of children shout into microphones and the louder group wins. This got the students to relax.

The Japanese students then introduced themselves in Korean, and the Korean students reciprocated in Japanese. A variety of games followed requiring teamwork between competing groups of students on either side of the Webcam. In one game, as students tried to guess what item their online counterpart would choose to correspond to a certain color, they had to try to think like each other.

Pangaea’s origins could not have been more dramatic. Yumiko Mori, who was visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on business, and Toshiyuki Takasaki, a researcher at MIT, were scheduled to fly on United Airlines Flight 93 to attend a conference in San Francisco on Sept. 10, 2001, when their meeting was rescheduled. The next day, UA93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after being hijacked. The events spurred Mori and Takasaki to create Pangaea in August 2003 in an effort to combat what they saw as rising intolerance of cultural diversity and xenophobia that is common the world over.

Pangaea aims to combat these problems by bridging the communication gap between people who do not speak the same language and have never met.

“Pangaea is a scaffolding for communication, and its aim is to plant the seeds of cultural understanding,” Takasaki said.

While they worked to establish Pangaea, Mori and Takasaki traveled around the world, interviewing many university professors and students, UNESCO employees and others working in the education industry.

However, when they explained that they were from MIT, people they met saw their efforts through the lens of Americanization. Feedback was much more positive when they emphasized their Japanese background, which spurred them to locate their organization in Tokyo instead of Boston. In 2003, they opened offices in Tokyo, and then they established a research and development center in Kyoto. In 2006, Pangaea opened activity centers outside Japan, in Seoul and Nairobi, Kenya, funded by individual donations, and grant money received from organizations such as UNESCO, as well as various countries.

There are two basic kinds of activity: closed text-message style communication and real-time activities. SMS communication is done through “pictons,” pictograms that convey information similar to emoticons in text messages. Pangaea has developed a vast range of pictons to convey a variety of different emotions.

As Takasaki explained: “Our goal is not to deliver specific information but to foster respect and heart-to-heart communication. When students view messages, we want them to try and see them from another person’s perspective.”

Since communication is limited by language differences, live activities are based around actions that can replace verbal conversation but still cultivate a sense of cooperation and empathy. The real-time activities between students in Japan and Korea are aimed at fostering this sense of community.

Pangea’s next step is to expand into countries in Europe. They have also established a Pangaea community site in which Pangaea’s volunteers and staff can communicate with one another and share ideas, although in this instance communication is not through pictons but through machine translation.

Takasaki is excited about Pangaea’s future prospects. He recently read a published correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud in the early 1930s in which Freud argued that war was in man’s instinct, and was thus inevitable. Einstein disagreed, arguing that humans could be socialized and could change. “I want to believe Einstein,” Takasaki said.