Internet NPO links kids worldwide

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Earlier this month, when the nation’s Olympic bid ambassador Christel Takigawa referred to “omotenashi” (the spirit of Japanese-style hospitality) in her speech to the International Olympic Committee, the term quickly turned into a buzzword in Japan.

Now that Tokyo’s preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics are in full swing, one of its urgent tasks, it seems, is to get its citizens to open up to people from different cultures, with 8.5 million visitors, many from abroad, expected to flood the city during the Games. Can Tokyoites be truly welcoming hosts, demonstrating their deep and sincere hospitality?

A Kyoto-based NPO called Pangaea, which offers Net-based, real-time exchanges among children across different cultures, shows exactly the kind of first-hand, cross-cultural experiences that the nation’s children need more of to prepare for such challenges. The group, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has allowed children aged 9 to 15 and coming from various different cultures to nurture their curiosity in — and friendly feelings for — each other, without having to travel tens of thousands of kilometers or learn a whole new language. Instead, they offer what it calls a “universal playground” on the Internet.

The group has built a network of facilities that host exchanges, connecting children from four locations in Japan (Tokyo, Chiba, Kyoto and Mie prefectures) with those gathered at museums in Seoul, Vienna, Nairobi and Kuching, Malaysia. More than 6,000 children have participated in the Pangaea activities so far.

One of the unique tools of Pangaea, run by ex-MIT Media Lab researchers Yumiko Mori and Toshiyuki Takasaki, is the set of 524 pictograms it has developed. Children can convey their feelings and ideas using these pictograms, called Pictons, as they exchange greeting cards online.

Where verbal communication is needed, the group offers automatic translation, utilizing the Language Grid software developed by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology and run by a team of researchers headed by Toru Ishida, professor of social informatics at Kyoto University. The Language Grid, an open-source network of 142 public and private-sector automatic translation software/online dictionaries from 17 countries, has also proved helpful for staff and volunteers of Pangaea to communicate as they organize the workshops for children. Using the technology, which is available for free for non-profit use, children halfway across the globe can exchange short messages, which are automatically translated on computer screens, in a matter of seconds. They also play games together, using webcams.

One of the games is to guess objects associated with certain colors, such as apples for red and lemons for yellow. If a group of children accurately guess what their partners overseas have guessed, they get points.

“The children have only one rule to follow (when communicating), which is not to do things that they think other children wouldn’t like,” Mori says. “Through these games, children naturally pick up the ability to imagine what (children from other cultures) think and begin to empathize with them. Most importantly, they develop the need to be liked.”

Mori adds that it’s extremely important for young people in Japan to cultivate such feelings early on in life, especially since she has perceived an increase in intolerance toward other cultures, which has resulted in more hate speech.

Pangaea’s activities have proved extremely effective in removing the psychological barriers between children from different backgrounds, Mori says. The group polls every participant before and after the activities on their feelings toward those they communicate with. In July 2009, for example, 21 children from Kyoto were polled on their attitudes toward Malaysia and its people before participating in a webcam activity with children from that country. Fifty-two percent said their feelings were “neutral,” while 38 percent said they “liked” Malaysians. Five percent said they “liked Malaysians very much,” while the remaining five percent replied that they “disliked” them. After the activity, however, the percentage of kids who said they liked Malaysia and Malaysians “very much” shot up to 52 percent, followed by 24 percent who said they “liked” them and another 24 percent who said they were “neutral.” No one from the group said they disliked Malaysians.

Another survey done with South Korean children in June this year produced even more drastic results. Before the webcam activity, 42 percent of 25 children polled said their feelings toward Japan and the Japanese were neutral, followed by 29 percent who liked them. As much as 17 percent, though, replied that they disliked Japanese, surpassing the 8 percent who said they liked Japan very much. What’s more alarming, the remaining 4 percent had replied that they “disliked” Japanese “very much.” After the activity, however, 63 percent turned out to say they liked Japanese, followed by 25 percent who said they liked Japanese very much. The other 13 percent said they were neutral on Japan, but there was none among the children who replied that they hated Japan.

Mori says Pangaea plans to set up an exchange point in Brazil next year, in time for the next Summer Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. It also plans to host a two-night camp for Japanese and non-Japanese children in the Kashiwanoha area of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, where large-scale, next-generation property development projects are underway.

“In seven years’ time, children who are participating in our activities will be 17 to 23 years old,” Mori says. “Some of them might participate in the Olympics as volunteers, if not athletes. It’s very important to lay the groundwork for Tokyo to welcome visitors from all around the world, and to let them enjoy the city, on a person-to-person level.”