There probably aren’t many English teachers in Japan who go to work carrying a samurai sword, dressed in battle armor, with a large Stars and Stripes strapped to their back. But happily for Chris Flesuras, in 3-D virtual world Second Life little is impossible.

In real life, Flesuras works at Kyoto Gakuen High School, but his Second Life alter ego Flo Federal resides on Pacific Rim Exchange Island, an online project between his employer and sister schools in the city of Modesto, Calif.

Since the start of the Japanese academic year in April, around 50 U.S. and Japanese students and 20 teachers have been sharing the specially constructed virtual island. They are working on joint projects in preparation for a planned visit to Japan by the U.S. students next April.

“There are many things we hope the (Japanese) students will get from the program: Improving their English skills, learning how to build 3-D objects, and collaborating amongst themselves and the American students,” says Flesuras.

The Pacific Rim Exchange Island is on Teen Second Life, an under-18s section of the virtual world. Stan Trevena, Director of Technology for Modesto City Schools, is helping the U.S. students start using the program. A Second Life pioneer himself, he helped test the first commercial version in 2003. At that time there were just a few thousand people in the world.

“Friendships form fast and they are as real as normal friendships,” says Trevena. “It is often easier to get to know someone in a virtual setting than in real life.”

He hopes that the Japanese and U.S. students will able to make friends online before they meet in person.

Claudia L’Amoreaux, a community developer at Linden Labs, is just as enthusiastic about the project.

“Pacific Rim Exchange is the first project working with teens on intercultural exchange. It’s a beautiful project,” she says. “We look forward to hearing what they learn. They are pioneering new territory.”

In fact, the students aren’t the only people bridging continents via the virtual world. The whole of Second Life is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan; now more than half of its 7 million inhabitants are from outside the U.S., including 140,000 from Japan.

One resident, Japanese artist Koji Saiki, has been on Second Life since June 2006, using the somewhat improbable moniker of Randy Kamaboko. He designs temples, houses and gardens for private and corporate clients from all over the world. Pictures of his creations decorate the virtual office where we chat.

“It’s borderless,” says Saiki. “It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual or a company, you can compete in exactly the same space. Real-world walls don’t exist here, and age doesn’t matter.”

Elsewhere in the online world, Dithean Ringo (her in-world name) shows me around a virtual Heian-Period palace she and her husband have re-created in cyberspace. After proudly showing off a standing screen decorated with calligraphy, she leads me to a gorgeous cherry blossom tree in the garden (it’s always spring in Second Life).

The palace must have taken some time to program? I ask.

“We enjoy the Heian era, and don’t want to misrepresent Japanese culture. So we take our time,” she says.

According to Dithean, around half of the visitors to their palace are Japanese. They are usually “astounded,” she says.

To many Second Life inhabitants, the vast virtual world is about the biggest thing to happen to the Internet since the birth of the Worldwide Web itself. Owned and run by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, its population has doubled since the beginning of this year. The metaverse’s booming economy of land, goods and services is kept moving with a supply of 2.6 billion Linden dollars ($9.6 million).

Could Second Life be about to become mainstream in the way that the Internet did a decade or so ago?

“Yes, I think it has many similarities to the birth of the Worldwide Web,” says Claudia L’Amoreaux, as we sip on cups of virtual green tea on an island belonging to Linden Labs. “This is the birth of the 3-D Web.”

Chris Flesuras says he is looking forward to seeing what his students will do with the world.

“I think that the kids will appreciate the freedom that Second Life offers them. It’s exciting to be able to create anything you want without any limitations.”

He describes how one of the American students has already constructed a catapult capable of flinging himself halfway across the island.

“Just the stuff that Stan and I have come up with is pretty impressive, yet it’s nothing compared to what the kids will eventually make.”

He has another story about how the students have progressed in the virtual world. When one Japanese student wanted to get hold of an in-world computer translating machine he asked the American students for help in his best broken English. Two pupils from the U.S. school led him to a place where he could get the tool, then spent about 10 or 15 minutes explaining how to click, copy and activate the translation device.

“All this was done in English, of course,” recalls Flesuras, “and by the time the Kyoto Gakuen student finally got what he wanted, he decided he didn’t need it after all.”

The facts of the ‘metaverse’

1. Second Life is an attempt to create a “metaverse” virtual world similar to the one described in the Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.”

2. Unlike other such virtual worlds, Second Life is completely built and owned by its residents.

3. Users can make objects, build houses, or edit the appearance of their “avatar” personae.

4. The entire world, populated by 7 million avatars, is owned and run by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, which has just 31 employees.

5. Transactions within Second Life take place using Linden dollars. One U.S. dollar is approximately L$270.

6. In 2005 a Second Life space station was reportedly bought for $100,000 (in real U.S. dollars).

7. Second Life has a parody site at www.getafirstlife.com. “First life is a 3-D analog world where server lag does not exist,” the site boasts.

8. Upper House lawmaker Kan Suzuki recently opened a campaign office in the metaverse. It is not clear whether this is legal, as Japanese election law doesn’t even allow election campaigning on the regular Internet.

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