Educator wants credit given where credit is due

Author, professor, college president committed to changing Japanese educational system to fit the student


Dr. Kazuyuki Matsuo has a dream. He dreams of a different kind of education in Japan, where students receive credit for real-life experience, be it helping Indonesians rebuild primary schools, or digging wells in Tanzania. Matsuo dreams of a system where students are allowed to find their own places, circumventing a rigid system of grades and exams. The roots of this ideal can be traced to a different dream, forged in the 1960s in America. Matsuo worked in Washington, D.C. during this volatile time. As a self-admitted “glorious spy,” his official title was contract interpreter for the State Department.

Frequent visits to the White House, for state dinners or trade negotiations, colored the other, more mundane aspects of his job. Matsuo acted as a cultural liaison between Japan and the States to visiting Japanese officials, distrustful of America.

“Of course some of them wanted to go to Las Vegas, some of them Death Valley — so I ended up visiting all sorts of places.” It was the Nixon Years, and Matsuo witnessed a time and place that shaped a turning point in history: he admits it is one of his favorite periods, his own and America’s, as both are connected by more than his chosen profession.

Matsuo, currently a part-time professor of American history at Sophia University in Yotsuya, as well as the president of Tokyo Junshin Women’s College, is considered an expert on American history and culture.

One of his best-selling books, “Daitoryo no Eigo” (“President’s English”) analyzes the speeches of American presidents from JFK to GWB. His relationship with the United States started when he was a young child, newly escaped from Manchukuo, or manshuu-koku, with his family to rural Ishikawa Prefecture.

Matsuo holds clear memories of the American soldiers from his childhood: “Like everyone else in my generation, the American soldiers would come by and throw bags of candies, bags of chocolates. They were gentleman. Right from the beginning, I was taught by my own experiences, that Americans were good people.”

Matsuo and his family needed someone to admire, as they were marked as outsiders in Ishikawa, and conditions were harsh in postwar Japan.

Young Matsuo worked hard at school, and consistently found himself in academic battle with the son of one of the traditional, long-standing families in the village. Their rivalry escalated finally to a physical confrontation in their last year of primary school. “We hit, we kicked, we bit, and in this struggle, his back hit my nose, and at that time, I faintly smelled excrement. All of a sudden, with that smell, I realized, what am I doing in this tiny little village, this tiny little class, fighting who is No. 1 or No. 2?

“The Americans come from a different land — there is out there a bigger world, where people are supposed to be equal.” Matsuo calls this defining moment “the beginning of my journey to America, the land of Thomas Jefferson.”

In some ways, Matsuo’s search for an ideal world echoes his parents’ experiences in Manchukuo. His parents left Japan searching for a better way of living, and his father worked at the Manchuria library, teaching Chinese literature at Mukden University. As Matsuo recounts, “There were military generals, singers, spies, Chinese intellectuals in their circle; all of them had some kind of hope.” The unifying hope was a belief in gozoku-kyowa; that Manchurians, Mongolians, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese could live together in peace, “cooperate and build an idealistic nation. In reality, Japanese militarism was ruling the whole place, but they had a dream.”

His own dream of America did not exactly open doors for Matsuo here in Japan. He was pressured to attend the best university in the prefecture, but instead chose Sophia University, the “western university.” After graduation, he worked on documentaries at NHK, and after three years attracted the attention of the State Department. “It was ¥360 to $1 — I felt I would be a millionaire. Besides, I had this built-in idealism toward the United States, so I decided to quit my position at NHK. As you know, to quit such a position in Japan is an earth-shaking decision.”

Matsuo never looked back, despite the high cost of living in Washington reducing his salary considerably. Work in the State Department gave Matsuo rare experiences in American culture, and he eventually made another earth-shaking decision, to quit his now comfortable position and enroll in graduate school at Georgetown University.

Matsuo was surprised to hear his American colleagues at university repeatedly criticize the government, and seeing this great, rich, restless country from the perspective of a grown man, Matsuo accepted that the reality did not match his former ideals. “I noticed racial segregation and some kind of strange bigotry, but I was not shocked. I took it as part of human nature.

“Yet, as President Obama says, ‘what’s really important is what you believe in.’ There is no perfect equality in the States either, but if you believe there is a possibility of equality, then you can survive, and that is hope. I realized as a young man in the States: America is not an ideal country, yet as long as you have in your flag this sign of hope, you can survive, and learn how to compromise.”

Back in Japan, Matsuo had to learn how to compromise all over again, after over 10 years abroad. Together with his German wife — they met in Washington — Matsuo returned to Tokyo.

He accepted a teaching job at Sophia, and was soon asked to establish an American/Canadian Institute at the university.

Remembering his privileged knowledge from the interpreter years, Matsuo realized there was a huge fund of money, the U.S./Japan Friendship Foundation, secretly given to the United States in exchange for the return of the Okinawa Islands. Matsuo applied for, and received, yearly contributions for the American/ Canadian Institute, for several years after its inception.

Thus combining his experience and his knowledge, Matsuo learned how to find a balance again. “In front of my students at Sophia, I say, ’30 percent of you are kikoku shijyo, (children brought up overseas) and I am kikoku ojiisan (old man brought up abroad).’ I don’t really feel like a Japanese, yet I know I am not American or German, of course. This floating feeling . . . you don’t belong to any place.”

Later in life, Matsuo has realized this feeling is valuable, and one of the reasons he offers alternatives for his students. “In 2001, I traveled to the Himalayas, trekking in Nepal, and in 12 days I drifted into Tibet — along with British, Germans, ex-soldiers from Israel. There I remembered, the really great person is not from Tokyo University nor a high performer in a bank. What is really great, sitting tonight in the same lodge in the cafe and having beer, are the ones who have heart and fire.

“So world-wide, the people who do not belong anywhere, really belong to the world.”

Matsuo’s world has been shaped by the ideals and reality of Manchukuo, by the confines of Ishikawa, the hope of America, his life as a teacher and university president, and by his many travels. “The 1960s spirit is still alive in me, I was surprised to find,” he says, commenting on his commitment to changing Japan’s educational system.

From the scholar who wrote, “Everlasting Revolution in America,” it is not surprising at all.