College head finds magic where he can

Rev. Frank Howell of Sophia Junior College instrumental in developing debate teams in Japan


The Rev. Frank Howell, president of Sophia Junior College, Catholic priest, educator and debate team coach, finds serenity in an unexpected location amid the bustle of his busy life. He hops a train and heads to another land — Tokyo Disneyland.

It may seem strange that a Jesuit priest finds solace in such a glaring representation of the material world, but for Father Howell, Disney really is a Magic Kingdom.

“Of course it is staged,” Howell acknowledges. “But you are surrounded by smiling people, and that has to be good for you.”

Howell also appreciates the compassion that is a traditional part of Disney. “The first time I went to Tokyo Disneyland, I was amazed how the staff focused on the front row, all the people in the audience in wheelchairs. The kindness was impressive.”

For Howell, Disney and Japan are somehow connected. He was given a special backstage tour of Disney Studios in California soon before leaving the United States for Japan back in 1972.

When he was growing up in Washington in the 1950s, Disney and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a popular television show for children featuring the Mouseketeers, were a symbol of childlike innocence. When his 1972 tour brought him face to face with the most famous Mouseketeer of all, Annette Funicello, Howell’s appreciation of “Disney Magic” deepened.

A few months later he left home to make a life in Tokyo.

Teaching in Japan, Howell quickly realized, was not always a magic place for university teachers. University students were mostly tired from the hard slog of entrance exams, and their intellectual curiosity seemed to evaporate when they entered a classroom.

Some of his students slept in class, and attendance was sporadic. Howell found himself engaged with and challenged by his new students only after he started coaching English debate as a club activity.

To challenge his students intellectually has always fit his idea of an educator. Growing up and attending school in an international community in the U.S. capital, Howell realized early on that there were many avenues of thought.

“My father would read The Washington Post to me, articles about the Pacific War. I had the idea that Washington was the center of a very big place called the world.”

Like Howell, most of his high school classmates went on to achieve doctorates. Exploring the world, its different places and views, seemed the work of an educator to young Howell.

He now considers himself more of a coach than an educator.

“I regret that most Japanese academics do not work with clubs; the educational possibilities are so much greater in coaching, any kind of coaching, than in standing in the classroom.”

Howell instantly noticed the difference. What he would say in the classroom at 3 p.m. would barely register, but when he said it again that night to the Debate Club, his students listened.

“Club teams are competitive. The Waseda students don’t want to lose to the Keio students. They are willing to put in a lot of work to make it difficult for the other good students to beat them. And they become good friends through the competitive process.”

Howell kept getting more involved in debate, setting up regional organizations, working as a judge and teacher after the practice matches, and coaching students about their use of evidence and arguments throughout the university debate league.

He traveled all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Fukuoka, for debate tours and tournaments. He also reintroduced an international debate exchange with an American university forensic league.

“It was very tricky; late ’70s, no cell phones, staying up late at night, convincing parents it was OK to travel overseas. It’s now approaching almost 40 years of exchange.”

Howell believes the American education system is more geared toward debate, with multiple leagues and a high school classroom style that emphasizes students’ analytical skills.

“The ordinary Japanese high school classroom is one-directional, and they do not ask students for what Americans would call analytical skills. Teachers ask for essays about students’ feelings, but say, presenting the manifesto of two political parties and comparing and contrasting, analyzing the good points or bad points — it’s not on the entrance exams, so it seems to be completely bypassed in typical Japanese high school education.”

Japanese university students, however, “catch on fast.” Because most of the debate teams in Japan are student-managed, unlike in the U.S., the Japanese take on more responsibility for their own research and evidence, translating many documents from Japanese for use in English debate.

Universities have even started debate tours in Japanese. “My colleagues now, the champions I judged and worked with when I first came here, they have created a Japanese vocabulary for policy debate.”

Howell has also seen high schools in Japan start debate programs, although the process is still “babyfied” compared with other countries where debate is considered an important skill.

Not much else has changed in his 30-plus years as an educator and coach in Japan, except a few superficial points: “When I first came, the air in Tokyo was dirty, but now it is clean. I was the tallest person on the subway, but that is no longer the case.”

The students, however, and the people he works with at Sophia University’s campus in Yotsuya, Tokyo, and the campus of Sophia Junior College in Hadano, Kanagawa Prefecture, are still the same kind of people he met when he first came to Japan. “What the students in the clubs did in the ’70s is the same thing they did yesterday or last week. They are their mothers’ sons and daughters.”

Howell appreciates this sameness, the immutability of human nature. “Form and reverence are important here in Japan, from morning to night. Some people come over looking for enlightenment. They go sit painfully in temples and such, but there is something simpler than that here. To be a good, polite, well-mannered Japanese, is in many ways the same as a believing person, believing in something, that there is a right way to do things.”

Although he has no official duties as a priest, he “makes opportunities to serve.”

“I spent a long time to be a priest, so I want to help,” said Howell, who frequently volunteers to celebrate early morning Mass and fills in whenever he can at the small church in Hadano near the junior college.

As an educator, he especially appreciates the chance to work with the women of Sophia Junior College. The only major offered by the women’s college is English, but the school provides many submajors and seminars. Most of the women focus on English education, and their attitude reflects their eagerness to learn. “In Yotsuya, everyone fills up the back seats first, but in Hadano, the opposite occurs. The women arriving first always fill up the front seats.”

This thirst for knowledge and appreciation for open discussion and debate explains Howell’s success as an educator and coach. For him, the world remains a magic kingdom, ready to be explored with ever hopeful possibilities.