I was a little nervous when we went to pick up my son, who was returning from an extended stay in the Japanese countryside. He’s 13, an age when kids go through tremendous physical and emotional changes. There have been days when he was a different person at dinner than he was at breakfast. And when he left, he was in one of those adolescent moods that seemed to say he’d rather be anywhere than with his family. What would he be like after two weeks away?
When he came through the ticket wicket at Tokyo Station, he was at least 3 cm taller. Everything on him smelled of mildew — there had been record rainfalls where he was staying. But something else was different about him, too. As I tried to figure out what it was, I asked him about the highlights of his trip.
“Chopping wood with an ax,” he said enthusiastically. “And whacking weeds with a scythe, and shooting thumbtacks into a log with a slingshot!” Do you detect a theme there? I did: “Fun with Sharp and Perilous Objects.” When I pointed this out, my son regaled me with more tales of danger.
“My home stay family gave me half a dozen rocket hanabi (firecrackers). I lit them all at once, and they made such a big explosion I thought I’d blown my ears off!” He grinned happily. “And once I was walking down the middle of the road, which is perfectly OK because there are no cars out there, when I felt something squish under my foot. I looked down just in time to see a huge, poisonous snake bite my shoe.” My son paused, as if he’d suddenly remembered he was speaking to his mother and ought to break the news gently: “I’m pretty sure I would have died if I’d been barefoot.”
Readers who saw my column in June may recall we decided to send my son on a sanson ryugaku program, in which city kids go to rural schools to experience life in the countryside. The normal stay is one year, but we made special arrangements so my son could go for two weeks during his summer vacation. His international school breaks earlier for the summer than its Japanese counterparts, so classes were still in session at his destination: a very small town in Niigata Prefecture.
The sanson ryugaku system started about 30 years ago, the brainchild of an educator who believed city kids needed to experience agricultural life and nature. The concept gradually spread throughout Japan to more than 150 rural communities. To date, approximately 6,000 city kids have spent a year or more at rural schools.
The purpose is to get kids away from passive activities like watching television and playing video games, and give them hands-on, outdoor experiences so they can develop confidence and problem-solving skills. This is one way of building what’s referred to in educational circles as ikiru chikara (power for living) — something that modern children are said to lack.
Sanson ryugaku offers benefits to the host community as well, including promoting understanding of agriculture among city folk and providing some much needed diversity in local schools. Throughout Japan, small towns and villages are suffering from the double whammy of shoshika (fewer children per family) and kasoka (depopulation caused by young people moving away to cities). Some rural communities have started sanson ryugaku programs in the hope that it will bring new residents into the area, but there is no evidence to support this theory. “You have to bring in entire families if you want to reverse depopulation,” one official explained to me. “You can’t bring in just the kids.”
But even one or two kids on a sanson ryugaku program can offer benefits to the host school. In the little town my son visited, there are only 23 pupils in the local elementary school. Parents and teachers worry that the group is too small for good academic and social development. Children need to interact with different kinds of people in order to understand themselves and learn how to get along with others. The concern is that such rural kids won’t be able to cope when they enter broader society for work or university if it’s the first time they’ve ever come across someone unlike them.
My son visited the local schools so he could see what rural schooling is like, and to provide some kokusai koryu (international exchange). He said the students were really shy with him at first — not sure what to make of a blue-eyed boy who speaks fluent Japanese but acts and thinks very differently from kids who have spent their entire lives in the mountains of Niigata. The most challenging visit, he said, was to the middle school: “I had to stand up in front of an entire class and answer their questions in English,” he said. “It was really hazukashii (embarrassing)!”
I asked my son whether he was able to promote international understanding in a brief school visit. He thought for a while. “I really surprised them that I don’t like ketchup,” he said finally. Huh? “Well, they thought all Americans love ketchup, but there was ketchup on something in the school lunch and I wouldn’t eat it. That made them think about stereotypes.”
I explained the concept of ikiru chikara, and asked my son if he thought he’d gained any “power for living” on the trip.
“I guess these two weeks taught me I can live without my family. And it gave me the confidence that I could survive if I was suddenly shipped off to, like, Spain or Korea.”
Spain or Korea? Did he want to be shipped off to Spain or Korea?
“No,” he said. “I like it here at home.” For a brief moment, I thought he was going to give me a hug, but adolescent boys don’t hug their mothers. “Actually,” he said instead, “the best part of going away was coming home to my family.”
Hands-on experiences, encounters with danger and a renewed appreciation of home. That sounds like “power for living” to me.