Before teacher Paul MacLeod left the U.S. to visit Japan, his students gave him some advice.
“They were telling me all kinds of crazy things,” he said, “like to be careful because in Japan people eat dog and that they have a custom of burping loudly after a meal.” He laughed, then added that the students at his rural Vermont school don’t get much exposure to other cultures.
“We don’t even have any African-American students at my school, much less any Asian or Japanese ones,” he said. “So they were a little misinformed.”
But after spending three weeks in Japan as part of the newly established Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, MacLeod has quite a lot to report back to his students about Japanese schools, society and culture. None of which includes dog sushi or belching fests.
The new Fulbright program brought 102 American teachers, two from each state and the District of Columbia, to Japan in June for a three-week study tour, during which the teachers visited schools, stayed briefly with a family, toured factories and attended various traditional performances. The program is intended to help counter an educational-exchange imbalance between the U.S. and Japan. According to the Education Ministry, 45,276 Japanese students were enrolled in American universities in 1995, while only 1,088 American students attended Japanese universities.
Not all the teachers were completely unfamiliar with Japan before arriving. One Minnesota teacher brought 1,000 paper cranes for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial that her students had made, while another from New York teaches at a predominantly Asian high school. Regardless of the varying levels of knowledge about Japan, most of the participants said during a debriefing session that they felt they had gained a better understanding of Japan and would be able to correct stereotypes in a more informed way.
But some also voiced concern that the program was too short to give them a completely accurate view. Samuel Shepherd, executive director of the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission, the coordinating body for all Fulbright programs in Japan, said that although the program was short, its intention was primarily to expose as many Americans to Japan and the Japanese education system as possible.
“There is a tradeoff between bringing Americans here on long-term programs and introducing large numbers of Americans to Japan,” he said. “Of course, we would like them all to stay for a year, but it is still very valuable to have so many teachers, who have so much influence over others, exposed to Japan.”