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Reflections from Japan

July 16, 2010

Toyko, Japan

I have never been a very good artist.

I was the kid in elementary school who, despite my best efforts, struggled to draw anything recognizable.  I recall inconclusive complements like “How interesting” and “You use such nice colors,” and then encouragement to study the history of art rather than its application.

So I am definitely out of my comfort zone as I gaze at the delicate hand made paper, porcelain vessel of freshly poured ink, and thin goat-hair brush before me on a desk at a middle school in Toyko, Japan.  Adding to my anxiety are the two energetic boys sitting on either side of me; self-appointed mentors eager to reverse the student-teacher roles. Not yet well-versed in the art of building confidence, they keep looking at one another, down at my paper, up at me, and laughing hysterically.  I appear to be a particularly difficult pupil to learn traditional Japanese calligraphy.  But, I am an adult, a teacher, and presumably skilled in all things educational and artistic.  This ranking, however, is of no significance to my young friends.

Each dip of the pen in the ink, and stroke of the brush on the crisp paper, is rewarded with taps on my shoulder and a shaking of heads in the traditional “what in the world are you doing” fashion.

“No, no, not like that.  Watch me.  You must go slow and careful.”

With full command of the brush, and practiced simplicity, the boy on my left masterfully and lightly presents nuanced strokes on the paper, creating a beautiful symbol in a language I do not know.

“Just like this.  Now you.  Your turn.  Try.”

I try to match my master’s seemingly spontaneous strokes and product with intense concentration.  But, as I put down the brush, I only hear “Maybe we try easier word?”

We all laugh out loud in recognition that I am not an easy student to teach.

Being good teachers, however, my young friends do not give up.  Nodding in agreement, they suggest a new character.

“Freedom.  Let’s try freedom.  You can do that word I believe.”

So we start again and this time, as I put a final splash on my page, both boys smile at one another and then at me.

“Success,” the boy on my left says. “Yes, freedom is a success.”

For the past ten years, the Japanese Travel Bureau has invited the California Teachers of the Year to tour the country, learn about the Japanese education system, and exchange ideas about education policy and practices with teachers and administrators.  I may have been the designated leader of the 2010 California Teachers of the Year delegation, but I was just one of several equals who were graciously greeted by national education department ministers, regional superintendents, and local teachers, administrators, and students on our two week tour.

A few days before I left for Japan, one of my AP United States History students said to me, “I wonder how you’ll be greeted.  We dropped an atomic bomb on their country.  Do you think they still think about that?”  I know times and perspectives have changed.  Once bitter enemies are now close allies.  But you still wonder whether the passage of time can heal all wounds.  For instance, Americans now flock to Viet Nam as the new vacation destination, but it is hard to imagine ever forgetting the 9/11 attacks or forgiving those who inflicted them.

But, as the two middle school boys help me create a calligraphy masterpiece emboldened with the character for “Freedom,” I am struck once again by the welcoming innocence of young students, something I find on both sides of our world.  With warm smiles, we embrace, proving that the pen (calligraphy or otherwise), at least in Japan on this day, remains mightier than the sword.

In upcoming posts, I will write more about impressions and experiences from this trip.  To read the travel blog kept by the California Teachers of the Year as we traveled, visit

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