Japanese lessons: an American learns to value a culture of cooperation

How living in Japan taught this teacher to value sharing, cooperation

March 26, 2011|By Heather Rogers Haverback

When I heard that another earthquake had rocked the land near where I had lived and taught in Japan, my heart sank. I could not help but think of all of my kind colleagues, students and friends in that small village. While I am now removed from that portion of the world and that part of my life, my appreciation of the Japanese and their ways remains at my core.

Throughout my year of living in a Japanese village on the coast of Toyama, I was referred to daily as a gaijin, or alien. While I was never offended by this term, I often wanted to be a part of the culture that was so foreign to me. I watched as the community worked together as a family. I was amazed to learn that if I left an umbrella by the train, it would be there in a week when I returned for it. Their society is based on respect and pride. If one were to let oneself down, one also let down one's family and ancestors.

Therefore, as I have watched the amazing coverage of the tragedy in Japan, I have not been at all surprised by the gentle and collaborative behaviors that have abided. I have heard some discuss the fact that there has not been any reported looting or stealing. In fact, while many are waiting for limited amounts of life-supporting water and food, they are standing patiently in lines and helping those around them. The elderly and children are being cared for by strangers, who are treating them as family. Despite heartbreak and loss, those fortunate to have survived are putting aside their fear and pain while taking charge and caring for those who need them — be it strangers or kin.

This attitude resonated in the classrooms where I taught, as well. As a sensei — a teacher — I was revered. I was invited to the houses of my students as an honored dinner guest. Some of my neighbors would excitedly invite me to participate in family holidays and celebrations. Students arrived at school ready to learn and started their days by bowing and thanking me for teaching them. Lunch consisted of students and teachers cooking, serving, eating and cleaning up together. Likewise, parents were involved in events before, during and after school. Their educational culture is truly made up of team players; all are ready and willing to enable the Japanese children to learn.

In the United States, we are often told to "do what feels right." In Japanese society, by contrast, doing the right thing for the group comes before doing what feels right as an individual. After watching the grace with which the Japanese have handled such a catastrophe, my thoughts turn to the lessons we can learn from this tragedy. While I am not suggesting that Japanese society is infallible, I do feel that we could learn a thing or two from their handling of the recent series of disasters, as well as their attitude toward education.

By coming together and working cooperatively, life may become a bit more remarkable and meaningful for each of us. I admire, love and cherish my individuality — a value that is reinforced by American culture. But from time to time, I attempt to do what is "alien" to me, and I resurrect some of the lifestyle lessons I learned in Japan. I try to slow down, allow others to go first, and always try to give the same amount of time to teach my students as I would my own child.

Unfortunately, it has taken a tsunami, and earthquake and a nuclear crisis to remind me of my past life as a gaijin and that there is a better way to live and give. I have no doubt that the Japanese will once again use this collaborative outlook, found in their national sense of respect and pride, to rebuild their lives and their society.

Heather Rogers Haverback is an assistant professor of elementary education in the College of Education at Towson University. Her email is hrogers476@aol.com.

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