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Students get lesson in Japanese culture

By Ed Brock

With a shy giggle, Lovejoy Middle School 8th-grader Tiara Williams stood draped in a bright yellow "yukatta," the traditional Japanese summer kimono.

Keiko Scott, a representative with the "Japan Caravan" educational program sponsored by the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta, tightens the yukatta's purple patterned "obi," or sash belt. Scott is dressed in a conservative Western pants suit.

"Why did Japanese people abandon their traditional clothing?" asked one of Williams' classmates.

Scott, who has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years but who was born on the Japanese island of Kyushu, explained that the traditional clothes were simply too impractical for modern Japanese society.

"If I wear a kimono I don't think I can ride a bicycle," Scott said, adding that bicycles are a common form of transportation in Japan.

The Japan Caravan made a stop at Lovejoy Middle School Friday morning, brought there by Deserie Sanchez, an 8th grade reading teaching at the school and the school's multi-cultural chairwoman.

Sanchez saw Scott on a local television news program talking about the Japan Caravan program.

"I said oh, what a wonderful opportunity for the children to be exposed to another culture," Sanchez said.

This year being the 150th anniversary of the beginning of official diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan, Sanchez decided it was a perfect time for her students to study Japanese culture.

So in early December they began doing research on Japan and putting together various projects, writing papers and putting together displays including photos from Japan provided by students with family members who lived there. Posters of Japan lined the hallway when Scott came to visit.

As part of the Japan Caravan program, Scott goes to schools around the Atlanta area and presents a 1-hour PowerPoint presentation covering Japan's geography, culture and language. Friday's session began with the students telling Scott "Ohayo," pronounced like the name of the state Ohio.

That is the short, informal version of "Good morning" in Japanese. One of Scott's first points was to tell the children that, in Japanese, there is no one word for "Hello."

"Ohayo gozaimasu" is the long, formal version of "Ohayo," Scott told the students, while "Konnichi wa" means "Good day" and "Konban wa" (pronounced like cone-bonn-wa) means "Good evening."

As she dressed Williams in the yukatta, Scott explained that Japanese women still wear the kimono on special occasions, such as a wedding and for certain ceremonies. However, there are many layers to a kimono that make it difficult to put on and not very comfortable.

"Looking at them you would think they would be very comfortable," Lovejoy Middle School Principal Lee Casey said in surprise after Scott's presentation.

A kimono is also very expensive, Scott said, costing thousands of dollars.

After the presentation the students asked several other questions, such as what is the exchange rate between American dollars and Japanese yen and whether Japan has many foreign exchange programs. The exchange rate now is around 106 yen to the U.S. dollar, Scott said.

As for exchange programs, Scott said that there are many and she encouraged the students to look into the Japan Exchange Teacher Program after they graduate from college.

The JET Program recruits young college graduates from English speaking countries to assist the regular English teachers in their public schools. The program pays for the recruits' passage to and from Japan and provides them with a reasonable salary and lodging for the length of their 1-year contract that is renewable for up to three years.

While no schools in Henry County have yet invited the Japan Caravan to come to town, school system spokeswoman Cindy Foster said several principals have expressed an interest and may book the program in the future.

"We do have a lot of schools that are interested in diversity and study different cultures," Foster said. "Henry County is becoming more diverse."

Foster said that the percentage of Caucasian students in the county's schools went down from 81 percent to 65 percent between 1998 and 2003.

Scott said that most of the Japanese community in Atlanta live on the city's north side, but many live in Clayton County where several large Japanese companies are located, particularly around the airport.

"Georgia and Japan are big trading partners," Scott said.

Georgia leads the southeast in Japanese investment and is fourth in the country in the country in Japanese manufacturing, according to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office.