Japan: Seminar Study-Tour

By Johnston, Joseph S., Jr.; Erstling, Jay et al. | Liberal Education, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Japan: Seminar Study-Tour


Johnston, Joseph S., Jr., Erstling, Jay, Schull, Charles L., Howard, Alycia Vince, Liberal Education


The Fall 1998 issue of Liberal Education (Volume 84, No. 4) featured AAC&U's 1998 Faculty and Curriculum Development Seminar on Japan funded by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the U.S. Department of Education's Center for International Education, In the Fall issue article, the seminar leader and three participants reflected on the seminar's first phase of extensive reading and on-line discussion. This work had prepared them for the seminar's second phase-a three-week seminar study-tour. The present article features the thoughts of three more faculty participants on those intense and rewarding weeks in the country itself. A third and final article, in the next issue of Liberal Education, highlights the new courses, within and across many disciplines, that are resulting from this initiative.

Jay Erstling participant

"I CAN'T WAIT TO TELL my students about that!" Throughout our three weeks in Japan, I repeated this phrase countless times. While I have spent much time in Asia, I had never visited Japan. What I taught in my classes came only from secondary sources and the stories other people told. I wanted to convey my own images and stories, and I feel immensely fortunate that the Japan study tour provided just that. The Japan Seminar has markedly increased my confidence as a teacher and enriched my teaching about Japan.

My discipline is Business Law, and the courses I teach deal primarily with employment, international, and intellectual property law. Although I have yet to offer a course devoted exclusively to Japan (my St. Thomas colleagues and I are currently developing one), Japanrelated material plays a role in all my classes. When I embarked on the study tour, my intention was to uncover stories that focused narrowly on Japanese law and legal process. My Japan Seminar travel mates, who brought a wealth of diverse knowledge that they eagerly shared, soon made me realize how flawed my approach was. With their help, I saw that the true value of the images and stories I wanted to bring back would lie not so much in what they said about the substance of Japanese law, but rather what they revealed about Japanese society and the role law plays in it.

The study tour created privileged opportunities not only to learn from knowledgeable individuals and explore important sites, but also to examine interpersonal relations and styles, communication patterns, ideas of aesthetics and space, notions of hospitality and graciousness, and other aspects of Japanese culture. By focusing on the broader context, I gained insights and perspectives that no amount of reading could duplicate. Sharing those insights and perspectives with students has proven to be one of the greatest benefits the Japan Seminar has provided.

Two of the stories and images now form part of my teaching "portfolio." Both concern communication issues, and at the same time, I believe, reveal important lessons about the law.

Among the very talented speakers with whom we met, two of the most outstanding were Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow, a professor of women's studies, and Glen Fukushima, president of the Japanese-American Chamber of Commerce. Both are about as bicultural as anyone can be, and both possess the rare ability to point out aspects of Japanese society in terms that American visitors can easily grasp and understand. Their presentations were fact-filled and enormously helpful. What struck me, however, was not only the substance of their talks, but also how they began them. Despite the fact that both speakers are recognized experts in their fields, each started with a self-introduction made up of disclaimers, apologies, and statements of her/his limitations. I could not imagine any speaker in the United States, including myself, starting a talk with such genuinely humble expressions. We had all read about differences in Japanese and U.S. communication styles and how those differences reflect notions of oneself and one's place in society. …

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