City Front: ‘We learn, and they learn’

Hebrew U students are bringing Japan to Jerusalem high schools.

Japan tsunami 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Japan tsunami 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Some 70 ninth graders at the Seligsberg High School in Armon Hanatziv experienced a poignant moment of crosscultural perspective Tuesday.
As Japanese-language and culture undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of East Asian Studies at the Hebrew University were using the iconic woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” to teach about the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that engulfed the city of Kensai and the Fukushima nuclear power plant north of Tokyo on March 11, the clock struck 11 – and the entire school stopped to observe five minutes of silence in recognition of the five years Gilad Schalit has been held prisoner in Gaza.
The sobering moment – a yin-yang paradox of the macro and the micro – helped the students understand the 10,000 dead in Japan by looking at the fate of a single individual.
Though the program of teaching about Japan in Jerusalem high schools, now in its second year, includes an introduction to the island nation’s geography, history and culture, “We decided to focus today on the earthquake and tsunami,” explained Hadas Kushelevich, 27, now studying for her MA in political science after earning her BA in Japanese studies at the Hebrew University.
Using visual presentations and videos, and incorporating typical elements of Japanese traditional and popular culture, including folding origami cranes, using chopsticks and writing calligraphy, Kushelevich and her fellow Hebrew University tutors encourage Jerusalem youth to envision a society that is both sophisticated yet radically different from the West and Israel, she continued. “We learn, and they learn,” she noted.
The program, which began in December 2009 with eight outstanding students volunteering in seven Jerusalem high schools, has been expanded to today include a dozen Japanese tutors at 10 area schools.
For Dr. Nissim Otmazgin of the university’s Department of East Asian Studies – whose Tokyo-born wife works as a tour guide here specializing in tourists from Japan – the interest of Israelis in the Orient seems natural. “We hope to invigorate the interest of high school students to learn more about Japan through interactive presentations given by outstanding university students from the Department of East Asian Studies,” he said.
“We in Israel tend to look only to the West as a source of learning.
But there are some good things to learn from East Asia.
Japan and China are, after all, the world’s biggest economies following the US, and I think that in an age of globalization we will see more and more from them and increasingly feel their presence – not only their economic impact but also their cultural and political impacts.”
One of the student teachers in the program, Daniel Prag, believes it is important to teach high-school students about Japan because it allows them a peek into a culture about which their knowledge is usually superficial and stereotypical and introduces the students to the academic world.
“I believe Israelis are very exposed to Asian culture. But most of their knowledge about Japan concerns sushi, martial arts and auto-manufacturing companies. I couldn’t help but notice that in many schools students used ‘China’ and ‘Japan’ interchangeably,” he said. “This program is very important in promoting slightly deeper cultural understanding and exchange, deepening awareness of Asia among Israelis, and ultimately contributing to the betterment of Israeli-Asian relations.”