Sun rises on a gentler culture

4th November 2005, 12:00am
Sam Gates


Sun rises on a gentler culture
Teacher Sam Gates was keen to learn about the expressive arts in other countries but learnt far more on a school trip to Japan

When I joined the staff of St Roch's Secondary in Glasgow, my first school trip was to Millport on Great Cumbrae, off the Ayrshire coast; 30 years later, my latest trip took me to Japan.

Of course, our horizons have changed over those years and international education has stepped into the frame.

A couple of colleagues had noticed that 2005 was the European Union-Japan year of cultural exchange and were very resourceful in finding a substantial amount of funding to make a school trip possible. I only climbed on board as the venture gained momentum.

Eighteen months ago, I was appointed head of the expressive arts faculty and was interested to see how music, art and drama were taught in other countries. I had heard about study visits funded by the British Council and Glasgow City Council. Edna Paterson, the officer for international education in Glasgow, suggested I could do my research in Japan, while providing additional support on the school's ambitious trip for a few fourth years.

I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture and wanted to convey to my students the importance of symbolism, ritual, contemplation, tradition and the Zen pursuit of paradise in the art of Japan as well as in facets of everyday life there. I organised pre-trip visits for the students to taiko drumming and a tea ceremony at Glasgow University, to a Japanese restaurant, even to a performance of Puccini's Madame Butterfly at the King's Theatre.

These visits were valuable; we started to develop a group spirit and began to use some simple Japanese phrases. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for Japan itself, for the sheer potency of its culture and for the overwhelming courtesy and hospitality of the people we met.

The term culture shock is widely abused but, being a Glesca wean, eating raw fish, sleeping on a futon in a Tokyo suburb, that's culture shock!

We were all tired and disorientated at first, but the sheer generosity of our hosts won us over quickly. The students and staff of Shibuya High in Tokyo laid on everything from a koto recital to a visit to Ameyoko, the original black market.

In Glasgow, I had imagined ushering my students around cool Zen gardens, sagely pointing out a pleasing composition of rocks here, a stray dragonfly there. I hadn't bargained for my nightmare moment, which came as I emerged with seven of my charges from a karaoke parlour into the hot, deafening, neon-lit, urban landscape that is early evening Tokyo. I needed their support more than they needed mine.

Another shock for me was finding out that Japanese teachers work longer hours in school (from around 8.30am to 5.30pm and most do six days a week) and have far fewer holidays than Scottish teachers (about two weeks a year). In addition, they give generously of their own time; school clubs are very popular, with waiting lists to join.

Shibuya High has a department of international education; every year, 10 15-to 16-year-olds are given year-long placements overseas to the UK, the United States, Australia, France and Germany. I wondered how our fourth years would cope with that.

Each time the group met, we compared our experiences of Japanese traditions and hospitality. On the morning we met to catch the bullet train to our next destination, as I stood on the platform to count heads, it was obvious that strong bonds had been formed. There were tears as we said goodbye to our Shibuya High hosts.

When we arrived in Hiroshima about four hours later, our Saltire and kilts made for a boisterous tram ride across what was obviously a very pleasant town to meet our next hosts. We were treated to a public presentation at the local convention centre.

Although drama is not taught formally at Funairi High, the one-act play we saw (devised by the pupils themselves) was impressive. A prize-giving and short programme of western music by the swing band of a neighbouring school followed.

Fifty young musicians produced a performance of the highest calibre; it left me wondering what their secret was. I knew, of course: dedicated teachers, good resources, hard work and commitment from an early age. If there is a Scottish youth band which produces performances of this standard, I have yet to hear it.

At the Peace Memorial Park, we reacted in different ways to the displays in the museum. Some of the students were visibly distressed, others displayed a very sophisticated awareness of the circumstances which led to the dropping of the atomic bomb and there was anger that such weapons are allowed to exist, with the evidence of the overwhelming catastrophe they can cause.

This feeling was confirmed by a talk by Isao Aratani, a habakusha, survivor of the bomb. He was 13 years old, and fortunately in a field at the edge of the city, when the bomb was dropped, immediately killing an estimated 118,000 people. His home lay in the opposite direction from the point of impact.

He explained that for a long time after the explosion no one wanted to talk about it; they just got on with their lives. He became a chemist and raised a healthy family. Since he retired, though, he has dedicated his life to the cause of peace.

There were 1,000 pupils in the Funairi High building when the bomb was dropped; almost 600 of them were killed outright. At the memorial service for them in the peace park the day after we arrived, the dead were remembered by those who survived, together with the present school community and our group from Glasgow. We each laid an individual flower on the memorial: the simplicity of this gesture seemed appropriate, allowing us to express our sympathy and solidarity.

I wondered how Hiroshima had managed to rebuild itself with a much better transport system than Glasgow, how there were fewer obvious planning errors and why people here - and in Tokyo - were more polite and patient. It is a gentler society.

We had many jolly japes in the time that remained: fireworks, the Japanese posing in our kilts, an atmospheric barbecue on the river, swimming out to the vermilion torii (ceremonial gate) at Miyajima. Each one of us will have taken many things from the trip.

As I took photographs in a garden, admired how a gift was wrapped or sat down to a meal of many small dishes, the same word kept popping into my head, a word I hardly ever use: exquisite.

With every day and new experience, it became more obvious that a trip of this scale requires to be driven by a team who are determined to make it succeed; in our case, Johanna Clark in Glasgow, Yukiko Itoh in Tokyo and Sato Masaki in Hiroshima. These are hard-working teachers with the vision, energy and tenacity.

It was no holiday: we faced challenges, separately and together, made discoveries, shared experiences and laughed and laughed. I would do it again, but it could never be quite the same.

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