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The rising sun of Japan

Japanese studies feature very little in the national curriculum, but 50 years after the war there is a growing fascination among school children to know more about the land of Nintendo, sumo and sushi. Arnold Evans reports It's amazing really, but most people know very little about Japan," says Claire Innes, who has just taken over as education officer at the Japanese Embassy in London. "There are incredible gaps in their knowledge." A chat with a group of intelligent and probably typical teenagers revealed just how right she was. Umms, errs and giggles deleted, their knowledge of Japan could justly be summed up as Nintendo, sumo, kendo and- yuk - raw fish.

It's sobering to reflect that they probably knew far more about the solar system than they did about the second greatest economic power on their own planet.

The region isn't a compulsory requirement in national curriculum geography; historians can totally avoid it; and Japanese is only one of a long list of languages that schools can choose to teach providing, that is, they are lucky enough to be able to find someone qualified to do the teaching. Yet there are many teachers who go to great lengths, and enormous effort to ensure that pupils learn something about Japan.

The language is being taught in over 90 schools, and the number is growing all the time. But pupils don't have to master the language to "get a feel" of the country, its people, culture and way of life. The educational trust set up to keep alive the spirit of the 1991 Japan Festival maintains regular contact with over 4,000 primary and secondary schools which engage in a range of activities from extended programmes of Japanese studies to informal afternoons when children are given the chance to twiddle with chopsticks or meet "a real Japanese" person.

"A school might not be able to manage more than a one-off event but that really doesn't matter," according to Claire Innes. "The children will remember something from it and anything's useful if it removes some of the stereotypes and gives them a sense of what living in Japan might really be like".

Teachers looking for course material, and perhaps some inspiration, will be pleasantly surprised by the range of resources and the enthusiastic support that is available.

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