Jerome Monohan explores the merits of an ambitious Japanese exchange programme
Joanna Moran could be forgiven if the prospect of waving goodbye to her 15-year-old daughter, Ashling, as she set off on a 6,000-mile journey to Japan last October, filled her with some alarm. Quite apart from the distance, a great deal was going to be expected of Ashling once she arrived, including coping with lessons at a Hiroshima private boys' school and adjusting to life with her host family.
Mrs Moran need not have worried. Thanks to the idea of the trip leaders - posting a digital photographic bulletin on the Internet - the parents of the nine Year 9 pupils from Highcliffe school in Christchurch, Dorset, were able to keep in daily touch with developments.
"It was great to have proof that your child was still surviving and smiling," explains Mrs Moran. "In fact we had more news of Ashling than when she has been on guide camps or visits to France."
This ambitious trip grew out of the enthusiasm of one English teacher, David Bryden, for all things Japanese, following a ten-year stint teaching over there.
"In Japan personal recommendation is still extremely important," explains Mr Bryden. Indeed, it was his friendship with a director of a study-exchange firm there, that was instrumental in Highcliffe being considered for a link programme with Johoku high school in Hiroshima.
Even then, its selection was not a foregone conclusion. First it had to take part in a beauty parade with several other schools which involved a visit by a delegation from Johoku. "They were clearly impressed by the calm atmosphere here and the fact that that the place is neat and tidy," says Mr Bryden.
The after-school Japanese classes that Mr Bryden runs also proved a big selling point and, in turn, became a useful recruiting ground for candidates to make the trip to Japan.
Another plus proved to be the success of the Hiroshima-to- Highcliffe part of the exchange. "The Johoku students made a very strong impression on our pupils," explains Mr Bryden. "They played a full part in activities here including a fashion show and a football tournament and the martial art display put on by one student helped confirm the group's overall 'cool'
The presence of Phil Hill - the school's language faculty deputy head and a teacher with more than 90 foreign trips under his belt - was also an important element in calming parent and pupil jitters before the journey.
"This was a trip unlike any other I have undertaken," he explains. "It called for pupils with special characteristics - one thing they certainly required was considerable adaptability." This was borne out on the first morning at Johoku when they were individually called upon out of the blue to address a 1,800-strong school assembly in a mixture of English and Japanese.
"Admirably," says Mr Hill, " they all took it in their stride."
The Highcliffe students also settled into Japanese family life, adapting to the formalities of meal times and the rituals associated with washing requiring that they soap and shower before bathing. In most households there was one strong English speaker. The Highcliffe students brought such things as family photographs to act as a spur to conversation, as well as the necessary complement of presents needed to keep their end up in the face of traditional Japanese gift-exchanges.
Days spent at the Japanese school saw the students sampling the more practical parts of the Japanese curriculum including Kendo, music and calligraphy classes. While certain expectations were confirmed, including the cleaning duties that students face at the end of a Japanese school day, there were some eye-opening discoveries.
"In the ten-minute gaps between lessons they would really let off steam in their classrooms," recalls 15-year-old Nat Brawn. "They would run around and fall down and be generally riotous. And the lessons weren't as formal as I had expected either."
Day trips included visits to Kyoto the ancient capital of Japan and the island of Miyajima, which boasts the Itsukushima Shrine that featured prominently in the credits to the last World Cup. But of all their outings the visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park and the museum, showing the effects of the atomic explosion on the city in August 1945, was clearly the most moving.
A strong theme to feedback from the trip was the friendliness with which all involved had been treated - including the banners greeting them when they first arrived, the nameplates temporarily placed on their bedroom doors and the general eagerness for conversation they encountered everywhere.
"Our students have returned as far more confident individuals," explains David Bryden. "They've come home with special knowledge about a distant country and its people that few can equal. They were real pioneers."
David Bryden is happy to act as a first point of contact for British schools interested in establishing links with Japanese schools. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For a full account of Highcliffe's Japanese trip see: www.highcliffe.dorset.sch.ukdefault2.htm
Hiroshima Peace Site: www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp
Japanese Embassy: www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp
Japan National Tourist Association: www.jnto.go.jpengindex_01.html
Japanese Festival Education Trust: www.jfet.org.uk