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Culture and Education

Coursework in the Streets—Walking Around and Getting a Sense of Cultural Gaps

Yoichi Sato
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

It is four-thirty on a Friday afternoon. I am waiting for some international students to gather in front of Okuma Auditorium for a tour that is part of my “Urban History of Tokyo” course. Today’s destination is the neighborhood of Asakusa, where preparations are underway for tomorrow’s Sanja Festival.

Currently in its third year, this course is taken by students of Waseda University’s Contemporary Japan Study Program (CJSP), an English-based program for mainly international students at the School of Social Sciences. This year 10 students have enrolled, mostly from East Asian countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea but including some Japanese who have been educated overseas.

While these students study contemporary Japan on the CJSP program, the aim of my course is for them to learn the still-living history of modern day Japan, especially metropolitan Tokyo, through fieldwork. Almost every other week we head off to different areas of the city. Our destinations this year have included the areas surrounding Waseda University as well as Marunouchi, Asakusa, Shinjuku, Kanda and Ginza.

Tour scenes—Departing from the standard route

Surprisingly, more of my international students have been to Asakusa than to Shinjuku or Ginza. I cannot say with absolute certainty because I have only seen this trend within a limited group of people, but it may be the result of Skytree. They usually walk from the Kaminarimon along the Nakamise street to visit Senso-ji, then come out onto the Sumida River and take a souvenir photo featuring Skytree from Sumida Park before leaving Asakusa. If they have the energy, they may keep walking to Skytree.

Not being tourists, it goes without saying that we take a completely different route to Asakusa. We get off the Ginza Subway Line at Tawaramachi Station and pass through the Butsudan street, Nishi-Asakusa temple district, and Kappabashi kitchenware street then move from Asakusa Rokku on the west side toward Senso-ji. Everything we see along the route is educational material, such as the mikisho used for festivals, the temples with their various architectural styles and the special graveyards behind them, the load-carrying bicycles of dish stores, plastic food samples, kitchen knife specialty stores, and soba-making tool stores of “Kitchen Town” in Kappabashi, and Inari Shrine.

Everyone reacts spontaneously to the smell of yakitori being grilled at the entrance of a meat store. “Let’s try some yakitori,” someone says, and we all buy a skewer each. It is fundamental to fieldwork to use our five senses in this way. Buying and eating something is part of our data gathering. And when evening comes, we are all feeling hungry.

Along Kappabashi Street are various kappa art objects, and one student asks me to explain the kappa legend. I think hard but the answer does not immediately come to mind. Although I have replies ready for some questions, I am unable to answer many others on the spot. But it is this kind of spontaneous question or interest that makes the course so appealing. At that time, I tell the students that we will find out by the next lesson and give them an answer then.

Lessons in the classroom

We use our five senses, but the easiest way to remember is from photographs. That is because we are surrounded by any number of cameras, whether smartphones or digital cameras. During my tours, anyway, students take numerous photos. I get them to upload their photos later to online albums so that I can print them out and bring them to the following week’s lesson in the classroom. I hand out the photos to each student for them to look back on the tour and write about the places they remember. The lesson proceeds with each student talking in turn and me adding explanations as appropriate. I also get them to make these kinds of card by the end of each lesson (Figure 1).

The end-purpose is to make these lesson cards and use them to play a game. My students have been doing this since last year (Figure 2). By assigning cards in this way, they are leaving a record of their activities. How should they give shape to what they have seen and experienced? Without realizing it, they learn some Japanese too. Finally, everyone selects one card at a time in order of the Japanese kana characters, a, i, u, e, o…, and then they play a tournament (Figure 3).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Significance of the lessons

So what is the significance of these lessons?

The first thing is “learning in the streets.” What has enabled me to create such a course is Waseda University’s location in the heart of the city. For the Asakusa tour, students leave university at four-thirty and split up at Asakusa at six-thirty, but other tours can be set up to be slightly easier. I feel it is meaningful, and not only for this course for international students, to go out into the city and communicate with their teacher, of course, as well as with other people in the streets. This is a chance, even for modern-day students, said to be poor at communication, to effortlessly expand their own interests.

The second thing is feeling “cultural gaps” through their shared experiences. Although we may experience the same things in our daily lives or in familiar places, we can tell there are cross-cultural gaps, that is, we notice different things or read different meanings into the same things. In most cases, a lot of “live questions” are generated on the scene of my tours. Some of these gaps are to a certain extent predictable, but others are smaller or greater than expected. In the follow-up classroom lesson, students confirm what these gaps were and share their implications.

This walking and working lets students ponder Tokyo’s identity from a global perspective. How out of line are phenomena that seem natural to someone born and brought up in Tokyo like me? And what kind of phenomena do international students question or show an interest in? This is a place of learning where students can constantly wonder how Tokyo has been and can be received.

Yoichi Sato
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Sato was born in Tokyo in 1966. He graduated from the doctoral program in the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University with a PhD in Engineering. He specializes in urban history and visual expression of urban spaces, and conducts classes in the production of visual content based on environmental expression studies, visual theory, urbanology, and fieldwork. His works include: That Day in Kanda and Jimbocho [Ano Hi no Kanda/Jimbocho], Tokyo during the Occupation—Illustrated [Zusetsu—Senryoka no Tokyo], and Vladivostok in Imperial Times—A Historical Study of Urban Development [Teiseiki no Urajiosutoku—Shigaichi Keisei no Rekishiteki Kenkyu]. His recent research focuses on the history of various items along city streets and the genealogy of photographic and visual expressions of urban spaces in post-war Tokyo.