Japan, Chapter 3: Getting to know the island and the mayor

Day 2

OK

Map of Japan, showing approximate location of Osakikamijima.

Osakikamijima (henceforth OK) is an island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan about a third the size of MDI and home to 8000 year-round residents. Some absurdly high percentage of that population is over 65 and most young people leave for the cities after high school. People make a living primarily from the ship building industry, by growing citrus, and by cultivating blueberry (yes! blueberries — high bush, not low bush — coincidence?). The idea is to bring a new “industry” to the island: education. In the minds of my guests, this island and Hiroshima Prefecture as a whole will be the sharp edge of the wedge for the educational reforms I spoke of yesterday. Education is also meant to be the lifeline for a much-needed renaissance on the island; not too different from the model inspired by Les Brewer, Father Jim Gower, and founding president Ed Kaelber for COA and MDI back in ’69.

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Panorama shot from Mt. Kannomine

Today I learned the lay of the land here and met the other primary drivers for this reform: Nanako Watanabe (head of Ashoka Japan), Okamoto-san (the island’s “Les Brewer,” a businessman on OK), and Courtney Lawrence (former faculty at HJU and education expert/consultant). OK is indeed beautiful and the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea are certainly an inviting backdrop. Better than inviting — gorgeous. The finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) calls these waters home. We summited the island’s highest point, Mt. Kannomine.  At 453 meters above sea level (1486 feet above sea level, just 50 feet shy of our own Cadillac Mtn.), one can see 105 islands. But, if there’s one word to describe the place, it’s quiet … very quiet. Granted, it’s Sunday and January is a cold, grey month. I suppose it’s not very far removed from a cold, winter day in the streets of Bar Harbor or any other hamlet on MDI. But here there is not the same influx of tourism, summer residents, and the surge of summer we feel back home.

Maybe more than any other country in Asia, tradition has something of a strangle hold on Japan. In many cases that tradition has bred true excellence: in craftsmanship, attention to detail, work ethic, respect, etc. The Fukushima disaster has started to loosen the grip on the more problematic results of traditionalism. In terms of education, it reminds me of what happened to public education in New York City toward the end of the last century. The poverty, crime, and income inequality there was wreaking such havoc with the public schools that the city all but threw up its hands and said, “All right then. We don’t know what to do. If you have an idea or an experiment, have at it.” That sense of newfound openness is what gave rise to the myriad experimental and innovative schools we see today in NYC. Hopefully the same might happen here, just not inspired by poverty, crime and income inequality.

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The meal that made Eddie proud (and envious)

I ended the day feeling as if I’d been bathed in that “fifth taste,” umami. I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of seafood and generally despise things of the olive-pickle-fish-tasting family. We had an enormous, formal dinner filled with fish where the mayor and I were the honored guests. Thankfully, my anthropological instinct and training kicked in. I watched a live abalone be set upon a flame and squirm to its last breath. After dousing the shriveled bi-valve in lime juice, I ate it, chased it with saki, and then texted COA-alumnus Eddie Monet. He was envious. I wish I could relish in the cultural novelty that is Japanese cuisine. Intellectually, perhaps. I ended the day with an onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) before hitting the hay.

Tomorrow is probably the most important day of the trip.

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