Japan, Chapter 7: Tokyo

Day 5: Tokyo – Government meetings and Ashoka Japan

I’ve always considered myself more at home in the countryside than the city, and my experiences in Japan have confirmed that so far. But I fell in love with endless and impeccable Tokyo. The emperor and empress reside in the city center behind an enormous, meticulously constructed stonewall and mote. I’m convinced the metro system will someday become a World Heritage Site. The streets are narrow and twisted and they sparkle. Pruned ginkgo trees divide the streets from sidewalks. It’s definitional for modernity, yet feels ancient.

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Tokyo Gingko

We started the day in the snows of Kyoto, took the bullet train into the bright blue skies surrounding Mt. Fuji, and by noon were warmly greeted by Kan Susuki-san, the ex-Vice Minister or Education and our champion within the Japanese government. He was so incredibly impressed by our progress and left Nagao-sensei and me with the sense that he will help our idea flourish.

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Mt. Fuji from the Bullet Train to Tokyo

It was during this meeting that I began to understand why COA was the right model in the minds of my colleagues. The educational reform we sought would be accelerated most rapidly through the brand and approach of Ashoka. COA was the perfect model because a) we were founded with the intention of helping inspire the revitalization of a rural island community and, b) we were an early Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, that is, one of just 33 colleges in the world selected by Ashoka as fully embracing their ideals. Lending COA’s vision and pedagogy and lending COA’s brand would mean establishing the first Ashoka U educational entity in East Asia.

The clarity in my own mind was refreshing and helped me envision a way forward where I could authentically and appropriately develop the necessary support back home. Importantly, this new found clarity didn’t really change the idea of a “pilot program” as outlined in Day 2.

Following the meeting with Kan Susuki-san, we met with three executives from a recycling company named Japlan (pronounced ‘jay-plan,’ which I thought ominous, given Jay Friedlander’s role in this whole adventure). The CEO is an Ashoka Fellow (anointed annually by Ashoka Japan as someone emblematic of socially-responsible innovation) and has put together some of the smartest and most entrepreneurial materials scientists who have managed to squeeze much more out of waste materials – both clothing and electronics – than ever before imaginable. They have a bid, for instance, to harvest the precious metals from old cell phones to be able to melt and forge the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The folks at Japlan were enthralled by our ideas for educational reform and will undoubtedly support our early initiatives.

My big show came on the evening of this, my final day in Japan. Nana-san, the Executive Director of Ashoka Japan, organized an exquisite gathering at the offices of a young publisher of progressive Japanese texts. More than thirty entrepreneurs came to hear about the College of the Atlantic: Ashoka fellows, Friends of Ashoka, and Ashoka Youth – a mixed-age army for Japanese educational reform.

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Getting ready to speak about COA to the crowds at Ashoka Japan

I gave a 30-minute talk I’d pulled together during my scant down time on the trip: a discussion of the place, the people, and pedagogy of COA and of my immediate reflections on my whirlwind tour of Japan. They appreciated how I peppered the talk with Japanese phrases I’d learned, no matter how pitiful the pronunciation. They especially liked my final slide: a selfie of me taking my onsen in OK. They roared and gave me a standing ovation.

It was hard to believe I’d be heading back to MDI tomorrow.

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