Every year at the beginning of mud season and in the middle of March Madness, we welcome 30 boys and two of their teachers from Kaijo Gakuen to our school. Kaijo is the premier boys’ school in Tokyo, and our visitors are selected from among their classmates to come on this ten-day visit. I have hosted guests from Kaijo thirteen times as Headmaster (the trip was cancelled in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami three years ago), and each time it is a true joy.
As Kaijo is an all-boys school, this trip is the first time these students have studied with girls. I always joke with them that it will be the most enjoyable of all of their American and St. Johnsbury experiences. The boys from Kaijo are always a bit shy at first as a group, and this year their Biology teacher and chaperone Yasuhiro Ishizuka called them “super-shy”, but as the week progressed, individual personalities emerged, and the boys made fast friends with their host families. They also did an outstanding job presenting elements of Japanese culture at a mid-week Japanese culture festival held in the Mayo Center. The visit included several activities, including the traditional basketball clinic and game (we always lose; we think the refs are biased!), and the closing banquet.
The banquet is a real treat. The Kaijo students typically perform three songs: a traditional Japanese song, a popular English song, and the Kaijo school song (all sung with impressive gusto!). They also prepare at least one theatrical performance, typically of a Japanese folktale or legend. We exchange gifts, give the Kaijo students a certificate to commemorate their time here, and close with our singing the Alma Mater. Afterwards, host families gather with their Kaijo students for photos and tearful goodbyes. It always amazes me how strong these bonds are, having been formed so quickly. Several of these relationships have lasted decades after the Kaijo visit.
Again this year, I have been impressed with the teachers who have accompanied these 30 teenagers. Ishizuka-sensei spoke English very well and understood it even better. When he visited my English class during our study of Brave New World, he had not only read it and Orwell’s 1984, but was able to make a cogent connection between the books and the movie The Matrix and apply it to today. I cannot imagine my being able to do anything remotely similar in Japanese. His colleague, Japanese Language teacher Masaki Nishikawa, also showed impressive knowledge of English and was able to carry on an hour-long conversation that included discussions of Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Lost Generation, as well as the poet Basho and his famous haiku. I came away from the conversation intellectually stimulated and completely understood why he has earned the nickname “Nishi-pedia”.
Perhaps the highlight of the visit was the lively conversations and running jokes I shared with Ishizuka-sensei and Nishikawa-sensei about the Yokai Watch Dance. I first heard about the dance as Ishizuka-sensei was showing pictures of his children, and then the teachers showed me videos of the dance and (somewhat surprisingly) sang all of the words. Later in the week they led Chip Mesics’ Japanese class in learning the dance. Not to be outdone, I tried to learn the dance, but never got beyond the first few moves, so I had to back away from my promise to do the dance with them all at the banquet.
In reflecting on this year’s visit, the Yokai Watch Dance has become kind of a symbol for me, representing much of what is special about the Kaijo visit: it’s fun, it’s more fun when enjoyed with others, and it’s an easy way to share cultures while bridging cultural differences. The Yokai are legendary creatures, supernatural monsters from Japanese folklore. Some are good and helpful; some are not. They take on several fanciful shapes, and those who wear the Yokai watch can see these creatures all around them. In this, I realized one more similarity between the dance and the Kaijo visit: it has helped me become more aware of the invisible realities of our world—both good and bad—both the spirits of tolerance and empathy and spirits of prejudice and selfishness. Every time the Kaijo students visit, I am more aware of how rich the world is in good people of good spirit. I can’t wait until next year.