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  • Day2

    Meeting the Mayor

    June 22, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 25 °C

    The main event for our first full day in Japan was meeting the mayor. Heather and I had to meet the gentleman who picked us up yesterday (I can't remember his name - sorry sir!) at the train station nearest city hall. To do that, I had to take the train with Jun-Jun. Apparently she lives near the biggest station in Saitama. It's practically a mini-shopping mall with a 4-5 floor department store in it and everything. We rode in a women-only train car, which are available in mornings and evenings. While a lot of people use their smartphones to read, no one talks on the phone on the train as it is considered very rude.

    From the station we had to walk about 10-15 minutes to City Hall. Now's as good a time as any to mention that the weather in Saitama is very similar to that in Richmond - the city is only 2° latitude further south - so it is very hot and humid out this time of year. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am rarely seen without a water bottle and sure enough I had one with me. However, I forgot to fill it up before I left the house so I was (metaphorically) DYING of thirst by the time we got to City Hall. I don't remember the last time I was that thirsty. In fact, I find I am more thirsty more often since I got to Japan; perhaps it is a combination of the food, weather, and perhaps different air quality. Maybe everyone in Japan feels this way and that is why there are drink machines EVERYWHERE.

    Somehow I survived without passing out, managed to fill up my water bottle, and was taken to the floor where we met our host families the previous night, which is where the school system offices are. I say offices, but really the only office is the superintendents and the rest of the staff sit at rows of desks facing each other. It's pretty cramped and crowded, but it does feel more collaborative I guess. We went into a large meeting room and met with the ALT coordinator, Keiko Tonegawa. ALTs are Assistant Language Teachers - teachers from other countries who help teach English. If I were to come back and spend a year or more in Japan that's what I would do.

    Since she has to work with English teachers who often don't speak Japanese, Keiko-san is fluent in English. She told us she spent about 3 years in San Francisco about 10 years ago. She told Heather and I about Japanese curriculum requirements, which are set by their national Board of Education. School districts who want to modify or add to the curriculum have to ask the BOE for permission. Saitama did this so that they could teach more hours of English, in classes they call "Global Studies". At the elementary level it's basically just conversational English, but maybe they learn more things in Junior High. A lot of areas around Tokyo are really putting a lot of time and resources into teaching English in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Saitama also has a unique class called Human Relations - which is usually taught as a few hours after each semester break from 3rd-7th grade to help fight bullying and teach the kids relationship skills. Even in Japan adults think the kids don't know how to talk to each other anymore!

    All in all the curriculum is actually quite complicated, because the number of required hours for each subject is different by grade - I can't imagine how complicated it is to build the school's schedule! Not only that, but 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders actually have fewer total hours, with 1st have the fewest and then gradually adding more until 4th grade, which means the kids may leave at different times every day. Then when the kids get to Junior High (which is 7th-9th grade here), they have slightly more hours. Kindergarten and pre-K aren't part of the school system here, but many children go to private Kindergartens. High school in Japan also isn't compulsory, and students have to pass an entrance exam to attend, but something like 98% go anyway (they can go to a remedial school for a year if they don't pass the entrance exams). I'm still trying to figure out how much control the BOE has over high school education.

    After our briefing on all things Saitama Schools-related, Keiko-san took us out to lunch. I let Heather pick because, as I mentioned previously, she doesn't like a lot of Japanese foods. She decided on a pasta and pizza place because she figured she wouldn't be having any "American-style" food for the rest of her time here. Apparently Italian food is SUPER popular in Japan, although obviously it is not the same as Italian food in America (or Italy for that matter). I opted for a cold vegetable pasta because it was so hot out, but I also tried Heather's pizza. Both were good and actually did taste like dishes you could probably find somewhere in the US. While we were out for lunch Keiko also took us back by the train station so we could buy passes, which are also good for the prefecture's buses. An interesting note about the train system is that you actually pay based on how far you need to go (calculated by which stations or bus stops you scan your card on as you enter and leave) - so you should check your route if you don't have much money left on your card or have to buy a single ticket. We also stopped at a 100 yen store to each get a small hand towel - a must for any person living or traveling in Japan because you're always wiping away sweat and most bathrooms don't have dryers or paper towels.

    After lunch we still had to wait a little longer to meet the mayor, so Keiko-san was nice enough to introduce us to the head of Special Education and her team, since she knew I was interested. With Keiko-san acting as our translator we had quite a long conversation. Based on what the woman (I can't remember her name either) said, Japanese and American special education have a lot in common. However, because of the language barrier I'm not sure how much of that is really true and how much is us not really understanding what the other was describing. I guess I'll have to see for myself.

    So finally it's time for our meeting with the mayor. We were actually meeting the mayor at the same time as a group of students from Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield (one of the counties outside Richmond). As part of the same Sister Cities Program that sent Heather and I, Saitama sends a group of high school students to Clover Hill every year in the spring and Clover Hill sends their own group in the summer; this year they happened to be coming the same time as us. Most of the 10 kids from our group were actually learning Japanese at their school, since I guess Chesterfield has the money for that (not that I'm bitter or anything). We got a chance to talk for about 15 minutes before the meeting and of course they were super excited and practicing how to introduce themselves. Their teacher chaperones this year had never been to Japan either so they were nervous.

    Anyway, either meeting the mayor is a big deal in Saitama, they just wanted to show off, or (mostly likely) Japan has formalities for everything, because the meeting was held in this huge conference room at a table about 20 feet long and had an MC and everything. There was no chit-chat and it was all scripted, right down to giving him and the superintendent the gifts we brought. Heather and I actually got small gifts in return - a cute pen with the Saitama mascot on it and a towel from the city's Bonsai Museum, yay! Many photos were taken and it was all over in maybe 30 minutes tops. All in all I said maybe five words to the mayor so saying that I "met" him feels like a stretch, but it was an experience that I'm very glad I got to have.

    After the meeting the superintendent invited Heather and I to her office to talk. It turns out she used to teach English and was very excited for a chance to use her conversation skills. She was very friendly and relaxed; we talked about American versus Japanese schools and I told her about what I had heard from the Special Education team. By the time we finished talking to her it was after 5:00 and time to use our new train passes to get back. I'm pleased to say I made it back without getting lost or, as far as I know, breaking any international laws! I'm also pretty sure I didn't embarrass myself, Richmond Public Schools, or America any more than usual over the course of the day, so double win!
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