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Tuesday, April 20, 1999

Learning from the real world, not the schoolroom

LEARNING IN LIKELY PLACES: Varieties of Apprenticeship in Japan, edited by John Singleton. Cambridge University Press, 376 pp.

For many foreigners living here, the chance to study some Japanese art or craft, be it aikido, shakuhachi or tea ceremony, is very much a part of their "Japan experience."

Likewise, accounts of such pursuits, from Eugene Herrigel's classic encounter with archery to popular descriptions of making paper or pottery, or practicing Zen or tea ceremony, continue to fascinate both Japan specialists and general readers.

In recent decades the Japanese educational system, for better or worse, has been the focus of much scholarly and media attention. As in the past, though, a lot of the learning that goes on in Japan still takes place outside of school.

Perceiving a need for a study of the many ways in which learning occurs in Japan, John Singleton, an educational anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has put together an anthology of case studies, aptly titled "Learning in Likely Places: Varieties of Apprenticeship in Japan."

Singleton, who also has an essay on craft and art education in Mashiko pottery workshops in the book, writes in his introduction that what started out as a book about apprenticeship quickly expanded into one on "situated learning." In this model of learning, actual practice takes precedence over explanation. The body here is as much a part of learning as the mind.

With 18 case studies, the book is divided into four sections: traditional arts, artisanal apprenticeships, work and community socialization, and appropriations of cultural practice. Authors include anthropologists, education specialists, art and economic historians and a potter, all with a special interest in Japan.

Both historical and contemporary cases are presented, from the initiation of child actors into the traditional "kyogen" theater, socialization at the public bathhouse and via festivals, and how baseball great Sadaharu Oh got his swing. There are also firsthand accounts of studying calligraphy, weaving, violin, pottery and Americanized Zen.

The felicitous title allows contributors to "liberate learning from schooling." From Robert J. Smith's opening essay on the "iemoto" (lineage 'school') system to David Plath's creative epilogue calling for a "carnality of knowledge," diversity is very much the theme.

Brenda G. Jordan examines the "copybook method" used in the 19th-century Kano school of painting. Required to make exact copies of the master's own copies of exemplary paintings, students were also expected to exercise "unobtrusive observation" and even to "steal" knowledge from the master.

Using Zeami's classical treatises on transmitting noh techniques, J. Thomas Rimer illuminates the importance of the master-disciple relationship and of the lifelong pursuit of mastery. These, along with the repetition of "kata" (precise exercise forms) and practice as a means of self-discipline, are recognized characteristics of Japanese apprenticeships.

Yet "ama" (women shellfish divers), relate Jacquetta Hill and David Plath in one of the more intriguing essays in the book, learn their demanding trade by working on their own deep under water. They find support in interacting with their peers and forming partnerships with their boatmen.

Autodidacts are also included. Korekiyo Takahashi, the innovative finance minister responsible for turning the Japanese economy around during the Great Depression, is shown to be a outstanding example of someone who is self-taught.

For shellfish divers, failure at their craft may mean death. For American potter Bill Haase, however, whose apprenticeship in a Japanese pottery village was marked by crossed cultural cues, "learning to fail" was an essential lesson.

Maureen Clure gives a fascinating account of her experience learning compassion in an unusual American Zen community in the late 1970s. Uneasier cross-cultural appropriations are also described, as when Americans work for a Japanese boss and a Japanese self-help group tampers, with dubious results, with the techniques made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous.

In "Becoming a master physician," Susan O. Long shows how and why medical training in contemporary Japan is still much like a classical apprenticeship and what that means for young doctors. Perhaps someone will one day study the implications for patients as well. Kathryn Ellen Madono's study of the dynamics in a neighborhood garage illuminates the hierarchies of learning in a group situation.

It is definitely about time that learning divorced from schooling gets systematic attention. And "Learning in Likely Places" presents a balance between firsthand accounts and more academic analysis that will interest both the general reader and the specialist.

Despite the lone woman potter shown on the cover, women get remarkably little attention in this book. That is, unfortunately, still often the case with such studies of Japan.

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