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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2001


Japan studies has explosive effect on U.S. kids

Recently I gave a presentation on Japan to a class of preschoolers in the United States. This month, these 4 and 5-year-olds were studying Japan. Last month they studied Pakistan. They can write their names in Urdu.

I arrived and met their teacher, Mrs. Husain. (Reportedly, one kid, upon finding out his teacher's name was Husain gasped and said, "Saddam's wife?" As it turned out, she didn't even have a mustache).

Mrs. Husain motioned me into the room where the preschoolers were waiting. "Ohayo!" they greeted me.

I started my presentation by saying, "In Japan, they don't wear shoes inside, so everybody please take off your shoes and line them up by the door."

"No, No!" shrieked Mrs. Husain. "They don't know how to tie their shoelaces!" With alarm, I realized that our task at the end of the class would be equal to putting sneakers on a centipede.

"How many of you know how to tie your shoes?" asked Mrs. Husain. Four children raised their hands.

"In Japan, people sit on the floor," I continued, and showed the boys how to sit cross-legged and the girls on their haunches. We sat in a circle and I asked them what they knew about Japan.

"They have volcanoes in Japan" said one child named Patrick. "Itchy nissan, she-go," counted the class together.

I brought out a bag full of items from Japan and passed them around the circle: "I know what that is -- it's origami," shouted one of the kids who didn't know how to tie his shoes.

Next, I passed around some Buddhist prayer beads. "A bracelet!" cried the children. "Yes, and sometimes they use them for praying to God." "Japanese people pray to Buddha," shouted another kid who didn't know how to tie his shoes.

"Have you ever seen hot lava?" interrupted Patrick.

I brought out a rice bowl and chopsticks. "We've already studied that," said one of the children.

"This is 'mane-neko.' He brings money to businesses, so almost all restaurants or stores have this cat in their shop." The children thought this was a great idea and a much better way to get money than working for it.

"Do you think Mountain Fuji is going to explode?" Patrick wanted to know.

When I showed a picture of Sotatsu's Thunder God, the children expressed their approval of the menacing creature.

Next, I put on a kimono. The children were most impressed with the length of the obi. They laughed and stretched it out, a line of children holding it as if it were a python, while the shyer kids tentatively touched its red, silky skin.

"Volcanoes go pshhh-pshhh and lava gets all over people!" Patrick said, continuing his fantasy without me. By now, the whole classroom was full of lava and we were running for our lives.

I asked if anyone wanted to try on the kimono, but they smiled and shook their heads. To 4 and 5 year-olds, these giant swatches of material were suspect. They weren't sure they wanted to be transported, even momentarily, to that lava spewing country where money comes from cats and the Thunder God presides.

Meanwhile, Patrick was leading the class to safety from the fast approaching hot lava. He was successfully holding back the lava flow with a laser gun but the expression on his face indicated that not all was over yet.

I taught the class how to bow, telling the girls to fold their hands in front and the boys to keep them to their sides. They giggled at the gender-specific rules of Japan.

At last, the children said, "Arigato!" and I packed up my things. Mrs. Husain was delighted with the children's enthusiasm. I was struck by how much they knew about Japan before they had even learned to tie their shoes.

Patrick was sitting on the floor, exhausted from his rescue. "Goodbye Patrick," I said.

He ran up to me, breathless, and said, "Can you tell us more about the volcanoes?"

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