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Japan’s Modernity And Tradition: MC Students Discover A World Away

John Bestland’s 21st birthday was not spent in typical American fashion. He spent it visiting Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. Deer, once considered sacred, roam free and bow to visitors. Though they no longer hold the traditional divine status, they are protected and are a big draw for visitors. That was one of the highlights of a trip Bestland calls “a dream come true.” He was part of a group of 26 members of the Montgomery College community who took an 11-day trip to Japan this past May as part of the short-term study abroad programs offered at the College.

Bowing deer in Nara, Japan. Photo: Natasha Sacks

Bestland has been interested in Japanese culture since he was 12 years old. When he was a freshman at MC, he took lessons to learn the language and, prompted by his professor, started the Japanese Culture Club at the College. This was his first trip out of the country, and he now knows he wants to move to Japan at some point and continue to learn more of the language. “It’s playful,” as he describes it.

Japan: Global Perspectives on Tradition and Contemporary Culture” attracted students, faculty, and staff members, who joined in to experience the country’s culture and deepen their knowledge of it. The trip turned out to be widely popular and the demand exceeded expectations.

All travelers were inspired by their interest in and appreciation of Japanese culture, whether it be their history, traditional art, social norms or Manga, Japanese comic books and graphic novels considered collectively as a genre. They walked the streets of Tokyo, with its vending machines on every block, marveled at its order and cleanliness, and the fact that nobody crossed the street outside of the pedestrian crosswalk. They rode the bullet train, metro, and a charter bus. They visited the traditionally charming Kyoto and Hiroshima in what turned out to be an emotional moment for the group as they reflected on its history regarding the atomic bomb.

For Henry Dowling, another student member of the Japanese Culture Club, the most interesting aspects of Japan’s culture were the history and its functional art. “They have an appreciation of history; they have rebuilt and preserved historical sites using tools or techniques from that period. With art, everything they make has a purpose, regardless of how beautiful it is. It’s amazing to see how much discipline they have,” he said.

“Part of the reason Japan bounced back after World War II is because it has been committed to maintaining its traditions and cultural norms and practices,” said Rita Kranidis, one of the group leaders and director of the Global Humanities Institute. She approached the trip from a humanities perspective and focused on the challenges brought on by globalization.

“They have an appreciation of history; they have rebuilt and preserved historical sites using tools or techniques from that period. With art, everything they make has a purpose, regardless of how beautiful it is. It’s amazing to see how much discipline they have,” Dowling said.

Much like Japan’s modernity weaves with its traditional past, different generations benefit from their educational system through what is known as intergenerational learning. The country has the highest proportion of older adults in the world. Staff member Natasha Sacks, who manages the Lifelong Learning Institute at Montgomery College, was interested in Japan’s approach, as the MC program she leads serves individuals 50 and over. “I knew they had a vast and high-quality education system for older adults,” she said. Group leader Takiko Mori-Saunders took her to a senior college in Osaka [the Osaka Senior Nature Center], where she was able to observe an arts and crafts class the seniors would later on teach to kids. “They participate in educating children, and part of their learning experience is volunteering,” she said. She now hopes to bring back some components to Montgomery College’s program.

Out of the 26 people who went on the trip, 16 were MC students. Photo: Natasha Sacks

The trip itself was also an intergenerational learning experience, Sacks said, as 16 travelers were young students while staff and faculty members were adults from older generations. “Everyone was able to reflect through sessions led by Rita [Kranidis]. I really enjoyed hearing the students talk about their impressions.”

Kranidis gave the students journals so they could jolt down their thoughts as things happened. “You can travel through a place and your brain can be dormant, so it’s a good way to record important details,” she said.

The MC Study Abroad Program offers short-term travel opportunities to students, staff, and faculty, all connected to a specific course taught at the College, said Greg Malveaux, collegewide program director. The Japan trip in May was merged with the spring courses, “Sociology of Age and Aging” and “Introduction to Gender Studies.” The group that participated in “Italy: The Legacies of Ancient Rome” in early June had a larger focus on art history.

The program has been growing, Malveaux said, which prompted him to increase the number of trips offered this year from two trips annually to five: two in the winter, two in the summer and one during spring break. Upcoming destinations are Ghana, Mexico, Cuba, and the United Kingdom, and are announced five or six months ahead of time to allow for planning and applying. To learn more about short-term and long-term opportunities, visit the MC Study Abroad site.

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