Irvine teacher Priscilla Iacono recently asked her sixth-grade pupils at Bonita Canyon Elementary School to tell what they knew about Japan.
It didn't take long for the predominantly Anglo children to answer. "Japanese make good gardeners," one said eagerly. "They like to eat fish and take pictures," one girl said. Another pupil answered: "They're short and stubby!"
Others gave equally stereotypical views. But it was part of the lesson for Irvine Unified School District's innovative Japan Project, Iacono said.
"Today, we're letting them tell what they know about Japan. By the end of the course, they'll be surprised at what they have gained," said Iacono, one of 12 Irvine teachers offering a closer view of Japan to the district's first-, third-, sixth- and ninth-graders.
Michael Knapp, 11, one of Iacono's sixth-grade pupils, said he would like to know more about sports in Japan and how its government works.
"Best of all," said classmate Matt Johnson, 11, "it's not from any book and it's more fun."
Only 10 school districts in the western states have been selected to offer the Japan Project, which is sponsored by Stanford University's Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education and the United States-Japan Foundation.
The program was begun, in part, to complement textbooks that often are criticized for their cramped and marginal view of the world. District officials were later pleased that the program won the support of many from Irvine's Japanese community, including the sons and daughters of Japanese executives on assignment in Orange County.
If the program is successful, district officials said they hope Irvine's model will be used at school districts throughout Southern California. The three-year program is now in its second year.
May Be Expanded
Roberta Mulholland-Mahler, project coordinator for the district, said that she has met with officials at the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles who expressed an interest in expanding the program during a five-year period.
In a recent interview, Consul Hitoshi Kawahara said that no decision has been made yet but "we are considering the possibility."
With current trade relations between the two countries severely strained, timing for Irvine's program couldn't be better, said Kazuo Ohsawa, a bank manager at Irvine's California First Bank and spokesman for the Orange County Japanese Business Assn.
Many Japanese businessmen who are particularly sensitive to the trade friction, Ohsawa said, have lent their support for the district's program to help "strengthen our relationship."
He said executives have spoken at school district seminars, and their wives have visited classrooms and have offered glimpses of daily life in Japan.
"I think the timing cannot be better for the people in Orange County to realize that Japanese are, after all, very concerned, very educationally oriented and very interested in the future welfare of their offspring, whether in the home country or whether we're allowed to stay and enjoy part of our life here."
More than 100 Japanese-owned businesses have moved to Irvine, giving that city the third-highest total of any city in Southern California, behind Los Angeles and the South Bay-Gardena area, Ohsawa said.
While Irvine's Japanese national community still remains small, district and business spokesmen hope that it will grow in the future.
Japanese nationals make up the third largest population of limited English-speaking students in the 16,400-student district. About 210 Japanese students enroll in the district annually, Mulholland-Mahler said.
The community supports two Japanese markets, a bookstore and two restaurants, she said.
Mulholland-Mahler said the families of Japanese executives usually remain for periods of two to five years, working at such corporations as Ricoh, Canon, Mitsubishi and Toshiba.
In addition to teaching students critical thinking and aspects of global production, the program fosters understanding between the two countries, University High School teacher Gloria Hickman said .
"A lot of our kids will be going into international business," she said. "We're kind of hoping to change the 'Us Versus Them' attitude and hopefully encourage them to analyze for themselves."
"Basically, we're recognizing the diversity that exists in the world," Mulholland-Mahler said. The course also introduces concepts of interdependence, varying viewpoints and conflict resolution, she said.
Hickman said that today's youth need to know that the United States is not as popular or as dominant as it once was.
"In short, our kids need to know why some people in other countries thumb their noses at us."
The course emphasizes a Japanese perspective, Hickman said. For example, rather than highlight Commodore Matthew C. Perry's historical visit to Japan in 1853 from a United States perspective, the pupils get to read how the Japanese received the visit.