The following is a guest article written by Marie Fujimoto, a graduate student at the University of Tokyo. Fujimoto enrolled in a course at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Education called “Introduction to International and Cross-Cultural Education,” which was co-taught by SPICE Director Dr. Gary Mukai and former CASEER Director Dr. Hideto Fukudome. SPICE will feature several student reflections on the course in 2023.
In the course “Introduction to International and Cross-Cultural Education,” I was intellectually and emotionally challenged by the lectures of Dr. Mukai and our guest speakers. I was impressed by the pedagogical materials on Angel Island Immigrant Station by SPICE’s Jonas Edman and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation Executive Director Edward Tepporn. I also grew frustrated to hear that not all schools recognize the value of teaching the diverse history of the United States. Listening to Dr. Liz Baham’s story of many African American children never aspiring to higher education due to systemic racial discrimination that is deep-rooted in U.S. society, I once again felt helpless.
I am fully Japanese but have an international background. When I was 13 years old, I went to England by myself to learn violin in a music boarding school. I was lucky to be surrounded by supportive teachers and peers. But still, I often recognized that I was an “outsider” because I was short with darker skin, hair, eyes, and had a strange accent, even though I rarely spoke in class in the first place.
After two years, I came back to Japan and completed high school in Tokyo. I then decided to attend the New England Conservatory in Boston, attaining a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance in 2021. In school, there were many international students from China and Korea, and there were also Asian American students. At first, I felt comfortable to be with people who looked similar to me. However, I gradually realized that some Asian Americans went through hardships because they were not “American enough.” I sometimes heard stories of music teachers making comments on race, such as “Asian musicians have techniques, but not hearts.” These teachers were not at the New England Conservatory. I loved all the professors I met at NEC. However, classical music also has a dark history of privileging White, male, and European musicians.
In Japan, diversity is also difficult to embrace for many, but in a different way. Compared to other countries, Japanese are generally very good at noticing small differences, creating strict social norms. This may be contributing to a Japanese society that is uniform, organized, and clean, but people are constantly pressured to be assimilated into that mainstream. And it’s not always easy for people who cannot do so for whatever reason. Once, international students told me that they were hurt by the way some Japanese interacted with them. They felt that they were treated as “outsiders.” That said, I could also see that these Japanese did not mean to be offensive at all. And that’s why I think we have a problem in our society that needs to be addressed.
Despite social and political challenges, all of the guest instructors in our class did not give up on their goals in life, including teaching students in the United States of its diverse history. They clearly do not want more children to be confused, ignored, or alienated in school and beyond—as they often felt as students—so they have emphasized the importance of giving a voice to the traditionally unheard. This empowered me.
Since last year, I started coaching the International Youth Orchestra at the Tokyo College of Music. It is the first orchestra in the Eastern area of Japan for pre-collegiate students with diverse national and ethnic backgrounds in Japan. Applying some of the pedagogical skills that I learned from the course, I try to create an encouraging community within the orchestra together with my co-workers. In the beginning, students seemed intimidated, but now they help each other and ask for extra support. I also collaborate with music teachers and Yukiko Tsubonou, Professor Emeritus at Japan Women’s University and Executive Director of the Institute of Creativity in Music Education. Our collaborative work is to design music classes for public schools and special needs schools, where every student can participate actively with improvisation. I bring my violin to a classroom, and students and I explore music-making spontaneously. Music can go beyond boundaries not only between countries but also within countries like Japan.
Education can either divide or connect us, and it depends on the mindset of teachers. So, I will keep listening to voices and explore possibilities that music can have in education. I will keep moving forward, as Dr. Mukai and all the guest instructors have done.