1. Archive

East meets West with uniform priorities

Occasional dispatches from a student ambassador to Japan.

The day before I left St. Petersburg, I met with the principal at Shorecrest Preparatory School to discuss changes that have been made to the dress code over the summer. As the interim chair of our student council, I represent students' concerns to the administration, and the dress code perennially tops our list of priorities. So, when I met with Takamatsu Higashi High School student council leader Sayaka Hosoya today, I thought it was very interesting that her priorities as seitokaichou _ a position equivalent to president _ are so similar to mine.

Sayaka explained, through an interpreter, that her student council had campaigned for, and won, the privilege to make adjustments to her school's uniform. All Japanese high school students wear uniforms, but the Takamatsu Higashi uniform is considered too old-fashioned. Students wanted a change. So Sayaka and her fellow student council members requested that their principal allow them to draft changes, and they are now in the process of doing so.

It amazes me that halfway across the world, student council leaders' priorities do not change very much. We represent our classmates, and our classmates care about how they are permitted to dress. But if this anecdote leads you to believe that Japan is somehow just like the United States, you are mistaken. In Japan, East and West still collide, but they collide rather amicably, creating a delicious mixture of the two.

I have seen very little here in Takamatsu that does not reflect both East and West at the same time. You can see this duality when you stand on the road that separates the IBM building from a traditional rice paddy. You can taste it in a cone full of green-tea ice cream (don't knock it until you've tried it). You can hear it when, over the supermarket loudspeaker, comes a Japanese version of I Will Survive. You can smell it as the aroma of pizza mixes with the aroma of tempura shrimp next door. And I feel it as I write this article on a Japanese computer, my fingers constantly pressing wrong keys on an unfamiliar keyboard.

Jen (my school and ambassador colleague, Jennifer Hipfl) has noticed it as well. She points out, however, that the thing that has made the biggest impression on her has not been the mix of cultures but the sincere kindness and friendly manner of everyone she has met. During breaks at the school she visited, the entire class politely came forward to meet her and introduce themselves.

I have encountered the same thing, and it extends beyond introductions. I've never witnessed as much true sportsmanship as I did today playing volleyball as a guest in a PE class. Even though the athletes were serious competitors, referees' calls were never disputed, both teams clapped when any player made an exceptionally good spike or an ace, and compliments were given all around. Jennifer and I both wondered aloud whether or not that level of goodwill could thrive so univerally in the States.

In many arenas, Japan seems to have aspired to and taken on the ways of the West. It's evidenced by the country's democratic political structure, architecture and clothing. At the same time, however, it has also maintained its own cultural identity. Perhaps, then, there are many characteristics of Japanese life that Americans can aspire to and take on, such as the Japanese people's sincere kindness and generosity. Such a positive change in the general social atmosphere would do wonders for the United States.

Though it may not sound as important, America could use many Japanese inventions as well. I, for one, would like to see some Japanese vending machines in the States. In Japan, anything can be bought from a vending machine, and if you buy coffee, it comes out hot in the winter and cold in the summer. Little technological perks like this abound in Japan.

Just as Sayaka Hosoya and I are working toward similar goals on student councils halfway around the world, the Japanese and Americans could be working at a similar goal: to blend the best of both worlds, East and West. This week I tasted that blend, and it is delicious.

Aaron Connelly and Jennifer Hipfl, both 17, will be seniors at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg. Aaron plans to pursue a career in international relations; Jennifer plans to pursue a career in international business.