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Japanese teachers visit, share culture

The students waved their hands in the air Thursday as they pleaded for a chance to play with a kendama, a traditional Japanese toy.

The object of the game is to balance a ball on the toy's four stations. Most of the sixth- and seventh-graders at Dunedin Highland Middle School couldn't do it.

"Use your knees. Use your knees," said Takao Tokutake, who teaches eighth-grade English in Nagano, Japan.

They tried again and again. A few succeeded, but most returned to their seats without mastering the kendama.

It was all part of a lesson on Japanese culture.

Tokutake is visiting the United States as part of an exchange program with the city of Clearwater. He and another Japanese teacher, Mayumi Tokutake, expect to visit 13 Pinellas schools before the Thanksgiving break.

In May, five Pinellas teachers, eight middle school students and city officials will return the favor and visit Nagano. The students will stay with Japanese students and attend school with them. They also will visit historic sites as they mark the 45th anniversary of the partnership between the two cities.

Such exchanges tie the two countries together, if only for a few days.

Dunedin Highland students, for example, learned Thursday that their Japanese peers go to school 210 days a year, compared to the 180-day calendar in Pinellas. Japanese students prepare their own lunches at school and eat in their classrooms, while most American students wait in line and eat in a school cafeteria. And Japanese students spend nearly 12 hours a day at school, in contrast to about seven hours in Pinellas.

That may explain why Japanese students consistently out-score American children on standardized tests. But would such practices work here?

"I know how to cook macaroni and cheese and spaghetti, and that's about it," said Jamie Jarrett, 11.

How about the longer school day?

"Umm, I'm not sure," said Antonio Talley, 12.

Both students, however, said they would love to visit Japan and see its schools first-hand.

The two Japanese teachers plan to take their American experiences back to their classrooms.

They visited Perkins Elementary on Wednesday, where they watched students in the school's magnet program learn Spanish.

There is no such thing as a magnet school in Japan, and Japanese parents can't choose where their children go to school. That's decided by where students live.

There was one more thing Takao Tokutake wasn't expecting _ how much American students wanted to participate in his lesson.

"In Japan, junior high school students don't like that. They are not aggressive in class," he said.

Middle school students who are interested in learning more about the Japan trip can call 743-4518 for information.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.