Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Domestic, int'l connections lead to unique service learning program in Iwate

One of the boxes of bottled water delivered to residents of temporary housing and an explanatory paper detailing the combined project between Iwate Prefectural University, Ohio University, Chubu University and the Honjo International Scholarship Foundation is pictured near the grounds of Yokota Elementary School, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Sept. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Alina Kordesch)

RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate -- "We've come from Iwate Prefectural University. We are delivering bottled water!" a student called out after knocking on the prefabricated sliding door of a temporary disaster housing unit in this city on the northeastern coast of Japan that was heavily hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Nearly 100 of these "water volunteers," the majority university students from both Japan and abroad, rounded both temporary housing facilities and new prefectural housing complexes as part of a service learning project led by Iwate Prefectural University (IPU), based in Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture. Iwate students hailing from around the Tohoku area in northern Japan were joined by scholarship-funded foreign students from around the world studying at other Japanese universities. Students from sister facilities Ohio University in the United States and Chubu University in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, were also part of the team.

Rather than simply learning about a topic in the classroom, service learning aims to have students go into the field and learn about a certain event or issue first hand. The disaster relief volunteer activities at IPU are one such program. Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary this April, Iwate's only prefectural university is in a unique position with its ties to the local government and few precedents, making the program a center point for setting itself apart from other universities. However, it was a coincidental international connection that grew the September water volunteer event into a wider venture, both reaching across Japan and overseas.

Ohio University associate professor Christopher Thompson speaks at a three-university reception at the Aiina Campus of Iwate Prefectural University, in Morioka, the prefectural capital of Iwate, on Sept. 28, 2018. (Mainichi/Alina Kordesch)

The common thread between the three universities is Ohio University associate professor Christopher Thompson. Born in Kyoto to missionary parents and raised in Hiroshima and suburban Tokyo, he ended up attending Earlham College in Indiana in the Midwestern United States. Professor Jackson Bailey at the college had set up a program in the 1950s to send native English teachers to the Iwate coast, which eventually became the model for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Interested in how he could use his own background to serve Japan and the U.S., Thompson went to study the program. While he never visited Iwate as an undergraduate, he went to visit Erin Kelley, a friend in the program who had been placed in the town of Towa, now part of Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, to see what it was all about.

As Erin was on the final year of her contract in Towa, Thompson rounded goodbye parties with her, meeting the mayor, officials with the local board of education and staff at the town hall. The Japan he found in Iwate was so unlike what he had grown up with, and he was "hooked." Since he had been tasked with bringing Japanese as a second language into Indiana public schools, he began a high school homestay program bringing American students to Towa in 1989 via Erin's connections.

"Long story short, I ended up with a wife and a career in one stop," he joked, referring to that first trip. He ended up marrying Erin, and they lived together in Towa for two years while he did his doctoral research working at town hall. While he was being groomed at Bailey's successor at Earlham, his mentor unfortunately passed away and he had to change course. Fortunately, Thompson received an invitation from Ohio University, where he has been ever since. One of his biggest responsibilities has been supporting the sister university relationship between Ohio University and Chubu University, which also engage in exchange service learning activities.

When the earthquake and tsunami disaster hit the northeastern Japanese coast in March 2011, Thompson discussed his connections to Iwate and to IPU with the then-president and provost of Ohio University. The president then made the "Cherry Blossom Declaration," named for the over 200 trees donated by Chubu, pledging five years of support to projects in Japan. In September 2011, Thompson and his students had joined efforts in Kamaishi and Otsuchi in central Iwate Prefecture, cleaning up the Otsuchi River and desalinating rice fields by planting field mustard. It was that first year when he met IPU professor of nutrition Keiko Chiba -- the creator of the water volunteer project.

Chubu University College of Humanities associate dean Tadashi Shiozawa, closest to the door, leads a group of students from Iwate Prefectural University, Ohio University, Chubu University and the Honjo International Scholarship Foundation delivering boxes of bottled water to residents of a temporary housing block located on the grounds of Yonesaki Junior High School, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Sept. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Alina Kordesch)

"The first time I remember talking to her was (at a roadside rest stop) on the way to Otsuchi from Kamaishi," Thompson recalled. "I think we exchanged (business cards) in the parking lot." Chiba herself remembers how Thompson's eyes "lit up" when she explained her project distributing water to homes without power, running water or gas after the disaster. The yearly September project picked up a corporate sponsor, and went far past its original five years.

Now in its eighth year, students delivered water to temporary housing dotted around the mountains of Rikuzentakata and new prefectural permanent housing, as well as hearing testimony by tsunami survivors from Sept. 29-30. When Typhoon Trami's approach cut the students' time together short, there were tears and hugs during goodbyes and promises to meet again. Many said the experience was one they would not soon forget.

Having nurtured ties between Ohio University and Chubu University, and between Ohio University and IPU, Thompson's next goal is to foster firm domestic ties between Chubu and IPU. This year, a large number of Chubu students joined in the water distribution for the first time, joined by Associate Dean of the College of Humanities Tadashi Shiozawa and Tomohiro Yanagi, Greg King and David Laurence -- all faculty at the Department of English Language and Culture at Chubu with connections to Ohio.

"Last year, (IPU) Vice President (Jun) Ishido came to Chubu to thank us for supporting the volunteer activities the last six years. He of course spoke with our president, and they discussed continued relations between our universities," Chubu's Shiozawa explained. "So this time, we decided to come and experience it for ourselves and meet everyone involved." Of the future of the IPU-Chubu connection, he continued, "I hope that through events like this, we can gradually build connections that allow for things like faculty joint research, interactions between students and inter-school service learning elements."

"I think the end goal for OU, IPU and Chubu is to come up with some kind of sustainable annual service learning protect for which participating students can earn credits from their respective universities," Thompson commented. With blossoming connections between the two domestic universities and IPU hiring Patrick Maher, an Ohio grad and former Chubu instructor who participated in one of the first water volunteer projects, all parties are positive about the future of the three-school endeavor. "We want to establish a sustainable and hopefully permanent program that emphasizes the interaction of students from OU, Chubu, and IPU," said Thompson.

"Each school has something the others lack," Shiozawa said. "It's about trying new things and filling in the gaps together."

(By Alina Kordesch, The Mainichi staff writer)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media