The 23rd Shimane Grassroots Summit (July 1 – July 8) was to be the fulfillment of a promise I made to my daughter Kolleen that I would take her to Japan one day. When I picked up the brochure about this annual gathering I had little idea what it was all about. But the opportunity arrived at an auspicious time: Kolleen had just turned 18 and would be graduating high school just before the event. And as she was to begin the adult chapter in her life, I figured I would not have another opportunity. The price was unbeatable too. We were going.
I could not have staged a better way for us to see Japan. The opportunity afforded us the usual tourist experiences at restaurants, hotels and attractions but also, more importantly, the unusual experience of being injected into the life of ordinary Japanese including a brief homestay. On July 4 we were untethered from the safety of hotel amenities and were bussed to a local community center, a junior college and also a middle school where I witnessed several things that would make sense in any school here:
- Session in summer. The Japanese are educated all year round.
- Uniforms. Even the shoes were uniform because everyone wore the indoor slippers. There were no activist t-shirts, grunge or any distractions that belied attitude or social status.
- Cleaning. On our arrival every student had a broom, brush, mop or sponge in their hand. It was Friday and the school was being cleaned—not by the staff, not by paid janitors but by the students. And I don’t mean half-heartedly. As I approached the stairwell, a girl was literally on the floor polishing an area with a cloth. Another thing I noticed: no signs of vandalism.
- Choral duty. We were ushered into a music room where all the students sang. We were given sheet music to sing along too. They sang very strong and very well—what a great thing to do.
- Identity. Despite all the activities that annealed their society, it struck me that rather than loose individual identity, the Japanese have much more understand of who they are and what they do and why.
Our visit to the middle school ended ceremoniously with songs, closing statements and—how
humbling—many gifts and solicitations for our autographs. Before the Grassroot Summit, I had never heard of Matsue City or Shimane prefecture. But now I will never forget these places and the students at that middle school.