Teacher uses photos to build cultural ties, understanding

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2004

The stereotype of Japanese tourists is they arrive by busloads and the click click of their cameras does not cease until they depart.

Kevin Harding and a group of fellow teachers put a reverse twist on that stereotype when they toured Japan last November: The teachers were the ones arriving by busloads and ceaselessly snapping photos.

Harding was one of about 200 teachers from across the United States visiting Japan as a participant in the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program.

One aim of the program is to increase the level of understanding between the two nations. To help foster that understanding, participants in the program were asked to come up with a way to take their experience back to the classroom. Harding who teaches art, photography and social studies thought a good way would be to make a photographic record of the trip he could use as a teaching tool in the classroom.

For three weeks, the Kenai Alternative High School teacher's camera clicked nonstop.

The group of teachers spent roughly the first half of the trip in Tokyo, then broke into groups of about 20 and traveled to various host cities throughout the island nation. Harding's group went to Okazaki, in central Japan.

Due to his excitement and possibly because of the time change, Harding found himself waking up around 4:30 in the morning throughout the trip. Instead of rolling over and trying to catch a few more winks, he figured he'd get out and try to catch a few candid moments at the beginning of the day in each city.

"I would get up early in the morning and photograph the city waking up," he said.


In "Tuna Auction (Tsukiji Fish Market) - Tokyo," Harding says each fish sells for several thousands of dollars.

Harding hoped the imagines would help his students differentiate the Japanese culture from the culture of other Asian nations and dispel some stereotypes.

"There's a lot of misconception," he said. "(Students) kind of throw Asia together like they think the Japanese eat dogs and the Japanese don't do that."

However, the western conception that Japanese culture is group oriented and places a high value on personal honor seemed to be true, Harding said. He witnessed an illustration of those values first hand in the way the program's Japanese hosts reacted to a teacher who didn't show up for a planned group event.

The teacher blew off the event in favor of sight seeing on her own. The Japanese officials in charge considered kicking the teacher out of the program and sending her home, but settled for an apology at the next group assembly.

"She got up and publicly apologized as any Japanese person who is part of a group would do," Harding said.

If the attitude of the program's hosts demonstrated traditional Japanese values, they weren't the only group to live up to expectations. In at least one way, Harding and his fellow countrymen and women played the role of stereotypical American tourist perfectly.

"You could tell if there were other Americans around," he said. "We're kind of loud."

Harding has used the photos he took on his trip both black and white prints and color slides to teach units on Japan in his classes at Kenai Alternative. He also presented a slide show to the whole school, complete with traditional Japanese refreshments, such as green tea.

Some of the black and white prints will be on display in August at the Borders bookstore in Anchorage. Harding is hoping to exhibit the prints closer to home, but has yet to find a venue.

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