Thursday, January 24, 2008


One thing that always amazes me about the place I worked yesterday is that the university is right next to that lovely little river, with all those birds and trees, and although it is only a one minute walk out the back gate I never see students down there. My students often tell me how much they enjoy cherry blossoms and autumn leaves and how they love 'nature.' But apparently they'd rather stay on the tiny campus at lunchtime or when they do not have classes than go down to the river, even when the cherry blossoms lining the river are in full bloom in spring, or the leaves are turning in autumn, and the weather is beautiful.

In one of my classes there I have only two students. This is because it is a second year elective class, and since the vast majority of students would rather not be learning English, I always get only a handful of students. (Unfortunately next year I will not have this class, which is one of my favourites.)

Yesterday during that class two cormorants suddenly flew past the window, startling us. We went over to the window to look down at the river, and there we saw another two, fishing busily. The students told me they had never seen a cormorant before and did not know what it was. I did not expect them to know the English name, but what astonished me was that when I told them the Japanese name they'd never heard of that either. This made me think I'd made a mistake, so I looked it up in my dictionary to check I'd got it right. I had. They hadn't even heard of ukai, which I found puzzling. I had heard of fishing using cormorants before I even came to Japan, and thought it was famous.

We could also see an egret from the window. They knew what that was, because I have taken them for a walk along the river twice, once in spring and once in autumn, as a part of a class project. We saw egrets then, and I taught them the name. They had never seen an egret before that, either.

They seemed to enjoy those walks. They had a lot of fun writing about them afterwards, too. I typed up their writing and made little 'books' for them, with photographs I'd taken on the walks. They spent ages rereading their books and poring over the photographs. And they loved feeding the gulls and ducks. They'd never done that before.

But they have never gone back to the river without me, even though it's just a step out the back gate. I know, because I asked today. This has been true for every group I've done this with at that school, in the last four or five years.

I'm not quite sure why I find that so shocking, but I do.


torrygirl said...

Maybe they get so used to seeing and reading about everything in text books that they forget they're able to see things in real life. Although that wouldn't explain why they never went back after going on your walks...

Anonymous said...

BadAunt, you can't fool everyone! You know that the idea of 'nature' is local to particular cultures: Japan hasn't had its Wordsworth, or had the wider N. European/American experience of the 'sublime' or romantic impulses in landscapes.

The idea that 'raw' nature - such as this is around concrete banked Japanese urban rivers - might have insights for us depends on a very large amount of cultural inheritance - ranging from Jack London, the bird paintings of Audubon, through to the Roman friezes of birds and small animals at Pompei & Herculaneum which had such a huge influence on the European 18th & 19th centuries... You've inherited this rich and various tradition - but your students haven't.

Love of natural isn't natural you know!

Lia said...

That's a shame - forget about insights from nature: enjoying a pretty place to eat lunch I think is pretty universal. Then again, I'm not Japanese, so maybe Anon is right.
I can see how shyness or culture or whatever might keep them from discovering the river, but once they've seen it, I would think they would go back on their own, if only to get a little bit of quiet.

Keera Ann Fox said...

I think Anonymous may be on to something, that it is cultural. Granted, culture notwithstanding, how do children grow up not knowing the names of local birds? Do they not teach such things in Japan?

Back to the cultural thing: I sort of experience the opposite here in Norway. In Norway, hiking in the mountains is The Thing To Do. I, however, do not like scrambling over rocks or getting my feet wet, so I tend not to hike. I do take walks around the city and my local pond, and note what the trees and birds and weather and buildings are like. I don't know anybody else who does this. If they walk for enjoyment, it must be on a trail, not a sidewalk.

Badaunt said...

There is definitely a different attitude to the enjoyment of nature, although I think you could argue that there is quite a strong tradition of nature appreciation in Japan - after all, Shinto is very rooted in nature. But it seems to be highly specific, narrow and selective, which is why, when the cherry blossoms bloom, certain spots that are 'famous' for cherry blossoms will be absolutely packed with picnickers who have often come a long way to see the blossoms. Yet in places where the blossoms are just as lovely (the little river, for one) there are only a few locals taking the time to enjoy them, generally old people. Because it is not an famous spot, and therefore ... what?

I thought I was going somewhere with this thought, but apparently I wasn't.

But a few years ago at a local train station the news got out that the railway company was going to cut down some beautiful several-hundred-year-old cherry blossom trees alongside the railway line. The only people who cared enough to protest (unsuccessfully) were the resident foreigners. There is now a convenience store on the spot where those trees used to be.

No, I really DON'T get it. For a moment there while I was reading these comments I thought I had an idea of what it all meant, but I don't.

kenju said...

Could they p[ossibly consider that a time-waster? I surely hope not.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe this is because teenagers spend so much time in front of TV or computer that they don’t care much about the natural world? I know that my teenage nephews and nieces wouldn’t be able to say what a cormorant is even thought they are the outdoorsy types.

Faerunner said...

I'd agree with yuliya - it may be the technology standard of the day that's preventing these kids from being interested in nature - TV shows don't do much for kids as far as showing them what's outside the window and parents' fears of germs outside are astounding. I know over here in the US, my science professor told us a few stories about kids who were so scared to go outside and play that they wouldn't go out even when she tried to drag them on a nature walk in the woods between the school and their homes - they thought there were "lions and tigers and bears" out there!

I think it's a combination of a failure to get kids outside and spark their interest in nature at young ages (so many times we use TV as the babysitter now, instead of letting them out in the yard to play), and the fact that despite all the "edumacation" they're getting, it's very non-nature (non-world, really) focused. It's sad that the only place some people get knowledge of the outside world is from movies and TV stories on global warming.