From sand dunes to Detective Conan

Jonas Edman with e-Tottori students Jonas Edman with e-Tottori students Takuya Fukushima

Comedian Conan O’Brien recently announced that he will visit Hokuei City (aka “Conan Town”) in Tottori Prefecture, Japan, which is well known for its sand dunes and the manga character, Detective Conan. Detective Conan was created by artist Gosho Aoyama, who was born in Hokuei. In fact, Tottori’s main airport is called the Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport. Tourists from the United States and other countries are drawn to the sand dunes and the “Manga Kingdom,” a nickname for Tottori because it is the home prefecture of many famous manga artists like Aoyama.

Governor Shinji Hirai of Tottori, who leads these efforts to make Tottori a more notable tourist destination, recently met with Governor Phil Scott of Vermont to formalize a sister state relationship. Both governors hope to give their students more opportunities for exchange. These are just two examples of the increasing synergy between the United States and Tottori, the least populous prefecture in Japan. Thanks to the vision of Governor Hirai, SPICE launched a distance-learning course, Stanford e-Tottori, for high school students in Tottori Prefecture in 2016. The course instructor, Jonas Edman, hopes that the course will help to build even more bridges at the grassroots level between Tottori and the United States.

Now in its third year, Stanford e-Tottori enrolls students from public and private schools in Tottori Prefecture and is a cornerstone of Tottori Prefecture’s Global Leaders’ Campus, an initiative by the Tottori Prefectural Board of Education to internationalize the curriculum in all schools in Tottori. Governor Hirai’s vision has provided many Tottori high school students with the opportunity to study with Edman, who engages students in English with Stanford scholars and experts on topics ranging from U.S. high schools to cultural diversity in the United States.

On August 1, 2018, Edman participated in the opening ceremony for the third year of Stanford e-Tottori. He met Superintendent Hitoshi Yamamoto, Office Director Takuya Fukushima (High School Division), several others of the Tottori Prefectural Board of Education, and the new cohort of students. Edman also visited Tottori Nishi High School and gave a special lecture to students. “Though the technology that I use to teach Stanford e-Tottori has improved over the years, I have to say that it was enormously rewarding to meet my students in person,” reflected Edman. “Seeing them in their picturesque home prefecture—and some of them in their school [Tottori Nishi High School]—provided a context that cannot be replicated virtually. My online interaction with the students from now will feel different.”

I also had the chance to visit Tottori Prefecture on August 26, 2018 to give the opening lecture for the third-year offering of Stanford e-Tottori. In attendance were not only the current cohort students but also three students from last year’s cohort. Before class began, I could feel the nervousness among the students as they anxiously waited outside the presentation room. Once class commenced, however, I could sense that their nerves started to settle down. The students gave their best during class, and I was so impressed with their efforts in particular because it was the first lecture of the course. I have no doubt that their English skills and understanding of U.S. society and culture will improve under the mentorship of Edman.

High school students from Tottori Prefecture with SPICE Director Gary Mukai and Stanford Visiting Scholar Junichiro Hirata High school students from Tottori Prefecture with SPICE Director Gary Mukai and Stanford Visiting Scholar Junichiro Hirata
Following the class, Fukushima took Stanford Visiting Scholar Junichiro Hirata and me to Mitaki-en, a village nestled in the mountain town of Chizu in Tottori Prefecture. While strolling around Mitaki-en, I was reminded of a different era and was pleasantly overwhelmed by my senses—most notably the sound of a babbling brook, the smell of an earthen floor of a home from the early 20th century, the taste of powdered green tea, the feel of a tatami mat, and the sight of a faint waterfall. The preservation of this village struck me as symbolic of the people of Tottori—people who seem to have a gift for successfully integrating innovation with tradition.

The Tottori Prefectural Board of Education encourages its students to appreciate Tottori’s historic ties to agriculture and fisheries and its natural beauty. Tottori is also said to be Japan’s best place for stargazing. Simultaneously, the Board of Education instills in its students a need to see the world in a grain of sand through courses like Stanford e-Tottori. To me, helping students appreciate the delicate balance of innovation and tradition lies at the heart of Tottori Prefecture’s Global Leaders’ Campus, and SPICE is honored to be a part of this initiative.