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Seasons Of The RSP: An Online Teacher's Reflection on Teaching About Japan

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High school student honorees of SPICE's online course on Japan
Student honorees of the 2018 Reischauer Scholars Program with Consul General Tomochika Uyama and RSP Instructor Naomi Funahashi.
Photo credit: 
Rylan Sekiguchi

Since joining SPICE in 2005, my annual calendar has revolved around not spring flowers, caterpillars dangling from trees, and falling leaves around the beautiful Stanford campus, but the schedule of the Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP), Stanford’s online course on Japan and U.S.–Japan relations for U.S. high school students. As the manager and instructor of the RSP, I have had the pleasure (and truly, the honor) of teaching this online course for 14 years. We accept applications beginning in August, outreach efforts ramp up in September and October, and new cohorts of talented U.S. high school students are selected every November. With January comes the updating of the syllabus with new readings, topics, and video lectures, and identifying and inviting guest speakers for the virtual classes. And the highlight of my year—every year—is on February 1, when the new cohort signs into our online learning platform ready to engage in this new community, connect over shared interests, learn from their differences, and to embark upon the RSP journey together.

It is now early June, and the 2019 Reischauer Scholars Program is, unbelievably, soon coming to an end. This year’s RSP journey has led us through explorations of tales of samurai, the modernization of Meiji Japan through the lens of filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro, comparative perspectives on colonial and wartime legacies through textbooks, and lessons on civil liberties as told by someone who was sent to a Japanese American internment camp with his family as a 9-year-old boy.

While this online course has always approached the study of Japan and U.S.–Japan relations with an intense academic rigor befitting Stanford University, I also wanted to offer students access to the personal stories of practitioners who play an active role in Japanese society and the U.S.–Japan relationship that we study. One of the wonderful aspects of teaching online is that for our weekly virtual classroom sessions—where all students meet synchronously using Zoom video conferencing software—we are able to welcome guest speakers to join us from anywhere in the world.

As we explored the U.S.–Japan security relationship this year and the controversies surrounding the presence of U.S. military bases in Okinawa, for example, students met with an Okinawan native who works on the U.S. Air Force Base in Kadena. Learning about how her experiences and perspectives inform her own efforts to enhance U.S.–Japan relations gave the students new insight into the impact of international policy upon individuals and the communities in which they live.

For our module on U.S.–Japan diplomacy we were joined by the Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Sapporo, Rachel Brunette-Chen, who talked about how her interests in connecting the U.S. and Japan have informed her career in the U.S. State Department. RSP students often cite international relations and diplomacy as two high-interest fields for their future undergraduate studies and career aspirations, so they made the most of this opportunity to ask thoughtful questions about careers in Foreign Service. Given the diverse career tracks available in the State Department, students were inspired to learn that they could take their multidisciplinary interests and apply them in an international context for years to come.

As we grappled with the various challenges facing modern Japanese society during the last few weeks of class—including students mired in a test-centric system, the demographic realities of an aging population and declining birth rates, pervasive issues of gender inequality, and minority rights, among others—it was important to gain an understanding of how these issues are being addressed and experienced by real people. Our final guest speaker for the 2019 RSP, a Japanese American entrepreneur and educator living and working in Tokyo, shared his first-hand perspectives on the state of entrepreneurship and innovation in contemporary Japan.

Perhaps the most memorable of the online video conferencing sessions this year were the two joint virtual classes with the students of the Stanford e-Japan Program. Stanford e-Japan is an online course that engages Japanese high school students in the study of U.S. society and U.S.–Japan relations, and is comprised of students from across Japan. The rich, open discussions and friendly international camaraderie fostered during these joint sessions are always a delight to observe. I know that many of my RSP students—and many of the Stanford e-Japan students, as well—will treasure these experiences and relationships for years to come.

In our virtual class on diplomacy, one student asked, “How can we, as high school students, make a real impact on the U.S.–Japan relationship?” “By taking the initiative to be active participants in courses like the Reischauer Scholars Program,” replied Ms. Brunette-Chen, “you are already on your way. In sharing what you learn about Japan, you are also raising awareness about the importance of the U.S.–Japan relationship among your peers and school communities.” Indeed, these 2019 Reischauer Scholars are already on their way. As the spring flowers, dangling caterpillars, and fall leaves continue to come and go in the years ahead, I am eager to see the different ways in which their impact upon U.S.–Japan relations will continue to take shape. Who knows? Perhaps a few will return to the RSP years from now—this time not as students, but as guest speakers who coach and inspire the Reischauer Scholars of the future.


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The Reischauer Scholars Program is one of several online courses for high school students offered by SPICE, Stanford University, including the China Scholars Program, the Sejong Scholars Program (on Korea), and the Stanford e-Japan Program.


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