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Japan in a Suitcase Program Changes Lives

By Lacey Ott
For The North American Post

Lacey Ott a fourth grade teacher at Wellington Elementary School in Woodinville delivers a speech about the Japan America Societys Japan in a suitcase program at the societys centennial gala

I am here tonight as an elementary educator, to speak to you about both the impact and importance of the Japan-America Society of Washington State’s educational programs.
Since its inception in 1994, I have been served by this incredible group for more than half of that time, so I feel like I can reasonably speak to the impact I’ve seen on my students, both annually, and generationally.

For those that are not aware of what this program is, in short, my students get to experience a day in the life of a Japanese student. They get to hold Japanese textbooks and peruse them, attempt to use chopsticks, try on uniforms that Japanese school students use every day, and they all but have a heart attack when they discover that school begins in April in Japan. But most importantly —They see how much respect the students have for their teachers, their school, and each other.

As always, my students are most shocked to hear that there are no janitors at school, leaving the Japanese students to clean their own classrooms, bathrooms, school, staff lounge, and even serve their own lunches to their classmates. This understanding helps to foster what I call an “attitude of gratitude,” and leads us to enriching conversations about how differently their actions might be around our school campus if they knew they would be cleaning it all together.

So, what is the impact I see? I see an impact both annually and generationally. Bear with me and I will explain.

Annually, I mean year after year without fail, and immediately following a Japan in a Suitcase (JIS) presentation in my classroom, there is an instantaneous improvement in respect among the students both peer to peer and student to staff.

There is an increased curiosity for learning both the Japanese culture, and the cultures of their peers, of which they hadn’t previously considered getting to know until JIS sparked their interest in celebrating differences while digging for similarities to find common ground.

They begin to respect the looks and smells of each other’s cultural foods.

And they literally ask me to throw out other subjects to give more time to Social Studies so that we can explore culture more in depth.

While each year brings new and special awareness to each group, these are the things that are fostered in my students every year regardless of my student demographics. Last year, after returning from the Gala with a food gift from a generous attendant, my students got to try a very special dessert called yokan.

The unwrapping of the seven fanciful layers of packaging of this exquisite dessert made my students swoon and had one proclaiming that she would, “Go to Japan someday, if nothing else, for the food!”

The Japan in a Suitcase experience doesn’t merely entertain the students; it truly builds bridges of understanding.

When I think of the generational impact I’ve seen in my students because of the Japan in a Suitcase enrichment experience, a student named, well, let’s call him Weston… comes to mind. (He was too shy to let me share his name). I taught Weston in third grade, and he is now a junior in high school. For the last eight years he’s come to visit me off and on to give me the latest life updates, and he proudly proclaimed to me last June that he had survived his first year of Japanese. Knowing his plan for college, this didn’t seem to fit into his career needs, so I was intrigued and had to ask him why he decided to take Japanese, seemingly out of the blue, so late in his high school experience.

His response?
He said, “Well, you know that ‘suitcase project’ you do?”
“Yes,” I said, “go on.”
He replied, “Well I still have it, and for whatever reason, I was looking back at it, and I remembered how fun it was to study Japan and do that thing, with that lady who brought the suitcase of goodies.”

I chuckled and let him know that I still do Japan in a Suitcase, with “that lady,” Lisa, and her suitcase of goodies. While I don’t quite see it yet, I know that his language lessons he took will serve him in some way in his future, all because of a seed that was planted in elementary school because of JIS’s educational programming.

That is generational bridge building, fostering a love for one another.

Another student, also a junior, and classmate of Weston, is Olivia, or Liv as I call her; she has also come to visit me for the past eight years with life updates, but the number one thing that I hear from her is that her vote for her annual family vacation is still, and will always be, for Japan. She says she knows her family can’t afford it, but says she will always dream big, and someday go, even without her family.

In this suitcase project that Weston referred to, we study 25 countries on the Pacific Rim, and yet, Japan still stays everyone’s favorite, and I believe this is because of the hands-on experience that Japan in the Schools provides.

In summary, I can personally attest to the fact that the Japan-America Society’s educational programs have been strategically building the bridges between American culture and Japanese culture in our public schools for the past two decades.

With increasing budget deficits in our public schools across our state, our hands are tied — our hands-on experiences and field trips are becoming a thing of the past.

So, the most special thing about Japan in Schools for me is that this program is completely free to me, my students, and my school, ensuring that we can continue to open our minds to a world outside of our own, and bring Japan to us, even when we can’t go there.

In the spirit of forging friendships and understanding between the peoples of Japan and Washington state, we can continue to build bridges into the next century, and beyond.

Lacey Ott is a fourth-grade teacher at Wellington Elementary, Woodinville. She delivered this speech at the Gala of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington, Westin Hotel, Seattle, November 28, 2023.
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The North American Post is a community newspaper that celebrates Japanese culture in the Greater Seattle area. Founded by 1st generation Japanese-Americans in 1902, the publication is one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the region. Today, with bilingual articles in English and Japanese, the publication connects readers with diverse cultural backgrounds to Seattle’s Japanese community. Our articles include local news, event calendars, restaurant reviews, Japanese cooking recipes, community interviews, and more.