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Visitor caps Williamsburg students’ study of Japan

  • Jackson Ayres, 6, a kindergartner as Helen E. James School in Williamsburg, shows off the origami samurai hat he made during a program Tuesday that included a visit from Sumiko Otsuka,  the Consulate General of Japan in Boston.

    Jackson Ayres, 6, a kindergartner as Helen E. James School in Williamsburg, shows off the origami samurai hat he made during a program Tuesday that included a visit from Sumiko Otsuka, the Consulate General of Japan in Boston. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jackson Ayres, 6, a kindergartner as Helen E. James School in Williamsburg, shows off the origami samurai hat he made during a program Tuesday that included a visit from Sumiko Otsuka,  the Consulate General of Japan in Boston.

— Kindergartners at the Helen E. James School capped their study of Japan and Japanese customs this year with a classroom visit Tuesday from Sumiko Otsuka, of the Consulate General of Japan in Boston.

Otsuka was at the school as part of the School Visit Program, an educational outreach program that sends staff and community volunteers to schools throughout New England. These free presentations are sponsored by the consulate and designed to help students learn about Japan and Japanese culture.

“It is nice to have someone this important come to our small town to share their culture with us. That is something that doesn’t happen that much,” teacher Robin Gurdak-Foley said. “We are thrilled to have her here.”

Otsuka was born in Tokyo and came to the United States in 1997 to study economics at Northeastern University.

“I do programs two or three times a month. We go all over New England and sometimes stay overnight for schools that are far away,” Otsuka said. “Normally we bring more advanced material, but for the young students today, I just brought games and toys.”

During the program Otsuka told the students about Children’s Day in Japan. Unfurling three large koinobori, or Japanese carp windsocks, she explained that windsocks decorate the landscape of Japan from April through early May, in honor of Children’s Day on May 5.

Using pages from a Japanese newspaper, Otsuka showed the class how to make their own origami samurai hats.

The young students were engaged and excited as they learned how to play a group card game designed to teach them a variety of Japanese words.

Before leaving, Otsuka also showed the children how to play with a kendama, a traditional Japanese ball-and-cup toy in which the player swings a ball on a string into wooden cups that are attached to a handle.

“While there are many countries in East Asia, I chose Japan so the kids could focus their attention on one country and culture and not be confused by introducing multiple countries,” Gurdak-Foley said.

The kindergarten classroom had been decorated with Japanese-inspired student art, kimonos, and even a pint-sized Japanese restaurant complete with table settings and plastic representations of popular Japanese foods. Japanese lanterns and Japanese flags hung from the ceiling, while a student-made floral arrangement done in the traditional style of Japanese ikebana, brought additional color to the room.

“Everybody got to make their own kamishibai, which is a story told only through a series of pictures,” Gurdak-Foley said.

The youngsters also tried their hands at poetry and music, learning Japanese songs and how to write poetry in the traditional Japanese haiku style, which is typified by three short lines containing a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5, and waka, a type of classical Japanese poetry using five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 meter.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the kids to be exposed to the real world of Japanese culture,” Principal Stacey Jenkins said. “It is one thing to learn about something from a book, but meeting someone from Japan makes a big impact on the kids.”

Five-year-old Dillon Mimitz said, “I liked making the hats, but the rest was a lot of fun, too.”

Gurdak-Foley said that she has one more treat in store for her class.

“They don’t know it yet, but they are also going to Smith College to see an Asian Art exhibit,” Gurdak-Foley said.

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