When Nancy Tonkin first arrived in Japan in 1995, she was an educator — a woman with a master’s degree in education from Howard University, with a diploma from a Florida university, and a 10-year teaching stint in Austria. She also had a dream.
“I was hoping to teach English in Japan,” she told The New York Times. “After a long, difficult search, I discovered a job as a substitute teacher for international students at a public school where I could teach in the language I was most proficient in — English.”
Instead, her dreams were shattered by circumstance.
After a whirlwind trip to Japan, Tonkin took off for Okinawa. Her dream of teaching English in Japan had opened the way to a novel method for adapting Western education to the culture. On Okinawa, she taught — on weekends — a class in American popular culture.
American pop culture has always played a role in Japanese youth culture, Tonkin told the Times. During the 1960s, Japanese students were exposed to films like “Rocky,” and the very first “Star Wars” film. Japan wasn’t quite ready for the content — especially its graphic violence and sexuality — but those pop culture images and theme songs were deeply influential on the youth.
“This was the beginning of the whole Western culture and Western values idea,” she said. “I saw it as an incredibly formative experience and cultivated it into my teaching methods.”
The lesson for the nation would be not to take these influences for granted. Cultural practice is shaped by the small patterns that bubble up, Tonkin told the Times. In a society with few learning opportunities, such practices get passed down in the next generation, perpetuating the same patterns. Japan would be wise to learn from that.
Part of this process involved Tonkin and her students meeting socially and musically. Students at Okinawan schools are frequently allowed to conduct concerts and activities that were previously forbidden for cultural reasons.
“Families and teachers across Japan need to help children embrace the arts by allowing them to develop their independent spirit and self-expression,” she told the Times. “They need to find ways to encourage their sense of culture, creativity and independence.”
The American pop culture experience inspired Tonkin to embark on a tour of Japan with the American organization International Dancers, Immigrants and Students. She told the Times that she hoped to share her positive lessons in American culture.
“I realized the value of raising the level of cultural awareness in Japan,” she said. “I’m all about education and culture for everybody. The value is something I wanted to get across.”
Here’s more from the Times on Tonkin’s travels and experiments with American pop culture and Japanese culture: