High school student Gaku Maruyama's life changed when he traveled outside Japan for the first time to Laos during his last summer vacation to help build a school.
Now his dream is to see more of the world after he graduates and eventually becomes an overseas aide worker.
"Japanese are known for being kind and gentle-mannered. But the people in Laos proved to be even more so than here," in Japan, Maruyama says. "They made every possible effort to communicate with us in Japanese and even tried teaching me Laotian. I was shocked by their kindness, and now want to teach others about them now that I'm back home."
Photo Credit: Asia & Japan Watch
Maruyama, 17, traveled to rural Laos as part of a volunteer work and homestay program set up by Sakura International High School, where he is now a third-year student at its Tokyo branch.
Since 2007, the school has held its Laos Festival four times so far to promote the country to the public, where students stage a bazaar and Laotian performers sing and dance as dealers offer Laotian foods. This year's event will be held on May 23 and 24 at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.
Located in the Yoyogi neighborhood of Tokyo, the school started in 1992 as an alternative for students who opted to leave mainstream schools. Sakura International High School, which is now officially recognized as a correspondence school, provides a curriculum that is more flexible than those of other schools. Its students wear uniforms and attend classes in regular classrooms.
The school has been involved in building primary schools in Laos, one of Asia's poorest countries. Since 1999 it has built eight modern schoolhouses with red tile roofs, white walls and concrete floors in areas where classrooms are often little more than shacks. Sakura International High School has also assisted in the building of two others.
The effort isn't just charity, says Yuji Arai, the principal at Sakura International High School. It is also a way for Japanese students to learn about themselves.
“Before they go they are unable to see themselves in perspective, because they are caught up in their own problems," he says. "When they come back home they bring back a different spirit and want to do something for others. Some have gone on to work overseas after they graduate.”
It was the students themselves who hit upon the idea of building schools in Laos, according to Arai, when they sought a theme for the school's annual culture festival.
“In the past they would donate the money they made from the event to international charities such as the Red Cross,” says Arai. “But many of the students said they felt unsatisfied to simply receive a thank you letter in return for their efforts. They wanted to see for themselves what the fruits of their labor were being used for.”
Arai himself led the first group of students to Laos, where they stayed with local families and helped on the construction of a school in Ban Pakpo, located north of Vientiane.
“The students were shocked," says Arai. "They met people who had no toilets and no video games, but who nonetheless were able to enjoy their lives and the company of friends and family. That’s when my own students began to realize how strange and self-focused their own thinking was.”
Many Japanese hold a negative image of students unable to fit into the standard educational system, says Arai. Often they are seen as lagging behind the rest of society.
“But if anything, the students we accept are more serious, more delicate and more kindhearted than their peers. Because they are able to sense more, it’s easier for them to feel more insecure than others.”
In Laos, says Arai, they found those qualities valued and shared by many of the families with whom Sakura International High School students stayed.
The building project that he has nurtured, he says, was inspired by his own homeroom teacher when he was attending an elementary school in Ueda, Nagano Prefecture, where Sakura International High School's main facility is located.
“I think my own teacher set a great example. He would lead us into the woods at the back of the school after our lessons to gather mushrooms and ferns that we could sell for pocket money, which we could spend on our own activities.
“What I am doing now is basically the same. I lead them to where they can build a school for others, but it is they who gain the best education in the world.”
Source: Ashai Shimbun - Asia & Japan Watch