Imagine Fort George Wright at the turn of the century. The newly established military post just west of downtown is planted with young maples, and brand new brick buildings house soldiers fresh from Fort Spokane, 60 miles away. While Indian uprisings have been few and far between in the past five years, one of the primary purposes of the Fort is to maintain a strong military presence in the area and to keep Indians on the reservations. It is not a place where other cultures are honored. In fact, not only is Fort George Wright named for the infamous colonel responsible for hanging Chief Qualchan and 10 of his tribesmen, not to mention the systematic defeat of the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Palouse tribes, it is a point of pride that the fort exists to keep the local "savages" -- and their culture -- in check. Over the next half-decade, the Fort Wright campus would be home to U.S. soldiers, an army hospital and even an Army Air Corps base used in training airmen for battle against Japan during World War II.
How ironic then, that 100 years later, the brick dormitories are now used as dormitories for young Japanese college students, the huge maple trees form an enormous yellow canopy just outside the windows of a traditional tea room and the heart of the campus is a cultural center that seeks to bridge the gap between two very different cultures.
For 10 years now, the grounds of the former Fort George Wright have been used as the American campus of one of Japan's most prestigious universities for women. In the late 1980s, Mukogawa Women's University of Kobe, Japan, was interested in establishing a campus in the United States for the study of English and of American culture. And while Executive Vice President Hiroshi Takaoka and Japanese Cultural Center Director Michiko Takaoka looked at a number of cities, including New York and Seattle, the best choice for their school was none other than the humble Lilac City.
"I think there are four main reasons Spokane made such a good choice for us," says Michiko Takaoka, recipient of the 2000 Japanese National Annual Diplomacy Award for her work at the Japanese Cultural Center. "First, it was a sister city. It has enjoyed a good relationship to Nishinomiya for more than 20 years, which is really a long time compared to other sister cities. Second is safety, which is very important for a women's institution. The third reason is the exchange of faculties from other universities. And fourth, Spokane has excellent medical facilities."
Mukogawa Women's University purchased Fort George Wright from the Sisters of the Holy Names in 1990 and was open by fall quarter of that year. And while Mukogawa was almost an entirely unfamiliar name to Spokane lips, the school had already built a rock-solid academic foundation in Japan.
"Mukogawa is the biggest private women's institution in Japan," explains Takaoka. "It goes from kindergarten to graduate school, except for primary school."
Students attending Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute's Fall, Winter and Spring quarters are university and junior college sophomore English majors. Summer session is open to Mukogawa students in all majors and classes. This fall, 162 students are enrolled, with 200 expected in the spring. An estimated 4,500 students have attended Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute and gone on to find work in the fields of banking, high-tech, travel, government and education.
When communication skills are so important, it's not surprising that course work at Fort Wright Institute is demanding. The students attend school from 8:30 am-2:30 pm, taking classes in conversation, writing, reading and American studies. They must speak only English in their classrooms, and a sign in the cafeteria urges students to "Please remember, English only." While the students can speak Japanese in the dorms, in the evenings their resident advisors, who are young American collegiate women, plan special programs on anything from baking cookies to learning about American sports, which are again, presented in English.
A crash course in America
A significant portion of what the students learn comes from the ordinary things we take for granted -- shopping, eating in restaurants, taking the bus and going to movies. Large groups of students from Mukogawa can often be seen downtown at bookstores, department stores, and restaurants, buying American things, eating American food and above all, practicing their English language skills. During the semester, the girls get a chance to experience American culture firsthand when they go out in pairs to spend a weekend with an American family.
"Their home stay is just one weekend," says Patrice Pendell, activities coordinator for the Cultural Center at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute. "But if you ask the students, their most memorable experience in America is the homestay experience, even though it's only for two days. It's really a great opportunity for the Japanese students to be invited to stay in American homes, whether it's a retired couple or a family with six kids."
While their homestay families often take them to the movies or out for dinner, or to visit Green Bluff or Mt. Spokane, for the students one of the best things about their homestay weekend is that it's a chance to see how well their English is progressing.
"The most important things we learn here are listening ability and conversation. Spokane teachers understand, others don't understand as well," says Kiyomi Watanabe, a Mukogawa University sophomore at Fort George Wright. "My homestay family sometimes does not understand my English, and that is hard. So it makes me want to practice."
In addition to the homestay program, there are other opportunities for the girls to participate in the larger community of Spokane. Students at Mukogawa participate in several festivals for the community throughout the year, including the upcoming Bunka No Hi cultural celebration on Nov. 3 and Japan Week in April, not to mention their participation in one of the city's most popular yearly events.
"Every single student runs Bloomsday," says Takaoka. "They enjoy being a part of the community."
The Japanese Cultural Center
Spokane, in turn has accepted and embraced both the college and its students, due largely to the work of Takaoka and Pendell at the Japanese Cultural Center. In terms of outreach and promoting understanding, the Cultural Center has done an incredible job of presenting Japanese culture to the local community with a variety of activities -- including kamishibai (Japanese storytelling), shiatsu demonstrations, taiko drumming performances, Japanese cooking classes -- and onsite resources, including a Japanese library and displays of traditional Japanese clothing, toys and food. In addition to the children's books in Japanese, the center's library also has books on architecture and cooking, Japanese magazines and newspapers and even Japanese textbooks.
In addition to offering workshops for area educators, a speakers' bureau and the Friendship Doll Program (see "Dolls of diplomacy," page 17), The Japanese Cultural Center also regularly offers one of its most popular activities, the tea ceremony, throughout the year. One of the most interesting aspects of the quietly beautiful tea room is its name, Ho-rai-tei, which means "a tranquil place far to the east of Japan."
"It was an easy name for the place -- it fits," explains Takaoko. "And to the Japanese ear, it sounds like Fort Wright."
A cultural mirror
"Living in another culture is like having a mirror to reflect on our culture," says Takaoka. "It helps us to see how different and how much the same our cultures are. Without a mirror, we do not know ourselves."
Just spending a day and a half at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute as an American, it's fascinating to compare our culture to the center's representations of Japanese culture. For the students, the contrast is immediate and thorough, as they are literally immersed in American culture.
Emi Yamanishi and Kiyomi Watanabe have just returned from their East Coast trip to Boston and Washington, D.C., and agreed to an interview, in spite of the fact that they'd arrived back in Spokane very late the night before.
"Speaking English is very difficult," says Kiyomi Watanabe. "I am lonely sometimes, and homesick, but I have my good friend here, my best friend," she laughs, hugging Yamanishi. In addition to homesickness, the girls also must learn to navigate such tricky American customs as tipping, and endure the embarrassment of American restrooms.
"In Japan, the doors come down, very low," says Yamanishi, demonstrating with her hand. "Here they are open at the bottom."
"It's a big privacy issue," adds Marie Whalen, director of student services.
Restaurant procedures in America, particularly ones that even seasoned natives find thorny from time to time, are also hard to get used to at first.
"In Japan, you pay at the cash register," says Yamanishi. "Here you have to pay on the table with the tip. I was embarrassed. It is hard to know what to tip."
Still, the girls are enjoying their stay and find a lot about America that they like. One of their favorite restaurants in Spokane is Cucina! Cucina!, and American chocolate, both Godiva and Hershey's, is a big hit. In addition to Disney films and romantic comedies like Never Been Kissed and Pretty Woman, the girls also enjoy more violent movie fare along the lines of Mission Impossible and Face Off.
"American movies are very dynamic. I like them more," says Watanabe. "There are guns and lots of action. Japanese movies are not interesting. There are swords, and they are slower."
Both students are eager to cram in as much English as they can; Watanabe hopes to find a job in the hotel industry and Yamanishi wants to be a flight attendant with an American airline upon graduating.
"I want to do my best, and this is why I speak English every day, even though it is very difficult," says Watanabe. "I want to be able to communicate with Americans."
Takaoka and Pendell both hear plenty of observations on American life from the other students throughout the year as well.
"They often are surprised to see Dad in the kitchen," says Takaoka. "They are amazed that Dad is being the dishwasher, that he's even cooking or cleaning. In Japan it is not that way. Men in Japan work late and they socialize late; they often don't come home until the kids are asleep."
The freedom of American women is also fascinating to many Japanese girls.
"When you are number two, it is easy to hide behind number one," explains Takaoka. "There is some hesitation still to be the one in the top position, with all the responsibility. We always remind the girls that in America, women politicians and women business leaders have gained their status with hard work." Even in school, the girls must learn how to be as opinionated and outspoken as their American counterparts.
"In the Japanese educational system, classes tend to be lectures," says Whalen. "They come here for the first time, and they're expected to participate and share their opinions. It's a bit of a culture shock at first, but they get used to it and then they love it."
Through their resident advisors, the students get a chance to experience American culture through the eyes of someone close to their own age.
Most importantly, the students get a sense of what it means to be brought up Japanese after spending a period of three or four months in the United States.
"After they come here, they know their identity," says Takaoka. "I remember not too long ago, one of the students, as she was leaving, said to me, 'For the first time, I realized that I'm Japanese.' That's what we try to do, to get them to think about being American, and then from that, what it means to be Japanese."