On his recent visit to Japan, Warren Lee Cohen, codirector of Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto and director of its Waldorf teacher education programs, was asked to address the theme of multiculturalism in the context of a Waldorf education at Osaka Prefecture University. Although there are people living in Japan from many different countries, their numbers are relatively small, and most are from East Asia. Japan does not grant work visas easily, has quite limited immigration, and has very few established foreign communities. People from other cultures are called outsiders (gaijin). Even Japanese who are of mixed heritage or have lived outside Japan for a time are considered as gaijin. Prejudice against such people, residents and citizens, is not uncommon. In the most recently reported census, in 2010, 98.7% of the respondents stated they were Japanese. Even the largest groups of non-Japanese, from Korea and China, made up only 0.36% and 0.33%, respectively, of the resident population of 127,007,000 people. Why was Warren invited to speak about multiculturalism?
In 2013, Osaka City, where this talk was held, reported that foreigners made up only 4.4% of its population, making the city quite homogenous as far as the nationality of its residents is concerned. However, two ethnic neighborhood communities, one Korean and one Chinese, have emerged there in the last few decades, and Osaka has a number of non-Japanese schools, for example, Korean, Chinese, and International. Also, the demographics of Japan are not nearly as homogenous as they were 150 years ago, or even 35 years ago. Although the number of non-Japanese living in Japan has been decreasing, the number of Japanese who grew up overseas or are of mixed ethnic background and are living in Japan has been steadily increasing in recent decades. These increases are expected to continue due to its aging and decreasing population necessitating the need for more foreign workers and to growing interest in Japan by people from other countries. As a result, some people in Japan are beginning to wonder how society should deal with these changes and likely a more diverse population. Interest in the notion of multiculturalism and how it can best be achieved is slowly awakening.
So, on June 19, 2015, Warren engaged an audience of 65 teachers, teachers in training, students, and professors with discourses, stories, and discussions related to the theme: “Challenges and Practices of Waldorf Education in Multicultural Cities—Toronto and Osaka.” His lecture was part of an on-going teacher education program offered by Osaka Prefecture University, which is trying to bring new life to the teaching methods and practices used in Japanese schools. This innovative program strives to address current societal issues and ideas that the standardized national curricula ignore.
Warren began by briefly describing the demographics of Toronto, highlighting that it is a thoroughly cosmopolitan and multicultural city with many ethnic and immigrant groups settled and living comfortably within it. English is the main language spoken, one of the two official languages of Canada, the other being French. Yet, it is common for people to speak other languages at home with family or with friends. Warren raised the question of how the various members of such a diverse community can best flourish in appreciation of their diversity and without leaving anyone feeling excluded. He pointed out how Toronto’s lively multicultural population and society stands in strong contrast to the mood and demographics of Osaka.
By celebrating festivals that are meaningful to various members of the community, neighborhoods and schools can cultivate awareness of and respect for people from other cultures. Warren chose the celebration of the Christian festival of Whitsun, also known as White Sunday or Pentecost, at the Toronto Waldorf School to illustrate this in practice. He first explained the essence of the Whitsun Festival, which in the Christian tradition comes 40 days after Easter. It recalls the period of bereavement and doubt felt by the apostles after Christ Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, His return and appearance before them, and their becoming multilingual after being permeated by the Holy Spirit in order for them to spread His word.
Warren then explained how the Toronto Waldorf School has attempted to cultivate appreciation and build bridges for its multicultural population by incorporating this celebration into the school’s festival life in a unique way. The school community separates into the more than 25 different language groups that comprise this community. Each group speaks in turn the same poem in its traditional language. This allows everyone to listen and speak, to sense wonder through these different languages, to consider “otherness,” and to experience the difficulties inherent in living in a place where the lingua franca is not one’s own.
To give the participants a feeling of this experience, Warren had everyone stand up and people call out in turn “Hello” in whatever languages they knew. It was quite a surprise to hear so many different greetings from a group that, for the most part, was ‘homogenous,’ and the ice of the lecture format and structure was broken.
Next, the whole group read aloud the same poem (which asks for Spirit’s assistance in working for the good of others) as is used in the Toronto Waldorf School, first in English (which all educated Japanese have studied for many years) and then in Japanese. At Warren’s request, a few participants, who were from minority cultures, then volunteered to spontaneously translate the first verse of the poem into Taiwanese and then Korean. Warren added Portuguese. Thus, the participants had the experience of hearing this same poem through the unique genius of five different languages, five different cultural lenses. He then asked them to consider the differing characteristics and qualities of each language they had heard and how it had affected them.
Poem for Whitsun
Breathe within me
You Spirit in all things
That I may truly think
You Spirit in all things
That I may truly work
You Spirit in all things
That I may truly love
You Spirit in all things
That I may truly help
You Spirit in all things
That I may never forget
A few participants compared how some of the different languages sounded. One mentioned that “The experience of hearing different languages was really something…. We often omit the word ‘I’ in Japanese and indicate it indirectly. We omit many words, while still expressing many things.” Yes, often what we omit has meaning, too. In this age of the consciousness soul, that Japanese nearly always omit themselves in their verbal communications is something to ponder. Another participant was brought to tears by hearing her native language spoken freely in public. This was a first for her. She said that she had experienced so much prejudice as a person from a minority culture in Japan. She was completely surprised by how emotional she felt by hearing her native tongue invited into this public forum. Her openness in sharing this emotional response allowed a number of others to reveal how this process touched them in an authentic way. It was a risk to be so open, but many participants expressed gratitude for the experience, saying it made them more aware of one another and their own cultural and linguistic prejudices and more interested to find out about others and the experiences that each brings to their community.
This experience brought these differences to light and helped participants awaken to the unique perspectives, both the gifts and the one-sidedness that each culture carries. Through gaining these perspectives, they came to a clearer insight into how our human nature transcends culture, faith, sexual orientation, and economic and social status. They caught a glimpse of what is universally human in each of us.
To deepen the experience of the other and to highlight the importance of trusting others and of self-disclosure and making oneself vulnerable in this process, Warren then told the audience about how the events of the Holocaust had impacted his family. When he was growing up, his family tree was on a wall in the house, and he passed by it many times each day. One of his grandfathers had traced it back many generations on both sides of his family. In the 1940s, a number of branches just stopped. In answer to his questions, he had been told since he was young that those relatives had been killed simply because they were Jewish in the genocide known as the Holocaust during World War II. One day, his mother said, “It is likely that you too will be judged because of your Jewish heritage.”
We all carry unconscious prejudices and stereotypes inside us as a result of our upbringing, learning and experiences. To reduce the tensions and misconceptions among us and others, we need to recognize and confront these thoughts and feelings and try to see the true human being in others that lies behind their external features and circumstances. This striving by members of a community is necessary for them to develop acceptance and appreciation of people different than themselves and cultures different than theirs.
Warren next raised the audience’s awareness of two common pitfalls people, organizations, and communities need to avoid when attempting to become more accepting and respectful of others: tokenism and apologism. Both impede advances in trying to make a community more multiculturally inclusive.
A tokenistic gesture is when something is done only in a superficial, and not in a meaningful, way. The intent, even if unconscious, is usually just to be able to demonstrate that something has been done to accommodate others who are outside the majority or to fulfill a requirement. As an example, Warren mentioned that some schools in North America try to celebrate Chanukah (Jewish), Kwanza (African), and the Winter Solstice (Pagan) all together with Christmas (Christian), or celebrate all of them one right after the other in the last week or two of December. The intentions might be well meaning. However, for all of these festivals to be celebrated authentically and in a spiritually nourishing way in such a short period of time is likely impossible. Also, so many celebrations will certainly be overwhelming for the children, leaving them over stimulated, exhausted, and confused.
An apologist gesture takes place when people or groups apologize for doing something that in fact they need not apologize for or for not doing something they could not do well. Warren again gave a common example from North America, when schools apologize to non-Christians for celebrating Christmas, or apologize for not celebrating all of the other holidays that take place at the same time of the year. He also spoke about the other contrasting apologist gesture as used in history: when a particular way of doing something, usually considered the traditional way, is considered unquestionable and unchangeable under any circumstances or for any reason. This is a dogmatic approach, which cannot but exclude others.
Of course, these two failures can occur together. It is not uncommon for schools to hold Christmas concerts that include a few Chanukah songs and perhaps a song about Kwanza and to say that they are sorry for only having time for the Christmas concert and not others. Another example is holding what is obviously a Christmas festival but calling it something else, in effect soft-selling it. We need to be honest with ourselves and be ever striving to find the spirit fount out of which community festival life can be renewed.
Warren rounded off the presentation by asking if anyone wished to make any comments. Participants expressed gratitude that the topic of multiculturalism was helpful and important both for Japanese people to think about and to work towards. One participant added, however, that there are many hurdles to overcome before the country can become more open to foreigners and embrace their cultural gifts.
The population of Japan, as well as that of other East Asian countries, is likely to continue to diversify under the further and increasing pressures of the globalization of communications, trade, entertainment, and industry and of changing demographics. As many nations attempt to open up further and to adjust to more of these foreign people and their customs being within their midst, will they address their differences in meaningful ways? Will they try to integrate these foreigners into their cultures or keep them primarily outside, only using them as sources of labor? Will these outsiders be dealt with sympathetically and with efforts to be inclusive or antipathetically and dogmatically? Will Japan and other countries try to become more multicultural? Westerners, too, need to recognize that they will also need to adjust their ways of thinking and doing things in order to be more acceptable to, more accepting of, and to fit in with other peoples and their customs. As anyone who follows the news these days knows, these are important issues in our times with grave consequences when poorly thought through decisions are made. These events make it all the more evident why we need to think a whole lot more about that which is universally human in us.
Reprinted courtesy of Pacifica Journal, A bi-annual newsletter published by the Anthroposophical Society in Hawai'i, 2016, Volume 49, Number 1
Warren Lee Cohen is a Codirector of and the Director of Teacher Education at Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto. With a background both in Physics and Sculpture, Warren has found his niche in working with children and adults in Waldorf education. He led a combined class through eight years at the Olympia Waldorf School and then went to England to direct the Foundation Studies Programme at Emerson College. He lectures internationally, has developed programs to train Camphill coworkers, taught both physics and English in Waldorf high schools and led numerous workshops in subjects as far ranging as Projective Geometry and the Art of Baking Bread. His publications include Raising the Soul (practical exercises for personal development), Baking Bread with Children, and Dragon Baked Bread.
Brian Daniel Bresnihan has been involved in English language teaching for 35 years. He began teaching English at a small language school in Hiroshima before spending 4 years studying at Teachers College, Columbia University, after which he returned to Japan. Currently, he is a professor in the School of Economics at University of Hyogo in Kobe, Japan. His research interests include Waldorf education, EFL classroom practices, and the use of TOEIC scores in schools.
Michiko Fujii came across Waldorf education in 1996 after having worked as a translator and an English teacher, and while in the midst of raising the first two of her three children. She is a certified kindergarten and grades Waldorf teacher, and has been mainly teaching in Waldorf early childhood but also about Anthroposophy and education to teacher trainees and other adults for about 15 years.