Shigeru Miyagawa moved from Hiratsuka, Japan to N. Carolina when he was 10. Three years later, he moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He clearly remembers his first day at Lakewood Elementary School. He never before had seen children with light hair, freckles, or braces.
“Being the only Asian, I felt lonely, isolated, and sad,” he says, “and I felt that way all the time.” Miyagawa spoke only Japanese and for months he sat in fifth grade unable to understand a word. He grasped his first English sentence watching Bonanza on TV.
“I used to come home in the evenings and out of frustration, I remember crying, telling my mother, ‘I want to go home. I can’t speak the language. We have no tofu nor Japanese rice. Why are we here?'”
Now, the 48-year-old professor of linguistics has developed a way to help children across America live happier and more productively in a diverse society. He recently created StarFestival, an interactive, multimedia CD-ROM for children in kindergarten through grade 12. The program focuses on Japanese culture and issues of bi-cultural identity, including who am I? Where did I come from? And how do I fit in?
Although the project focuses specifically on Japan, children of any background can relate. Recently the Boston Public Schools, where most students are from minority or immigrant families, adopted the program for use in all 210 first grade classrooms in 82 elementary schools beginning in the fall of 2001. More than 4,000 children will use the program each year.
Debbie Washington, senior program director of social studies in the Boston schools, says: “Children from many countries sit in classes every day feeling like they don’t belong. StarFestival shows them it’s acceptable to talk about culture and validates their worth. Kids love it because it focuses not on how people are different, but on how we are the same.”
The son of a physics professor, Miyagawa moved to Durham, N. Carolina because his father taught at Duke University. Three years later, his father landed a new job at the University of Alabama. George Wallace then was governor, and Tuscaloosa was not a friendly place for the only Japanese family in town.
“You walked out a door or walked down a street, and people stood and stared. It was overt discrimination, and it was terrible,” Miyagawa says. “As a child you wonder, what am I doing wrong?”
After drifting a few semesters in college, he transferred to a university in Tokyo, longing for acceptance. But because he had developed American mannerisms and speech, he says, “the Japanese did not accept me as Japanese.
“It was probably the single, most painful realization of my identity. I had my hopes up that returning to Japan would cure all the pain of the past. It was just a further reminder that I was not American, and I was not Japanese. I was neither, and I was both.”
It was not until he completed StarFestival in 1999, he says, that he made peace with his early experience. “The big thing I learned is that it’s okay to have more than one home,” he says. “You don’t have to choose between two countries. It’s not either/or. Finally I realized that home is not a geographic place, but it’s a place in your heart and soul.”
THE STORY LINE
The autobiographical CD-ROM, which includes more than 300 photographs and 40 minutes of documentary footage shot in Miyagawa’s hometown, tells the story of a Japanese professor who returns to his homeland after 30 years. Viewers discover the professor’s electronic diary in the street and use it to piece together the professor’s journey as well as the Japanese experience since World War II.
The program explores topics like Japanese music and cuisine, the kimono, fathers and sons, fishing, Buddhism, the Japanese tragic hero, traditional industries, and festivals. The piece explores stereotypes and is a personal look at the way Japan has changed since World War II as well as what it means to go home again.
Asian actor George Takei, who was Mr. Sulu on the Star Trek TV series, narrates the voice of the professor. His involvement in the project had personal meaning for Miyagawa, who as a boy adored him on the screen because he was the only other Asian he knew of. He later learned that Takei had had his own painful past; his family had been in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Miyagawa named the program StarFestival for the Japanese festival of the same name, which occurs annually on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is a day celebrated with floats and food when people bridge their differences and come together.
StarFestival recently won a major award in Japan for cutting-edge multimedia and Internet products. The award is analogous to the Emmy Awards.
Miyagawa says he wishes that when he was a boy there had been a program like StarFestival. “You gain a tremendous richness by being bi-cultural, but there’s a price to be paid,” he says. “You never quite feel whole. I hope that this program will help bi-cultural children feel like they belong.”