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A Visitor’s View of the Sapporo Learning festival

Professor Norman Longworth

Learners at Large in Hokkaido

A report on the Sapporo Learning festival September 26-30 1995

As a bi-product of opening a conference of Teacher Educators at the Educational University of Hokkaido in Asahikawa, I was privileged to spend a couple of days with Yoshihiro Yamamoto at the Sapporo Learning Festival. Yoshihiro is one of the Lifelong Learning luminaries in the National Institute of Educational Research, a division of Monbusho, the Japanese Ministry of Education. He is also doing sterling work in raising awareness of WILL in Japan and South east Asia.

The festival was a fascinating experience. Its first impact was its size - the impression was of a Pacific Ocean of stands and demonstrations promoting every conceivable facet of Lifelong Learning for all sectors of national and community life and for all ages. It was not simply an exhibition of learning products, though IBM, Toshiba, Intec and the rest were certainly all there in force. Learning visitors could find, in addition, leisure products and pursuits of all kinds from fishing to fiddling, from sailing to skiing, from knitting to knetworking. It seemed that the whole of life was there. The spiritual side of Lifelong Learning was not neglected either - several religious groups were strongly represented - the sacred and the secular co-habiting under the flag of learning. There was a stand representing the 25 public Lifelong Learning Centres in Japan (there are also many private ones) and a large exhibition area promoting the virtues - economic, personal, familial, communal - of Learning. A telephone hot line was available to any who still harboured doubts.

On the central stage 3rd age choirs sang anything and everything from traditional Japanese folk ballads, through American glee club numbers to classics; magicians and fire-eaters plied their trade and fast-talking presenters involved the passing public in games and quizzes and activities. The ectoplasm of vitality and energy were phenomenal,  and smiling faces showed how much it was a fun occasion - a celebration of the Learning condition.

I saw visiting classes of schoolchildren, including a set of 5 year olds, mesmerised by the ‘magic of learning’ stand, complete with magician. A constant procession of visitors of all ages, all backgrounds and all interests mixed and mingled and meandered, ever, it seemed with a smile. Sapporo is a provincial city with a population of about a million souls, akin perhaps to Bordeaux, Newcastle, Thessaloniki or Dusseldorf, and the organisers expected to receive 600.000 of these during the 5 days.

In the evening more cultural events connected with the festival were held at the city hall. My host had managed to obtain tickets for the opening musical event and we arrived just five minutes before the start. This was impressive to say the least and it was played to a packed audience. The overture comprised a 5 minute film depicting the considerable natural beauties of the island of Hokkaido - and then faded out to a darkened stage containing a group of 4 people - 2 instrumentalists playing a primitive flute and a two stringed sitar respectively, and 2 singers - a mother and a child. Together they produced some of the most remarkable and evocative folk sounds I have ever heard. It was an epiglottal tour de force - all throat and lungs - a vocal tone poem describing the mystical sadness of the sea, the majesty of the mountains, the symbiotic maternal link between man and his environment, the joys and the sorrows of community and conflict in the natural world. These were sounds not heard outside of this area of Japan - a celebration of a thousand years of Ainu aboriginal culture, reminiscent of a Hebridean folk song, an Irish step dance, an Auvergnian mountain call, a Catalan lament  or a Portuguese fado. To say the least it was an event  which one experienced as much as heard, felt as much as saw.

The evening continued with 3 speeches from the Minister of Education, the head of the Hokkaido prefecture and the Sapporo city boss, all of them extolling the virtues of learning and the opportunities in the locality and all of them, mercifully for both stranger and citizen alike, not more than 5 minutes long. After that, further music from the city’s close harmony group which rivalled the King’s Singers in purity of sound, though not in breadth of output, and the City of Sapporo Symphony Orchestra.

For a provincial orchestra the quality was surprisingly high - it confined itself on this occasion to selections of light music, though one had the impression that it would have been equally at home with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berg and Birtwhistle (well, OK, perhaps not Birtwhistle). In between whiles the local television personality interviewed the performers and extracted from them how learning had contributed to their success.

Every citizen received 2 attractively coloured pamphlets - one produced by the city and another by the island prefecture. These were 16 pagers describing the rationale behind the joys of lifelong learning and explaining where, why, how and when the citizens of Sapporo could take advantage of them. They were surprisingly sophisticated and, in some ways, quite visionary. They dealt in simple terms with every facet of Lifelong Learning - networks, open and distance learning, the interaction between sectors of the community, integrated learning, qualifications etc and on an age by age basis from pre-school to third age. Their purpose was to broaden the horizons of the populace and even to encourage a strong international outlook. 

There was a festival mascot - a disneyesque character called the manabee (Honey bee) This was omnipresent whether as a huge blowup balloon, a print on festival products, a picture on shop windows and public notices, as badges to wear, on t-shirts. It was the symbol of the festival - a sort of learning Mr Blobby. Manabee could hold a honey pot or a computer screen or walking stick or indeed could be adapted to help to market each product individually. Who said the Japanese are not creative - the over-riding impression of the whole festival was exactly that - creativity and the enjoyment of learning.

How can I summarise this experience. Yes, of course it was a product of the Japanese culture and of course we are aware that there are cultural differences. It was a Japanese festival for Japanese people. It was one of a series planned on an annual basis for different parts of Japan - rather like the European cities of culture. Yes, of course we have to take into account cultural differences between nations. But there was an atmosphere about this event which transcended these. It was not brash or authoritarian - its aim was to stimulate, sensitise and coax rather than to exhort - to celebrate the joys of learning and the personal benefits to be gained therefrom. Perhaps 50,000 people, perhaps more, perhaps less, came into the learning fold for the first time.

We in Europe have much to learn about the marketing of learning, its representation as a way of life. This festival was an example of what happens in Japan - there are other beacons of lifelong learning activity there - such as the establishment of 25 lifelong learning research departments in Japanese universities, and the Lifelong Learning Centres springing up in each prefecture.

Perhaps Europe can design equally stimulating and creative ways in which its peoples can become learners for life, perhaps by establishing annual cities of learning, perhaps by a competition to find the European learning city, perhaps the use modern technologies to link people and organisations into learning networks between cities, perhaps the carrying out of a learning audit of the learning needs of  whole populations and the establishment of a city by city database of these. The possibilities are endless, and perhaps more to the point in a world of structural unemployment, the creation and satisfaction of learning opportunities is in itself a huge job creation scheme involving designers and planners, counsellors and councillors, researchers and promoters, and teachers and learners. Sounds good - let’s do it.