Monday, May 12, 2008

Let's Ecology! 2: The road to Ecology

I spent the 1988 - 1989 academic year at Waseda University in Tokyo, entering the school through the California State University International Program, which, in conjunction with several other groups of universities, had an "exchange student" center there. I say "exchange" in quotes because as far as I ever heard, nobody from Waseda ever went to a California State University campus in return. Waseda is one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, probably tied for third with Keio University, below only the Olympian heights of Tokyo University and the somewhat less lofty but still rarefied Kyoto University.

I came from California State University at Los Angeles, which was not even the third most prestigious university in Los Angeles. Far from it. Most of the students at Cal State LA seemed to be there because they lived nearby and because they'd had their applications rejected by UCLA. A common pattern of conversation when meeting someone new at Cal State LA could have been "What's your name? What's your major? How come you didn't get into UCLA?" The International Program, however, being run by the California State University system as a whole, was as good as most programs of its type, with centers in many countries around the world.

Universities in Japan receive their popular rankings not because of the brilliance of their academic programs or the scholarship of their professors, but because of the difficulty of their entrance examinations. Their reputations, generally earned well before World War II, are immutable and everlasting. In Japan, only a few American universities have reputations at all, with the names Harvard and UCLA being known to most people, and a few other major schools being known to many. The Japanese people I met inevitably confused Cal State LA with UCLA -- understandable enough, I suppose, since both are state-run universities located in Los Angeles and few Japanese really know what the initials UCLA actually stand for. But after I would explain that UCLA is the University of California at Los Angeles and that my school is California State University at Los Angeles, people would look even more befuddled. Some Japanese people I have known for 20 years still think I went to UCLA.

Waseda's International Division was a sort of American ghetto on campus. Other than the classes on the Japanese language itself, which are not bad at all, almost all International Division classes were conducted in English, and unless you had connections you couldn't even audit ordinary courses in another division of the university. Entrance into the Cal State International Program had some modest basic requirements -- 3.00 grade point average, letters of recommendation, an interview and so on -- but of course it was nothing like the legendary "examination hell" that Japanese students go through to get into a place like Waseda. Few of the Japanese people I would meet, however, were aware of that, and when I said I was a student at Waseda I would often hear, in tones of deep admiration, "Wow, the entrance exam must have been really hard." At which I would just smile modestly and say, "No, not really."

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

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