Report on Sept. 2011 Monthly Meeting: “Organising “Kokusai Kouryu” Events that Work” by Stephen Ryan

Keys to Successful Cultural Experience Programs


“Organising “Kokusai Kouryu” Events that Work” was the title of Stephen Ryan’s presentation on September 25, 2011, for SIETAR Kansai. Ryan began by asking the audience how they would translate “kokusai kouryu” into English. While people came up with various suggestions, such as, interaction, exchange, communication, relations and friendship, Ryan said he had similarly struggled with this translation, but none of them fit what he was trying to do at his school. After working with various exchange programs, he has finally come upon a translation which, although rather long, he thinks is much more accurate: “people from different backgrounds getting along together well.”

              Ryan described the cultural experience program that has been developed at his school. After witnessing many kokusai kouryu events in Japan, where people visiting from another country were the guests of honor at schools or official events, Ryan noticed that these affairs were rather stiff and no one seemed to be interacting happily with anyone else. Only when there was an unplanned, often spontaneous event where chairs and tables were moved aside and students suggested their own games or tried to show other students the dance from their country, did happy faces and communication– despite the lack of a common language–clearly take place. This was more like the kokusai kouryu he wanted to encourage.

At his school, a large number of students say they want to study abroad, however, their language ability, or sometimes their idea of their language ability, deters them from this goal. It is precisely for this type of student that short-term programs to the Philippines, Thailand and Australia were organized. Ryan tried to make sure that when his students went abroad, they would have as much contact as possible with people who were similar in age. Once in the new country, rather than focusing upon language study, these programs concentrate on experience and culture.

Ryan asked the SIETAR Kansai audience to think back of their very first time going to another country. Undoubtedly there were feelings of wonder and excitement of experiencing many new sights, smells, and sounds. At the same time, there must have been times of being disoriented, confused, as well as frustrated at not being able to understand the language. The key to a good program, Ryan claimed, was to let the students experience a short and sharp culture shock and then bring them back home just before they crash. This means the ideal length of the program is from 7 to 10 days.

During the visit the students are given the assignment of taking 100 photos a day of things that they had never seen before, or things that they have seen but which are used in a different way. At first this may sound like onerous homework, but with a digital camera it turns out to be a relatively easy task. Even a simple visit to a local supermarket can result in an amazing number of photos. These become the main material for the daily class where discussion focuses on culture and experience. 

It is important to send a teacher along with the students, one who understands the languages of both the students and that of the country they are visiting. The teacher’s role is not to “teach” but to be there to make sure that language is not a barrier, and more importantly, to be a cultural guide such that students do not make overgeneralizations or misjudgments about the new culture. Ryan pointed out the importance of students reporting their observations everyday during reflection sessions. In his experience the first few hours in the new culture are the richest, and if these thoughts are not noted, they are easily forgotten as the students become more acclimated to their new surroundings.

Everyday the students meet with the teacher-guide, or as Ryan put it, the teacher-prodder. The material for these so-called classes are the photos and the reflections. The discussion is driven by student questions about what they have captured in their photos or their reflective observations. Examples of some questions are: “Why do Filipinos eat five times a day?” or “Why is there home-delivery of hamburgers in the Philippines, but there is no such thing in Japan?” or “Why are extremely poor peoples’ homes built right next to homes of the very rich?” The teacher-guide lets the students generate possible answers and encourages them to ask their Filipino counterparts about these topics. Thus, through discussions students are generating possible hypotheses and testing out their ideas. With the assistance of the teacher-prodder, they are encouraged to look more deeply to find underlying reasons for what they have witnessed. Once back in their home country, they meet again and try to put their experience into the context of Japan. Their experience becomes taiken and not just keiken.

Thus, experiential learning results from firsthand experience plus reflection. The sharing in the group can be powerful. The ideal outcomes of the program would be: a) that students will want to know more about the culture that they had experienced; b) that they will want to learn more about the language; and c) that they will want to know how people from different backgrounds can learn to live together. In fact, according to Ryan, several students who participated in these programs have become highly motivated especially to learn English.

Ryan reported that many of the underlying reasons for why the cultural experience programs have worked so well was documented by Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis when he wrote about how intergroup prejudice can be reduced. The essential factors are: a) the two groups must have equal status; b) the two groups are working toward common goals based on cooperation; c) the intergroup contact is both frequent and of a duration that allows meaningful relationships to develop; and d) social and institutional support are provided.

Translating this specifically to organizing successful kokusai kouryu events, Ryan listed the following important elements: a) lots of individual interaction; b) equal status; c) a common goal; d) cooperation; e) time; f) repeated meetings; g) support; h) various activities; i) flexibility; j) the removal of chairs; and k) lots and lots of food!!

Ryan’s presentation was highly informative and very interactive involving the participants in lively exchanges. From the photos of the students that he shared, it was clear to us when kokusai kouryu was working and when it wasn’t. In my particular case having just spent five days this past summer with Japanese and Taiwanese students, I could see very clearly where the strong points and missed opportunities of my program were. I came away from the presentation with a sense of clarity of how to go about creating more opportunities for cultural learning. I also still remember Ryan’s statement; “Reflection is the key to the cultural experience program, but kokusai kouryu is the key to the success of the cultural experience program.”


                                     Donna Fujimoto

                                     Osaka Jogakuin University



Allport, G. (1954) The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.