Jack Ellis has a hard time finding a single explanation for his fascination with Japan. Instead the Evans resident measures the intrigue by what is not known.
Westminster student Jack Ellis is surrounded by friends in this photo taken during his year of study in Osaka, Japan.
"Think about it - What do you know about Japan?" Ellis asks on a June afternoon, six months after returning from an 11-month foreign exchange student program in Osaka.
For Ellis, the pre-trip answer was "nothing." Mystery being the greatest motivation for discovery, it was enough to send the former Lakeside High student and current Westminster Schools junior on a voyage halfway around the world.
If you ask Ellis, it was as simple as that: a lark, a chance to do something out of the ordinary, to experience life through someone else's eyes.
Of course, here is where we insert the big, life-affirming disclaimer to this simple tale of a not-so-simple teenager who traveled to a foreign country and back again to discover that life had changed and so had he: He got so much more.
"It was a big epiphany for me. When I came back, I found myself being really polite all the time. I look at things differently - all the things I took for granted, I don't take for granted anymore."
The wheels on Ellis' international tour got rolling when he met a fellow Lakeside student who had made a similar trip. She directed him to American Field Service (AFS), a foreign exchange program started by ambulance drivers after World War II with the belief that introducing young people to different cultures would nurture greater world harmony.
It took Ellis approximately six months to work out the particulars of his trip: gathering the information, convincing his parents, giving AFS time to make arrangements with a school and a host family and then waiting for a proper entry-point into the Japanese school year, which starts later than ours.
"I tell you, it was kind of strange getting on that plane," Ellis says of his March 2001 departure. "It feels like you're going on a camping trip."
After a five-hour flight from Atlanta to California, 12 hours to Tokyo and a nine-hour bus ride to Osaka, Ellis was ready to drop his bags, but not before realizing there were a few things he hadn't packed.
Like language skills.
"It took me three months just to look at a dictionary, because I couldn't read the dictionary," he says.
The Japanese alphabet is a series of characters representing specific sounds; traditional Japanese is read down the page and from left to right. Obviously learning the language is a lot more difficult for an English speaker than, say, Spanish, where you can at least sound out the words and look them up.
Complicating the language barrier is the existence of four distinct tones or dialects of Japanese: one is used in addressing elders, one is used in addressing parents, one is for friends and one is for lower classes. Ellis took more than his fair share of smacks on the head - a common correction for using the wrong tone with elders - but eventually learned enough Japanese to "communicate and have fun." Southern hospitality has nothing on Japan, a country that is compulsively polite and reverent to its elders.
This biggest difference in everyday life was his school, Ikano High School in Osaka. Whereas American students grumble about not having enough parking for sophomores or that lame 500-word essay on Beowulf, Ellis rode his bike down a mountain every day - in rain, snow or 90-degree heat - to catch a train that took him another 30 minutes to school. He got home at roughly the same time American students are settling in for evening re-runs of Friends.
"I was really lucky," Ellis says. "I was placed in one of the best schools in Osaka. A lot of the students have to travel more than an hour to get there and there are schools everywhere around their houses. They choose to go to this school because going to school is a privilege."
High school is not required in Japan, but Ellis says it is understood within society that the uneducated will disappear into the fringes. So the roughly 400 students of Ikano take great pride in their school. There are no janitors, so the students are responsible for upkeep, scrubbing windows, floors, chalkboards and everything else at least once a week.
Ellis went to six classes a day, including a Judo class once a week.
"Most people don't like it because you can really get hurt," he says of the Japanese martial art of throwing and breaking bones.
Math class was focused on mastering long, complicated formulas rather than figuring out the sine and cosine buttons on a scientific calculator. Varying amounts of English are taught, with aspiring business people receiving a greater concentration. Other segments of the Japanese curriculum focused on history, Samurai-era Japanese language and electives such as music and calligraphy.
"Students in Japan don't have a life outside of school. They go to school in the morning around eight or even earlier for clubs. Then once the last bell rings and the teacher leaves, you don't go home - everyone in school is involved in some kind of club."
Among the limitless number of clubs offered at Ikano High School were the martial art of Kendo, track and field, cooking, flower arranging and dancing.
"Everyone in class is your family. You know them, you love them, you talk to them. If you don't like them, you better like them soon. They treated me wonderfully."
As two thick photo albums from school activities and field trips around Japan can attest, Ellis had no problem making friends. He says that at first, his shy female classmates wouldn't even look at him, but every picture shows one blond-haired, blue-eyed American enveloped by the mugging faces and peace-sign-flashing hands of Japanese teenagers.
Although Ellis says he will miss many of his friends and the expensive Japanese noodles he used to gobble down in a roadside hole-in-the-wall, his trip was a re-affirmation of home.
"Life here is much better than anyone understands. When I came home, I had keys to a car. You don't believe how happy I was! I had people I could talk to in English!"
Not that Ellis is through with Japan. He says he would like to return some day to teach English, maybe after studying international business in college. But first he has to finish high school. Ellis transferred to Westminster upon his return to the States and didn't get credit for his studies abroad, so there's time to figure out what the future holds. Nonetheless, Ellis' Japanese adventure did make him certain of one thing.
"I know I can do anything if I try. If I want to, I can do it."
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