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Soka University of Japan Goes Global

Over a 30-year career of studying the American education system, Soka University of Japan Professor Tatsuro Sakamoto has authored numerous articles and books, twice served as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and taught countless students. But he has never had the chance to bring a group of undergraduates to the United States—until this spring.

soka students Professor Tatsuro Sakamoto
Top: Soka students meet with “International Ambassadors” from El Dorado High School; Bottom: Professor Tatsuro Sakamoto discusses the Japanese education system with a group of Soka and American students

With his colleague, Professor Victor S. Kuwahara, Sakamoto led 21 Soka students—all majoring in education or primary education—on a program nearly four decades in the making.

“This has been my dream for 40 years,” he said. “I hoped for a program that combines English-language learning, educational studies, and a school visit. In other words, American education in action in three parts.”

Working with CSUF’s University Extended Education, Sakamoto’s dream became the “English Abroad Learning Experience” program. From February 23–March 15, these undergraduates attended English-language classes, explored the University campus, received educational instruction from Cal State Fullerton faculty, and spent a significant amount of time getting to know American students.

The group visited local elementary and high schools. They also met with high school “International Ambassadors,” coordinated by Connie DeCapite, Director of Fullerton International Resource for Schools and Teachers (FIRST). Five Cal State Fullerton education students were also selected as American Buddies for their Soka counterparts, and engaged in eight hours of discussion and interactive activities during seminars.

The educational instruction—provided by Dr. Vikki Costa, Director of the Single Subject Credential Program in the Department of Secondary Education—focused on three themes: high-stakes testing, special education for people with learning disabilities, and 21st-century education.

High-stakes testing is especially relevant for Japan’s future teachers. In that country, all 9th graders hoping to enter high school (which is not mandatory) must take an entrance examination that largely determines the quality of the school they attend.

“This has been my dream for 40 years... a program that combines English-language learning, educational studies, and a school visit. In other words, American education in action in three parts.”

While special education and 21st-century learning are vital in both countries, Sakamoto still saw areas that Japanese education students could learn from the American system.

“When we think about education in the 21st-century, we must see the international perspective,” said Sakamoto. “Why? In one word: diversity. Many foreign-born students are coming into Japanese schools. When I was a high school student, there were none.”

For Japanese teachers, this presents both cultural and language challenges. In response, over the previous few years, the country is hoping to instill a global perspective in its future educators. At Soka University in Japan, that means, among other things, that 20 percent of their classes will now be taught in English.

Kuwahara, who grew up in America and didn’t move to Japan until he was 25, has experienced this change firsthand: “When I first came to Soka nine years ago, the first question people asked me was whether I can speak Japanese. Some professors would insist, ‘This is a Japanese university; you must teach in Japanese,’” he recalled. “But now, all of a sudden, people are asking me to teach in English, which I’ll be doing for the first time next semester.”

“When we think about education in the 21st-century, we must see the international perspective. Why? In one word: diversity.”

To develop their English-speaking skills in this program, Soka undergraduates met with local high school students, practiced with American conversation partners, and took a series of ESL classes with Cal State Fullerton instructors, Catherine Moore and Teresa Nguyen. These classes focused on both pronunciation and classroom skills, such as overcoming anxiety and delivering presentations. On the students’ last full day in America they delivered presentations that they themselves had written in English.

But it wasn’t just the students who learned from American practices on this trip: “The University also gave us access to participate in faculty development here. Since I am the first director of the faculty development center at Soka University, I was very interested in those issues,” said Sakamoto. “And realizing that there was a fourth part of the program ended up being one of the best parts for me.”

This is the first of many student groups that Soka University hopes to send to CSUF on a yearly basis—plans are already in the works for next year’s program.

Preparing for presentations Soka students presentation
Soka students presentation

Soka University students delivering presentations on their final full day in America. Cal State Fullerton instructor Teresa Nguyen provides assistance in the top-left photo.

For more information on the “English Abroad Learning Experience” program, or other learning opportunities at Cal State Fullerton for international groups, please contact Melem Sharpe, manager of international instructional development and management, at