Washington & Jefferson College professor Edward Greb has traveled throughout Japan numerous times, from the northern tip of Hokkaido down to the mountains of Takayama and beyond. And accompanying him along the way were many of his students.
A sizable chunk of Greb’s 38-year career at the college has been spent organizing student trips through the Samukawa International Exchange Association in Japan. To express gratitude for Greb’s efforts to foster cross-cultural education, SIEA commissioned a special gift that was presented to him Thursday at the college during a dinner meeting of Pi Gamma Mu, international honorary society of the social sciences.
The heartfelt gift given to Greb was a wooden wall sculpture, carved by Japanese artist Akatsuki Harada, who lives in Samukawa, a town where the sociology professor has taken his students every couple years.
“On the plaque are carved a Japanese kanji ‘Kizuna’ and some symbols of our town including Mount Fuji and the narcissus, our town flower,” read the letter from Isao Goto, vice chairman of SIEA. “The kanji ‘Kizuna’ means ‘the bond.’ Dr. Greb has forged a real bond between the professors, students and others of your college and town and the people of Samukawa.”
Greb’s fascination with Japanese culture flourished while studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where he became acquainted with students in the Asian Studies program. He landed an internship in Japan, studied at Sophia University in Tokyo and kept going back ever since. While teaching sociology courses on Japanese society and business, he decided to let his students see the culture for themselves.
“My theory is you learn a lot by reading a book about a culture. You learn even more by watching a movie of a culture,” Greb said, “but you never really know it until you’ve been there. I said, ‘Let’s stop talking about it and showing movies. Let’s go.’ The response was great, and the school was supportive.”
One year, only three students signed up for the trip to Japan; another time, 40 students enrolled. On average, 30 students – in addition to faculty and members of the community – participate in the trips. For two to three weeks, students travel to various cities and villages in Japan, and part of their trip is spent in a home stay with a Japanese family.
Students have the opportunity to experience Coming of Age Day, which signifies the beginning of adulthood in Japan, and W&J students were treated “royally,” Greb said.
“It’s a big to-do. The ladies buy the most expensive kimono they can find, and the men get good shoes,” he said.
Greb said the most important lesson he tries to instill is that “difference is not evil. Difference is to be appreciated,” even if it means urging his students to try an “unidentified edible object,” like the Japanese dish unagi, otherwise known as eel.
During the reception Thursday, Greb – who will retire next year – announced that he will donate $50,000 to SIEA over the next five years to help establish an international exchange program between Washington and Samukawa students, and in the long term, to establish the two towns as sister cities.
“Today is going to be a little step in that direction,” Greb said.