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East Meets West Virginia : When a Japanese University Takes Over a Small Appalachian College, Football Is Out, the Dairy Queen Is In and Love Blooms on Main Street

Bill Steigerwald, a former Sunday Calendar copy editor, is a reporter and columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

THE OLD SALEM COLLEGE tennis courts on Main Street, Tomo and his Japanese pals Oni and Kai methodically slam low base-line shots at each other over a sagging net. A Sony boom-box blares a Motley Crue tape. Six local teen-age girls stand around smoking cigarettes, drinking soda and talking to several other Japanese boys. As usual, an after-school circus of 25 or so bicyclists, basketball players, skateboarders and spectators swirls around.

But Tomo, Oni and Kai don’t notice. They’re used to the chaos. Anyway, the run-down courts are serving a higher purpose than tennis. Since Tomo and his classmates arrived in Salem, W. Va., the courts have evolved into the hottest hangout in a nothing-to-do town. On this late spring afternoon, it is the spot where teen culture East collides with teen culture West in wondrous, unsupervised and unpredictable ways.

It is where handsome Tomo of Tokyo fell for cute Cari Williams of Salem. Where Kai and Amber shared their first bottle of Gatorade. Where the local girls gave Masa his new American nickname, Sam. And it’s just up Main Street from the convenience store where the Japanese boys discovered Playboy and lottery tickets and where they load up on the cigarettes they never seem to stop smoking.

Dressed in blue jeans, denim jackets, Guns & Roses T-shirts, New York Yankees caps and Fila high-tops, the Japanese teen-agers could blend into the crowd at any large American college campus or Southern California shopping mall. But in this sleepy, predominantly white community, they are conspicuous.

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Tomohide Namiki, Kazuhiro Onizawa and Kai Tanaka are among 185 Japanese college freshmen who left Tokyo one day in early April and landed in north-central West Virginia the next. They are the first wave of pioneers in a grand international experiment in higher education that has already started to change them, the town of Salem and its 2,000 residents.

The experiment is being conducted at the newly renamed Salem-Teikyo University. Before wealthy Teikyo University in Tokyo bought Salem College last summer and spent $12 million to rescue it from imminent financial death, the 101-year-old liberal arts school was the poorest college in Appalachia.

The Japanese--140 boys and 45 girls who are 18 or 19 years old--have come to learn how to speak fluent English, to experience American culture firsthand and to acquire what no Japanese college can give them--an American college degree. Despite the new owners, the school will remain an all-American university, from curriculum to cafeteria food. It will be used as a laboratory for transforming Japanese students into a new breed of bilingual, bicultural “world citizens” with an open-minded, international point of view. According to the school’s stated plan, by 1993, 500 Japanese and 500 American students will be living and learning together at STU.

Teikyo University President Shoichi Okinaga, an aggressive advocate of the movement to internationalize higher education in Japan, has established links this year with colleges and universities in Iowa, Colorado and Connecticut. But Okinaga chose the depressed burg of Salem--an unlikely crucible for molding cosmopolites--as the first and most extensive American outpost of the Teikyo University empire partly because of its isolation, wide-open spaces and virtual absence of crime.

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When the arrangement was announced last summer, some national journalists with stale stereotypes on their minds had a field day envisioning how West Virginia mountaineers would cotton to a Japanese “takeover.” Now that the Japanese students have been in this no-stoplight town for four months, the real question is whether Salem is too far out in the sticks to keep urban Japanese students happy. Already some have come to deeply understand the word boring. By September, when the American students return to campus and the Japanese don’t feel so lonely, they may change their minds. For now, two things are certain. The Japanese students have charmed Salem’s populace with their impeccable manners and free-spending ways. And Salem, whether it likes it or not, has been thrust onto the cutting edge of something for the first time since the town was founded as a frontier fort in 1794.

DONNA STEWART, SALEM’S first woman mayor, is also the assistant manager of the Harbett Funeral Home, a judge and a policewoman. Pleasantly brassy, she laughs heartily and often and calls everyone she meets “doll- baby” or “honey.” As the town was preparing for the arrival of the students in the spring, she sat at her cluttered desk at the funeral home and didn’t look a bit worried.

The little anti-Japanese sentiment that had surfaced had come in the form of “Remember Pearl Harbor” mutterings from “local yokels,” Stewart says. “A little old lady has called three or four times and ripped me apart about the Japanese and World War II. Very few people in town have this feeling. I know--they call me.

“The people here are going through some changes, there’s no doubt about it,” she says. “Having their first woman mayor has been a shock to them. But overall, they’re very friendly, helpful people.”

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Salem, 12 miles west of Clarksburg and 130 miles south of Pittsburgh, is fairly typical of small towns everywhere. Main Street is lined with handsome white-frame Victorians, houses with ponies in the side yard, two variety stores, several boarded-up storefronts, a handful of churches and a sprinkling of shacks with peeling paint and drooping porches. The university, whose entrance is on Main Street, is the town’s major employer, with 163 jobs. But a lot of folks are on welfare or fixed incomes in a state that ranks first in coal production but 49th in per capita income.

Local unemployment runs around 12%, Stewart says, and young people usually have to move away to get decent work. Salem can’t support a McDonald’s or even an Arby’s, but it does have a Dairy Queen and two video stores. Clarksburg, the closest town of any size, has 17,000 people and better jobs.

In the past year, Stewart has been interviewed by CNN and “NBC Nightly News” and written up in the Washington Post and a French news weekly. She says most of the media coverage has been fair, although one network seemed to go out of its way to find anti-Japanese sentiment. The mayor never worried that intolerance toward the Japanese would be an issue. Instead, she has always been more concerned about how the big-city Japanese kids would react to Salem. “None of them will have driver’s licenses,” she says. “They’re 15 miles from the nearest mall, the nearest movie theater--from everywhere. If the idea was to become Americanized, you’d think they’d have found a bigger place. Being in a small town, they might be able to relate better with the people, but typical teen-agers are going to want to get out and party.”

Just before the Japanese arrived at STU’s Spartan campus, members of the last non-Japanese student body were making similar noises about the isolated and underfunded university. Gathered between the gym and the student activities building, a group of students complained about rising tuition, bad teachers, poor lab equipment, cafeteria food that was too health-oriented and the communications gap between the administration and the students, who knew nothing of the sale to Teikyo University until it was a done deal.

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One of about 150 international students, Stephanie Reinemund, a 20-year-old German whose parents live in Peru, made a prediction. “All the Japanese who are coming, after one year, they will all be gone,” the airport management major said. “They will travel and when they get to know other places, they will leave. Because you cannot do anything around here, like go out or have fun. You’re in a hole here.”

The isolation was never a problem for Nancy Hayhurst, a 19-year-old West Virginian who said she had looked forward to attending Salem College since she was 5. She had other concerns: what she called the “takeover” and the impending influx of Japanese students. The equestrian education / criminal justice major griped about the school’s decision to drop the football team and the nursing program shortly after the sale. And she thought the Japanese were likely to meet with prejudice.

Pablo Ortiz, a 21-year-old communications major from Bridgeport, Conn., agreed. “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me, and the first thing they say is ‘Pearl Harbor,’ ” Ortiz said. “I’ve had comments made to me: ‘Are those Japs coming in? I can’t stand Japs.’ Comments like that. . . . The townspeople are having all this culture just thrown on them. I think it’s going to be a real change. Maybe there’ll be revenue coming in and economic opportunity, but they’re not going to accept it at first, not at all.”

THREE WEEKS after the Japanese students’ arrival, Stuart Wells, an easygoing young English professor who spent two years in Japan, is teaching 38 of them how to speak like Americans.

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“Can you say ‘Toy-oooo-duh?’ ” he asks, dulling and stretching the syllables. “Don’t say ‘Toyota,’ ” he says, pronouncing the car name in crisp Japanese. “How do Americans say ‘karate’? It’s ‘ker-raad-day.’ ”

The students taking Wells’ three-hour English grammar course respond so softly that they’re inaudible. Wells has to lean way into their seats to hear them. He encourages one student, then moves to another. After collecting their homework, he has them do a workbook exercise. Japanese-English dictionaries and pens come out. Heads of jet-black hair go down. Except for that of one student who nods off to sleep.

Thanks to their mandatory six years of English classes, the Japanese students probably know English grammar better than most American students. They can read it well enough, but--as anyone who tries to strike up a conversation with them discovers--most cannot speak English or understand it when spoken to. Most of their first 1 1/2 years at STU will be spent fine-tuning their language skills, with an emphasis on listening, speaking and comprehension. They’ll take only a few electives in computer science or music appreciation.

Improving communication is part of the vision of Teikyo President Okinaga, a proponent of kokusai, the 15-year-old movement to establish a Japanese educational presence in other countries, particularly the United States. Teikyo University, a large, well-endowed institution with two universities and three junior colleges in Japan, also has or will soon establish partnerships with colleges in England, the Netherlands and Germany.

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Okinaga has been busy elsewhere in the United States as well. In the spring, Westmar College in Iowa was “reorganized” as Teikyo Westmar University. In Denver, Regis College sold Teikyo one of its campuses, which was renamed Teikyo Loretto Heights. And more recently, Post College in Connecticut, another college down on its luck, became Teikyo Post University.

STU President Ronald Ohl, a casual man who plays golf with the Japanese students, says Okinaga has lofty aspirations. “His feeling, very strongly,” Ohl says, “was that if we were going to preserve world peace, if we’re not going to have another armed conflict between people who simply could not communicate with each other, education was really the key. So when he set out to establish this first multinational, intercultural education experience, it was with that explicit purpose.”

To make it work, Okinaga needed to be able to control the curriculum and the quality of the Japanese students who would enroll. He also needed to tap into U.S. expertise but knew that resentment would be dampened if the school he bought was a struggling one. He wrote to about 30 colleges, asking if they were interested in being bought. Ohl responded enthusiastically, and Salem beat out five other finalists. He says he would have gone for Okinaga’s deal even if his school--whose enrollment had dwindled to 400 from a high of 2,100 during the Vietnam War--had not been in such desperate financial straits.

By the time lawyers from Japan and the United States had figured everything out, the Salem-Teikyo Foundation had been formed. Controlled by a Japanese majority, it bought Salem College and its 150 acres, paying off $4.5 million in debts and setting up a $7.5-million endowment.

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Total cost to the Japanese of what is essentially a sale-lease-back arrangement: about $12 million. (The foundation would later commit a couple of million dollars to long-overdue maintenance, 25% raises for faculty and staff members and $400,000 for 40 scholarships.) Americans were given a majority on the board of directors that runs the daily operations of STU, and Ohl was retained as president.

Academic and faculty standards and entrance requirements are being upgraded, Ohl says. New faculty members must have PhDs. The full-time faculty, now 35 professors, eventually will be doubled. The curriculum will take on an international perspective--business courses, for example, will place equal emphasis on American and Japanese management styles. And individualized, Japanese-favored sports programs such as golf and tennis have been beefed up. This fall, American students will pay $10,500, a 6% increase from last year, for two semesters of room, board and tuition. Japanese students, who will stay year-round, will pay about $14,000 a year for three semesters.

ASK JAPANESE students why they came to STU, and the first answer invariably is that they want to learn to speak English well. Akemi Matsumoto, 18, who already is far ahead of most of the other Japanese students, wants to be an interpreter in Japan. The daughter of a manager of a small business in Tokyo, she says she spends most of her time on campus, listening to music or watching MTV in her dorm. But she’d rather be exploring the department stores in Pittsburgh.

Akemi acknowledges that she has some regrets about coming to STU, which she says was easier to get accepted to than its parent university in Tokyo. She complains that there are too many Japanese on campus and that no Americans will be in her English as a Second Language courses. “So it’s not good for me,” she says. “I want to transfer after a year.” She says more than half of the students feel the same way.

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Kai Tanaka, 19, wears a sweet smile, a Nike Air T-shirt, Levis and two earrings in his left ear. He’s a little sorry that he got his ear pierced at the mall. He had no real reason, he says shyly; he just wanted to do it. He plays soccer each evening at Salem Tiger Stadium on Main Street and plays mah-jongg deep into the night on weekends at his dorm. At home in Tokyo, he drove a Toyota and raced motorcycles. Here, he rides a bicycle.

Kai, whose English comprehension is almost as limited as his speaking ability, also wants to transfer to where there are fewer Japanese. He has his eye on Florida because that’s where the Daytona Speedway is, where many beaches are and where it’s hot all the time. The son of an engineer, he wants to stay in the United States after he graduates. Why? “Japan is small; America is big.”

Kitty Main, the school’s Peruvian-born foreign student liaison for 18 years, was in charge of the Japanese students’ orientation. She understands their urge to transfer and considers it an early symptom of culture shock.

She says those who transfer to a larger school often find themselves lost and facing the same problems they confronted in Salem. The Japanese students will end up hanging out with other Japanese again, she explains, mainly because they’ll find they won’t be able to speak English well enough to socialize with Americans.

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“I think this could be a stage, but also some students who come from larger cities probably cannot adjust to small towns. But my recommendation is that they stay here. Their chances for integration and chances for learning the language are much better in a smaller town where they are going to be helped and protected.”

Most of the Japanese are from affluent families in Tokyo or Osaka, she says, and there were some early fears that they were carrying around too much money. But Main says no major problems resulted--just a few embarrassing cases of Japanese students being charged for car rides to the mall by some of their less-principled American classmates.

The Japanese students are vulnerable but are not being overly protected, Main says. They are being treated exactly like--and are expected to act like--any STU freshmen. They have been told that they should always remember who they are and to retain their own culture and values. They’ve been cautioned about guns and drugs. And they have been warned against having romantic relationships with 14- and 15-year-old American kids.

THE JAPANESE may not have had a dramatic impact on the town yet, but to some of the local teen-age girls, the arrival of 140 boys was like a gift from heaven. And many of the boys, eager to land an American girlfriend, were only too pleased to see the girls start showing up at the Main Street tennis courts. Each day after school, the girls are led by Corinna Utter, 19, a 10th-grade dropout and beautician-to-be. She has taken it upon herself to become something of a one-woman welcoming, adopting and Americanization committee.

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She and her married friend Melonee McAfee, 21, have taken pickup-truckfuls of Japanese students on roller-skating, fishing and camping excursions. Sometimes they just hit the Dairy Queen or play pool in the campus game room.

Where the American college boys often were rude and crude to town girls, Corinna says, the Japanese have invited them to dances and to listen to Japanese rock in their dorms. In turn, the girls have shuttled them to the mall to buy CD players and 10-speed bicycles. When Kai wanted to see a really big mall, they drove him five hours to Winchester, Va.

The tennis court girls have taken the boys home to meet their parents, who rave about their politeness, and to look at their baby pictures and to watch videos. The boys have taught the girls some Japanese phrases, given them Japanese novelties and, in one case, an $80 Seiko watch.

The girls have helped them with their English homework. They’ve taught them to say things such as “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” And they’ve drilled them in the proper usage of a few choice Anglo-Saxonisms, which Tomo is more than happy to demonstrate when asked.

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“But we won’t corrupt them,” promises Cari Williams earnestly. “We love them the way they are and won’t teach them too many bad words.”

Cari, 14, is wearing Tomo’s sweat shirt under her denim jacket, earrings, plenty of eye makeup and lip gloss. A ninth-grader with a 4.0 average, Cari says her life has changed completely. She’s dropped her local beau for Hollywood-handsome Tomo, who has been dubbed “Ken Doll.”

Cari says the local boys tease her and her friends about the Japanese boys because they are jealous. But lately some of the boys have started to come around to play basketball or ride bikes with the Japanese. She wants to visit Japan someday, wishes her school taught Japanese and knows exactly why the Japanese boys like the town girls.

“They love us,” she says with confidence. “We’re cool. We’re more into sports than Japanese girls--and we’ll do anything and make fools of ourselves. . . . And we are not hicks. We’re not all barefoot and pregnant hicks and hillbillies. It makes me so mad when people think West Virginia is so out of touch with the real world. Maybe in southern West Virginia it’s true, but in north-central it’s not.”

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The Japanese girls are reserved and are not nearly as adventurous off-campus as the boys. But they haven’t been ignored by the local girls. They come to the courts to socialize, and they walk downtown. Mono, Mai and Megumi--nobody seems to know their full names--rode off to the mall with Corinna and Melonee one day to shop, and they’ve been to some video parties. But, though invited, they haven’t gone on any long-distance day trips.

Corinna says an 18-year-old Japanese girl recently asked a 12-year-old local boy if he’d be her boyfriend. “She’s cute and small, and he takes her skating and everything. His mom drives them.”

BUT BY LATE SUMMER, the tennis courts on Main Street are locked and quiet. An old Salem College building next to them is being torn down to make way for four new courts and grandstands.

Since the Japanese hit town, business is up 12% at the Dairy Queen. A second pizza joint has opened downtown. A 15-foot-long shelf at the Pantry Store is devoted to pricey Japanese imports--Ichiban noodles and packets of Shiro instant miso soup, dried seaweed and tea nuts. The Japanese are beginning to get the hang of college life: 14 kids got busted at an off-campus keg party for underage drinking, and firefighters had to respond to a smoky sixth-floor barbecue the Japanese held in their dorm.

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And the students got a taste of genuine American crime, something they weren’t supposed to experience in safe and tranquil Salem. The West Union Bank was held up twice in eight days, and then there was a bomb threat at Empire Bank. Kitty Main was the only customer in the first robbery, when a masked man pointed a sawed-off shotgun at her and politely shouted, “This is a holdup--and I ain’t kidding, ma’am.” Main threw herself on the floor and put her face against the wall as the bandits took their cash and ran.

Corinna and Melonee, who seem to know every Japanese student in town, insist that their English is improving. Oni won the campus tennis tournament. Kai bought a set of golf clubs. Tomo, who goes to the movies each weekend with Corinna and Melonie, is serious about transferring to Michigan State. Cari went away for the summer and left it to Corinna to explain to Tomo that she was breaking up with him because she was too young to be going steady.

Japanese girls are teaching origami to the Girl Scouts. The college administration is revamping its fall curriculum. New computer labs are being installed on campus. An annex is being added onto the gym for judo classes.

Meanwhile, Stewart is pleased that she’s solved the biggest problem the Japanese students have caused so far--getting them to ride their bikes with traffic, instead of against it, and getting them to stop riding on the sidewalks. Stewart contacted STU, and a memo, in Japanese, was given to each student. “But,” she says, “You can’t get angry at them. They’re such dollbabies.”

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