Expanding the Boundaries of Peace Education

By Brian Covert
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Gordon Mwangi is known for practicing what he preaches. At the beginning of each new school year he makes quite clear to all the 200-odd peace studies students at Shikoku Gakuin University what the class aim is.

“I tell my students that the purpose of my classes in peace studies is to eliminate discrimination.

“I tell them, ‘What you should never forget is that this is not a class where you just learn more facts’.”

Mwangi, an associate professor in the Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture university’s sociology department, has been 20 years in Japan but the 47-year-old grew up in Kenya.

A scholar-activist whose childhood was overshadowed by a war of independence, Mwangi works to make people understand what peace really means.

“I think,” he says, “the most important thing is to give the students a ‘grounding’ in the importance of human rights…(to teach them that) it is not necessary to discriminate against minorities in order to achieve this kind of material, wealthy society.”

Mwangi did not grow up in a wealthy society but in rural Central Province, Kenya, near the base of Mt. Kenya and not far from the equator.

To begin with there was peace, but on Oct. 20, 1952 — the day Mwangi turned six — the “Mau Mau” struggle for liberation was launched by Kenya freedom fighters against the British colonial regime then ruling the country. The following year, Mwangi started school.

“I grew up at a time when Kenyans were fighting for independence, and that kind of shaped me — shaped my interest in history, politics and liberation in general,” he recalls. “In a war situation, whether it is Kenya or Japan or places like Somalia, every aspect of one’s life is affected.”

The dead, unclaimed bodies of compatriots; teachers snatched from class by authorities and never seen again; the ever-present anxiety of being suspected as a “spy” by either side and killed — this was the realm of fear that pervaded Mwangi’s childhood.

“As a refuge, I psychologically escaped into books,” he says. “I virtually devoured anything available in English within my language limitations. I was sometimes even ahead of the teacher in English, in particular.” One of Mwangi’s earliest tests, he says, was spelling out the letters on the British military jets roaring overhead: ROYAL AIR FORCE.

Mwangi, one of seven sons in his family, managed to survive the death, disease and malnutrition that came with the war. He was one of the few of his age group who managed to press on to high school, then on to higher education at Nairobi University.

By 1963, Kenya had achieved independence. In 1972, Mwangi was working as a public servant in the Kenyan Ministry of Education. But the desire to know more about the outside world burned inside him.

Through official channels, Mwangi applied for and got a scholarship offered by the Japanese Education Ministry to study in Japan. His choice was Kyoto University — the city has remained his home, though now he lives most of the time near the university where he teaches, making the three-hour train ride back to his suburban home in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto once a month if he is lucky.

Mwangi arrived in Japan in April 1974 before moving on to Kyoto University’s faculty of law as a graduate student in political science the following spring. The subject of his master’s thesis was the role of Japanese women laborers in Meiji-era industrialization but he soon discovered that he had not the Japanese language proficiency that he needed.

But that was the revolutionary 1970s, and Mwangi found himself a welcome addition to the student protest movements in Kyoto despite his limits in the Japanese language. And that helped get him into the university’s student dormitory — at the time the university discouraged students from mixing in this way and Mwangi was the first non-Japanese ever to be in the dorm.

“Even now, I credit my getting through the thesis to that,” he says. “If I had not stayed in the Japanese dormitory I wouldn’t have managed it because a lot of students helped me.”

Mwangi finished his doctoral studies in 1984 and then he got a job at Kyoto University’s law faculty as a research assistant. It was the first time an African student at the university has held such a position.

In 1986, the university opened the nearby Center for African Area Studies, a research and library facility — the first government-funded institution in Japan geared specifically to African concerns. Mwangi saw a valuable chance to get involved, and joined the center the next year as a research associate. And in the process, he became a valuable link between the center and the increasing number of African scholars who were coming to Kyoto for research purposes.

By 1990, Mwangi’s reputation as both a scholar and longtime opponent of South Africa’s apartheid rule had spread through academic and grass-roots communities in Japan. And the same year, an opportunity arose for Mwangi to teach full-time at Shikoku Gakuin University, a Christian-oriented institution with about 2,500 students and a peace studies program. He jumped at the chance.

Then, he says, peace studies was narrowly defined. Basically it meant the “balance of terror” between the nuclear superpowers during the Cold War years and its global implications, and the upholding of the Japanese Constitution, particularly Article 9 denouncing war.

Mwangi has been trying to widen peace studies curriculums to include more issues directly related to Japan’s relationship with peoples of the so-called Third World and other developing nations, along with subjects like racial and gender discrimination.

And he has not shied away from sensitive issues of discrimination here in Japan: against residents of “buraku” communities, women, ethnic Koreans, Okinawans, the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido and others.

“Peace studies as a discipline has to change with the times,” Mwangi says. More importantly, he feels, it needs to put its money where its mouth is. Shikoku Gakuin University — one of about a hundred colleges and universities in Japan with peace studies or related courses — is doing just that with a new affirmative action program to allow for a wider diversity of minority students to attend the school.

“It’s not like in some Japanese universities, where it’s the usual thing to block involvement in these ‘human rights for minorities’ issues. Now we are extending that affirmative action program to include even Okinawans. So the environment helps. I wouldn’t have found it as easy to do this at some other universities. Shikoku Gakuin is like an oasis in this way,” he says with a laugh.

In the future, Mwangi believes the onus is on socially committed educators of all backgrounds in Japan to begin practically applying the theories of “peace” that they are teaching their students.

That also means dealing more realistically in these economically hard times with issues of employment in institutions that have traditionally been at odds with the concept of peace, Mwangi says. For example, it is now difficult to urge students to turn down job opportunities at nuclear power plants or in the Self-Defense Forces, which ironically has a training camp not far from the campus where Mwangi works.

He says: “You can only tell the students that ‘The choice is yours. But at least know what is bad and what is important. As to the choice you make after that — well, that is up to you’.”