Scholar Defining New Horizons of Education, Peace

By Brian Covert
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

“Local knowledge,” the Kenyan writer
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o once wrote, “is not an island unto itself; it is part of the main, part of the sea. Its limits lie in the boundless universality of our creative potentiality as human beings.”

If understanding how one’s immediate surroundings and culture interrelate with the entire world is indeed key to knowing ourselves and each other, then scholar-activist Gordon C. Mwangi can take pride in having put such ideals to the test many times over during his 20 eventful years in Japan.

As a leader on the frontlines of Japanese “peace studies” education, Mwangi, 47, of Kenya, has brought to Japan a thirst for knowledge grounded in the wartime fires of his youth and a love of communicating that knowledge with people around him.

Mwangi is known for practicing what he preaches. Right from the start of each new school term, he instills in all of the estimated 200 peace studies students at Shikoku Gakuin University in Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture, a clear sense of priority.

“I tell my students that the purpose of my classes in peace studies is to eliminate discrimination: ‘What you should never forget is that this is not a class where you just learn more facts’,” says Mwangi, an associate professor in the university’s sociology department.

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

Mwangi spends most of his days living in Zentsuji near the school, making the three-hour train ride back to his suburban home in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, once a month if he is lucky.

While Kagawa may he his present workplace, from the beginning Kyoto has been his spiritual base — the place where he came two decades ago as a non-Japanese-speaking youth far from home, entered Kyoto University, pursued graduate studies in political science, and today maintains a solid reputation as a committed social activist among grassroots Japan.

The roots of Mwangi’s rise in the field of education may come as little surprise when looking back on his childhood days in rural Central Province, Kenya, near the base of Mount Kenya and not far from the equator.

On Oct. 20, 1952 — the day Mwangi turned six years old — the “Mau Mau” struggle for liberation was launched by Kenyan freedom fighters against the British colonial regime 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.” As a sign of the times, one of his earliest tests was to spell the words painted 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 among his age who managed to press on to high school, then on to higher education at Nairobi University.

By 1963, Kenya had achieved its independence. In 1972, Mwangi was serving his nation as a public servant in the country’s Ministry of Education. Still, there was a desire burning inside him to know more about the outside world.

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.

He 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. But he soon came upon the obstacle all foreigners in Japan face — proficiency in the Japanese language, which was a requirement for his master’s thesis. The subject of his planned thesis: the role of Japanese women laborers in Meiji-era industrialization.

It was the midst of the revolutionary 1970s, and Mwangi found himself a welcome addition to the student protest movements in Kyoto despite his limits in the Japanese language.

“Fortunately, I got into Kyoto University’s (student) dormitory. Even now, 1 credit my getting through the thesis because of 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, I was the first foreigner to get in” the dorm, despite the university discouraging such mixing at the time.

Mwangi went on in 1984 to finish his doctoral studies and was employed at Kyoto University’s law faculty as a research assistant, the first such position for an African student at the university.

In 1986, the university opened the nearby Center for African Area Studies, a research and library facility — and the first of its kind in Japan as a government-funded institution geared specifically to African concerns. Mwangi saw a valuable chance to get involved and joined the center the next year as a research associate. In the process, he became a valuable link between the center and an 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 become well known among academic and grassroots communities throughout Japan. That same year, an opportunity arose for Mwangi to teach full time at Shikoku Gakuin University, a Christian-oriented institution of about 2,500 total students that hosts a peace studies program. He jumped at the chance and has been hard at it ever since.

The real challenge at his posting since then has been to expand the very borders of what has tended to become the open-and-closed nature of peace studies education in Japan: 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.

Through his work, Mwangi has tried 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.

At the same time, he does not shy away from digging into sensitive issues of discrimination right 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 do this at some other universities. Shikoku Gakuin is like an oasis in this way,” he says with a laugh.

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

That also means dealing more realistically in these economically hard times about the issues of employment in institutions that have traditionally been at odds with the concept of peace, Mwangi emphasizes: For instance, he said, one would be hard-put these days 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.

“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, it is upon you’,” he says.