- Ms. Imamura, you head up KATARIBA, which provides educational programs for teens, but how did you spend your own teenage years?
Well, I grew up in a place called Hida Takayama in Gifu Prefecture until high school. I was an ordinary high school student. I didn't have particularly good grades and wasn't actively engaged in student groups or clubs. There weren't any college students around, so I longed for the glamorous Tokyo university life I saw on TV and in fashion magazines. As an adult, I love the natural beauty of my rural hometown, but as a teenager, all I could think about was getting out as soon as possible. But my grades weren't great, so I bet on the self-recommended admissions process ("AO nyushi" in Japanese), which exempts applicants from achievement tests. I got into a few universities this way, but I failed the exams at SFC the first time around to tell the truth.
- Oh really? Tell us how you eventually passed.
That summer, I submitted a short essay for the self-recommended admissions exam, discussing the relationship between public works projects and citizens' lives as it related to the construction of the Tokuyama Dam in Gifu Prefecture, where I grew up. But the professor in charge of the interview thoroughly refuted my argument. Looking back, I realize my argument was probably pretty juvenile, but at the time I was just so frustrated. [laughs] I retook the exams in the fall, adding counterarguments to every one of the points that the faculty member had raised. Even now, it makes me nervous to think that I only got in by the skin of my teeth. I wanted to enroll at SFC because it seemed like a place where anything was possible, with cool, newfangled names like the "Faculty of Policy Management" and "Faculty of Environment and Information Studies."
- So what did you think of the SFC once you enrolled?
Every day was fun and exciting. My classmates were smart, stylish, and optimistic about society and the future, brandishing words that I had never used before. I think that many of the students like me, who entered via the self-recommended admissions process, were particularly unique in their own ways. The SFC curriculum is what showed me, for the first time in my life, the joy of learning. It was so exciting to learn things I never knew before. I spent my first two years at Keio in a daze of excitement.
When I returned home for my coming-of-age ceremony, I tried to explain to my high school friends how exciting it was to learn, but no one seemed to share my excitement. I had old friends who had left to go to college, but they all said that school was boring. Despite finally seeing my old friends after such a long time, I was shocked at this gap I felt, something that I couldn't put into words at the time.
That's when I realized. Students studying at Keio University are indeed society's "chosen ones." Many are born into privileged environments, growing up in the big city and benefiting greatly from their education but are wholly unaware of it. They are oblivious to how local communities outside Tokyo work, ones where people like me grew up. Real divisions exist in society due to the environments people are born and raised into. My classmates at SFC, seeing listless or otherwise uninspired young people in rural areas, would say that they're not doing their best and just need to try harder. The sense of excitement I felt at Keio quickly dissipated once I realized this. Then, with a sense of indescribable frustration, I began to think that there was something I could do with an understanding of both worlds.
- Was it this realization that led to the launch of KATARIBA?
Yes, I believe it was. I knew both worlds—the world of my friends back home and the one of my SFC friends. I wondered if I couldn't work on something that could bridge the gap between them. I had a great deal of respect for my SFC classmates who started successful new businesses, but I wanted to take on a different challenge.
So in my senior year, I spent time in Professor Jun Murai's laboratory, where I found the worldview of the internet so attractive. I think that the idea of the internet is inherently romantic: it has the power to connect everyone around the world and allows anyone to share their opinions. It saved me at the time when I was faced with the realities of social disparity and division.
Eventually, I hit on the idea of an education that stirs children's imagination and allows them to come alive and experience freedom. I wanted to devise my own new approach to education that breaks the mold of the one-way street to encourage children to think for themselves and say what they think. Armed with only my dreams and convictions, I founded my NPO before graduating from university.
First of all, we started by gathering university student volunteers for the KATARIBA Program, which sent these volunteers to talk to kids at their schools. I aimed to create a model that is neither hierarchical (parents/teachers) nor horizontal (friends) in nature but helps foster what I call "diagonal relationships." Since both groups are so close in age, I hoped that junior and senior high school students would find their role models in these college students by having heart-to-heart conversations about the things that matter to them. Sometimes students might meet people who they don't want to be like. That's okay, too! The most important thing is for these students to choose their role models and discover their passions.
I like Fukuzawa Yukichi's phrase hangaku-hankyo (learning while teaching, teaching while learning), and that's precisely what happens in the KATARIBA Program. Our college volunteers reflect on their own lives when talking with junior and senior high school students, which also helps them grow as people.
At first, it was difficult to establish the program as a business, so I had to work part-time while running the NPO. But I had a clear vision of what I wanted society and education to look like.
I knew I wanted people in privileged positions to recognize the division between different children in society. For example, the Juvenile Law of Japan has been revised to allow for stricter punishment, but I don't think that in itself solves the fundamental problem unless we first create a friendlier society that does not isolate minors who require attention and care. KATARIBA envisions a kinder society where teenagers can find a kind of happiness that is not simply bound by economic principles but one that nurtures motivation and creativity to realize their dreams no matter their background.
- In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, you started working with children in affected areas.
Yes, thanks to tax reform for certified NPOs at the time, we saw an increase in donations, so we were able to engage in activities that weren't previously possible. After the earthquake, we set up two after-school "collaboration schools," one in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and another in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, both of which had sustained significant damage in the earthquake and tsunami. In 2016, we established another collaboration school in Mashiki in Kumamoto Prefecture, which was severely damaged after the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquakes. These schools all cooperate with the local community to provide learning support and mental care for the children affected. After that, we founded "b-lab" in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, as a secret hideout where junior and senior high school students could try their hand at new things. We also founded a safe haven for children facing difficult situations such as poverty or complicated home environments. We are creating more and more of these KATARIBA independent of school settings, which serve as places for teens to learn and belong.
We have now opened a space in Shimane Prefecture for futoko students who refuse to go to school. We use the internet to build a system where local people, schools, and governments can all come together to support school-phobic children. Of course, we always try to help teens in trouble, but we are also aware that in the grander scheme of things—that our activities are essentially case studies in solving contemporary social problems in an effort to create a kinder society.
In the future, I would like to see more members of KATARIBA participate in administrative tasks and put more effort into activities that translate educational policy into social movements. "Turning schools into katariba," in other words. For example, why does everyone in the same grade have to go to school at the same time and learn the same thing in the same place every day? At KATARIBA, we reconsider modern education and schooling from its very foundations.
- When elementary, junior high, and high schools had to close all over the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you started KATARIBA Online, a free platform where people of all ages can gather to learn and connect.
The government had already announced the national closures a few days before schools closed on March 2, so we had to scramble to find people and prepare programs in order to launch the service on March 4. We applied our expertise from running in-person programs to connect children worldwide through these online programs, taking advantage of the digital nature of the platform. More than 2,000 individuals are currently registered. We also rent out PCs and Wi-Fi routers free of charge to low income households without access to the internet. Katariba Online is not only for teens but also for their parents. As a mother myself, I have come to realize that parents who are raising children also need similar "diagonal relationships." Therefore, we have created a system where specialist staff at KATARIBA regularly mentors both parents and children. In addition to this mentoring, Prof. Makiko Nakamuro, an expert in educational economics at the Faculty of Policy Management and one of my old classmates at SFC, is also working with us on a demonstration project to consider how best to engage the families we mentor. We hope that this project will provide valuable insights to help the tens of thousands of other teenagers and parents in need of support throughout the country. For the time being, we will have to live with the restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic brings. At KATARIBA, we are committed to pursuing the possibilities of a school that provides an optimal education suited to each and every individual using the online tools at our disposal.
- Could you say a few final words to current students?
As I mentioned earlier, I want students studying at Keio to realize that they are the "chosen ones" in society. Keio students need to understand that a whole other side of society goes unseen when you grow up in a privileged environment. While it's always great to make lots of friends on campus, I hope you will travel and meet many new people while you are still in school. Though in the middle of the pandemic, I probably shouldn't be saying that now. [laughs]
- Thank you for your time.
President & CEO, NPO KATARIBA
Kumi Imamura graduated from the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies in 2002. In 2001, she established KATARIBA as an informal private non-profit organization (NPO) while attending university, where she would arrange school visits that provided opportunities for high school students to learn about potential career paths. In 2006, KATARIBA was incorporated as an NPO in Tokyo. In 2009, Imamura appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in the United States as one of Japan's leading entrepreneurs. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, she has been engaged in a wide range of educational programs to generate motivation and stimulate creativity in underprivileged children from disaster-hit areas and households in need. As a committee member for the Central Council for Education as part of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Imamura provides proactive recommendations to the government.
*This article originally appeared in the 2020 autumn edition (No. 308) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.