In this debut memoir, a Midwesterner recalls teaching English 60 years ago in Japan as part of a pioneering exchange program.
Jorgensen has had a distinguished career, including serving as national director of the United States Department of Education’s Teacher Corps/Peace Corps program. Born in 1925 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was a typical Midwestern boy who never dreamed of becoming a world traveler until 1954, when he learned of a program aimed at sending “young representative Americans” (all four were white and male, as Jorgensen notes) to teach English and promote democracy in Japan. Jorgensen jumped at the chance. He was at first dismayed that his teaching assignment would be in Hiroshima, only nine years after the atomic bomb; Jorgensen was welcomed with great hospitality, but “it was simply impossible to go anywhere in Hiroshima, or meet anyone, without being reminded of the A-bomb,” he writes. His students were focused on the future and eager to learn, and he connected with them through informal socializing as well as classroom lessons, discussions of American and Japanese literature and popular music, and other techniques, which proved effective. “I might even have come into my own as a teacher of English,” he wrote to his family near the end of his stay. The memoir offers interest as a piece of historical travel writing, though it can get bogged down in guidebook details. It’s also valuable as an account of pre–Peace Corps intercultural education efforts. Teaching in mid-’50s Hiroshima is the memoir’s strongest theme, and these sections are intriguing indeed—but getting there takes nearly half the book. Much space is devoted to Jorgensen’s friends and mentors, whom few readers except those with a personal connection to them, or scholarly interest in the time or place, will likely take much interest in (although Jorgensen did meet some luminaries, such as Nobel Prize–winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata). A glossary would have been helpful, along with more consistency about Japanese names (for example, Yukio Mishima on one page; Mishima Yukio on another).
A warm, appealing eyewitness account that displays the author’s appreciation for Japan’s art and architecture and its postwar challenges.