Stelios Prezerakos. Photo: Courtesy of Stelios Prezerakos
NEW YORK – Stelios Prezerakos is a physics teacher from Athens, Greece, and since 2012, he lives in Tokyo, Japan, where he works at an international high school. His book, A Greek in Edo, recently published by Memento, takes the reader on a journey to the secret corners of Edo which was renamed Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a city that uniquely combines the old with the new. The reader comes in contact with the culture and tradition of the Land of the Rising Sun, but also with the modern way of life in the country’s capital and largest and most populous city and its people through this well-written, interesting, and fun page-turner. Prezerakos spoke to The National Herald about A Greek in Edo which is available in Greek online.
TNH: How did this very interesting book come about?
Stelios Prezerakos: I started writing out of personal need – most Greeks abroad feel a strong desire to justify our departure from home, every day. I started visiting parts of Japan, photographing them, and subconsciously reassuring myself that I had indeed made a wise choice.
A Greek in Edo is essentially a map of a treasure. Edo is the old name of Tokyo and as an extension of its old, traditional soul before it was completely transformed into a more or less Western city like London or New York. Tokyo (and what was left of Edo) was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1923, and the final blow came with the bombing of World War II – but some hidden nuggets of the old city remain intact even today. It’s not easy to spot them because you need a unique map: that’s the main role of this book. The book is a guide to anyone interested in the history of Tokyo, the culture of Japan and touching the soul of the Land of the Rising Sun.
TNH: How is the education system in Japan?
SP: The goal of the education system is not academic success but Education. For example, students are not examined in any course until they are 10 years old! You see, the Japanese believe that the first years of school should not be spent on acquiring knowledge but to shape the character of children. They are taught how to be kind to others and animals, how to share, and how to be fair and compassionate.
The first thing a student sees in the morning is the principal waiting for him outside the school door. Every day, rain or snow, the principal greets the students with a huge smile and wishes them a happy day, while urging them to do their best. When they take off their shoes (only special slippers are allowed due to cleanliness) they will enter the main building. The responsible teacher of each department will be next to the door of the classroom he has undertaken, and will always welcome them with a smile and a good word for everyone. Lunch (designed by a specialist dietitian) will be prepared by the students themselves and traditionally, the older ones will serve the younger ones. When the last hour is over, the students will be divided into groups and will start cleaning the school: classrooms, cafeteria, even toilets – this to instill a sense of equality, responsibility, and respect for their environment.
TNH: How is the teacher treated by members of the wider school community?
SP: The respect and courtesy shown by the teachers is mutual from the students, as well as from the society and the state. This is because shaping children is primarily the job of the teacher and not of their parents: when, for example, if a student is caught stealing or breaking windows, the police first alert the school and then his home. When a student is disorderly outside of school, society turns to its teachers who take 100% responsibility. So the only insignia on the students’ uniform is their school badge and not their name – because you are the mirror of your school and not your home. And this is the secret of the Japanese’s unlimited respect for teachers and professors: in Japanese, the word sensei refers to both doctors and teachers (you would call sensei a doctor or a teacher). Because they are responsible for the health of your body and they are responsible for the health of your mind.
TNH: Which area of Tokyo is your favorite and why?
SP: My neighborhood, the outskirts of Jindaiji Temple. When you go out of the main temple, you think time has stopped in the old Nara period. There is running water everywhere, old stone statues with a frightening look, huge carved rocks with imperial inscriptions and all this immersed in a dense, impenetrable vegetation. The whole temple complex is considered a feng shui jewel.
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