Bringing a bit of Japan to the American people

So this is Kyoto! In the dim light of this narrow street, the houses take on a strange, almost unnatural appearance.

The guide calls us to the door of the silk weaver's house. A woman, seated inside on the floor, is folding paper in the ancient art of origami. She invites us to enter, reminding us to remove our shoes before we step onto the tatami (mats) that cover the floor.

The only unusual part of this tour is that the guide is a six-foot, four-inch American, the woman folding paper is black, and it's not Kyoto at all - this Japanese house and street are in Boston - inside a museum.

The house, the tour, and the paper folder are all a part of a program at the Boston Children's Museum to give Americans a greater awareness of what Japan and the Japanese people are like. Several other organizations across the United States share this same objective.

A recent survey conducted by the Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun and the Gallup Organization showed that American public opinion of Japan is at its lowest point in years. But Mike Spock, director of the museum, asserts it's not just because of the US-Japan trade imbalance. He attributes it to ''an imbalance of understanding.''

Mr. Spock says that although the Japanese know a great deal about Americans, Americans know practically nothing about the Japanese. ''Some of our opinions are still based on old World War II movies.''

There are many organizations in the US that seek to promote better understanding between the two countries. But Spock says that most reach only the very well educated, or the ''Japanophile'' - Americans who already have a yen for the culture. He wants more groups to try to eliminate this lack of understanding among the general public.

To help New Englanders understand Japan better, the Children's Museum is establishing a permanent Japanese exhibit, including Kyo-no-machiya, a 100 -year-old house brought over from Kyoto in 1979.

The six-room house, which Spock compares with ''a rambling old Victorian,'' was the home of a 14th-generation silk-weaving family. It has been carefully restored, retaining its original beauty, and furnished with modern appliances and plumbing.

Some school groups have tried out chopsticks at meals in the house, and a couple of classes have spent the night there. But Spock notes that the house is only one part of the program. The museum sponsors courses for business people and tourists traveling to Japan. It offers seminars on art and architecture. And there are language courses.

Spock hopes that as the program is successful, other organizations will approach Japan-US relations at a broader level and reach more Americans.

The Japanese, too, are taking an interest in the museum's down-to-earth approach to teaching Americans about the Land of the Rising Sun. Funding from the Japanese government and corporations has long been available to sponsor university-level Japanese studies, business conferences, and tours of such groups as the Kabuki theater.

Now money is being made available for this more general approach. The City of Kyoto and the Keidanren, the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations, are helping the museum raise $1 million for the ongoing support of their program.

Other organizations are working to make Americans more familiar with the Japanese culture:

* Youth for Understanding, an exchange program, will send 400 American teen-agers to Japan this summer for eight weeks. Coordinator Karen Rudnick says the program is a great way to break down barriers. ''Every one of our kids is received equally and with the same amount of love.''

* The Associated Japan-America Societies of the United States sponsors chapters in 16 states. Virginia Petree, executive director of the organization, says it offers programs that deal with women's lives, urban problems, transportation, and criminal justice in Japan. She says that ''by doing things that really look at how the two societies deal with the problems we both face, we can contribute a lot to one another.''

* The Japan Society is reaching out with its newly initiated Caravan Program. It is a speaking tour by several Japanese people who represent business, academia, and the news media. This year they will give talks in cities from Los Angeles to Little Rock, Ark.

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