Sculptor honors bond between W&J professor and Japan

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While studying for his doctorate in higher education, Edward Greb took a couple of Japanese culture courses at the University of Pittsburgh that greatly influenced his career — and his life.

The courses sparked his interest in Japan so much that he spent a sabbatical studying the Japanese language and sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo. Since his first visit to the island nation in 1983, he has returned many times. At least 14 of his visits were part of intercession courses, in which he took a total of nearly 200 students from Washington & Jefferson College, where he has taught in the sociology department for 39 years.

While Mr. Greb, who lives in South Strabane, has visited much of the main island as well as other islands of Japan, for the past 32 years he has focused on leading student trips to the rural town of Samukawa on the outskirts of Tokyo. He said that over the years he has developed deep friendships with the people of Samukawa, especially with members of the Samukawa International Exchange Association, which has a goal is to introduce the town’s residents to worldwide cultures, customs and traditions.

"The people of Samukawa who were homestay hosts had photos of our students and would call them by name when they came to greet us," Mr. Greb said. "The evening of our arrival, they’d stage a big party with entertainment and more food than you could ever eat. The rest of the week, the students would spend their time with the townsfolk. As a result, they formed lasting bonds, and many have stayed in touch with their hosts, including about 15 who have gone back to Japan as a JET, a Japanese exchange teacher."

To commemorate Mr. Greb’s June 30 retirement, the Samukawa International Exchange Association and the townsfolk of Samukawa decided to honor his friendship by commissioning internationally known woodcarver Akatsuki Harada to create a camphor wood sculpture with a 3-D likeness of the professor. Mr. Harada had only photos of Mr. Greb to work from in Japan, which the sculptor did not find adequate for creating a 3-D likeness. So, an unfinished sculpture was presented to the college in October and placed in storage in the college library.

On March 25, Mr. Harada, his wife Nina, and the couple’s two children flew to Washington, Pa., for a nine-day stay so that he could finish the work. Mr. Harada began by making a clay model prototype that helped him finish the wood sculpture and then put the finishing touches on the piece.

The clay model will ultimately end up in Mr. Greb’s home, while the camphor image is to be installed in a case on the second floor of Old Main near the college’s sociology department.

In addition to Mr. Greb’s likeness, the 25-pound sculpture, which is roughly 2-feet square, also depicts Mount Fiji, which can be seen from Samukawa; the Tori Gate from the town’s 1,500-year-old Shinto shrine; jonquils, the town’s emblematic flower; an image of the twin towers of W&J’s Old Main; and, in the center, a Japanese kanji character for the word "bond."

Hisashi Sawada, a member of the Samukawa International Exchange Association and an engineer for the Japanese space program, accompanied the Harada family to create a photo journal of the visit for publication in the Samukawa newspaper and association newsletter.

Mr. Harada's , whose works are displayed in 13 countries, visited the United States twice before for exhibits of his work in New York and Los Angeles. He said Washington, Pa., is about the same size as Samukawa and shares its rural ambiance.

"The area around Samukawa grows rice, persimmons and pears and is relatively flat as opposed to the rolling hills around Washington," he said. "Weather-wise, it’s much cooler here, and spring seems to be a month later here than at home."

He dined at the Texas Roadhouse and said he was impressed with the food served in the commons dining room on campus.

To plan and coordinate the student course trips to Japan, Mr. Greb has partnered with Japan Trac, a travel business in State College. Owner Jonathan Phillippi lived and taught in Samukawa for more than 10 years, and the Phillippi family is providing the display case for the finished sculpture in memory of Charles H. Phillippi, who recently died.

Mr. Greb said that once you’ve made a friend in Japan, you’ve made a friend forever.

"The Japanese word tomadachi means a friend for life — not only for you but for your and your friend’s families," he said.


Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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