Beyond the Books

A teen-age Girl Scout from Japan boards a plane for the United States. Although her English is shaky, her spirit of adventure is strong. She is traveling to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to take part in Arts Odyssey, a Girl Scout program.

Satoko Kajima

Satoko Kijima with some of her work

For Satoko Kajima, that 1986 trip was an odyssey in many ways. It set her on the path toward a career in art and helped her choose Indiana University of Pennsylvania for her graduate studies. “If I hadn’t been selected for that event, maybe I wouldn’t have come to IUP,” she said.

In 1991, Kajima returned to the U.S. when she was invited to serve as a unit leader at Camp Conshatawba, the region’s Girl Scout facility in Summerhill, Pennsylvania. She longed to share the experience with the Girl Scouts she led in Japan.

“After that, I thought maybe someday I could bring my girls to America,” said Kajima, whose parents, Kiyoko and Yoshinori Kajima, live in Kanagawa, Japan.

Kajima achieved her goal in 1998, when eight Japanese Girl Scouts arrived at Camp Conshatawba for a sixteen-day trip that included a week of resident camp and a week of day camp. Kajima’s mother, Kiyoko, who had been her daughter’s Girl Scout leader in the past, served as one of the leaders for the trip.

The year after bringing her scouts here, Kajima started her studies at IUP by attending the university’s American Language Institute as an English Language student. The next year, in 2000, she started graduate studies in art. For the first year and a half of her IUP education, she stayed with the Kraft family, one of her former Girl Scout host families in Johnstown. They taught her to drive, and she commuted to IUP each day.

While studying at IUP, Kajima served on a regional Girl Scout committee and gave presentations for Girl Scouts, teaching them origami and how to write their names or count in Japanese. “She knows all the Girl Scout songs in English and in Japanese,” said Joanna Kraft, one of her former host mothers.

Kajima, who has now been involved with Girl Scouting for a quarter of a century, also has volunteered her time to Boy Scouting in Japan, mostly leading cub scouts. An accomplished pianist, she has been known to entertain her hosts with American show tunes.

Over the years, Kajima has formed many lasting friendships in the Johnstown and Indiana areas. She has invited her American hosts and friends to visit Japan and stay at her home, and several have made the trip. Among them is Denise Spory of Johnstown, who also traveled to Florida with Kajima.

Spory is impressed with the way the scout from Japan balances her strong work ethic with her enjoyment of life and her happy nature. “She’s very intense when it comes to her work. We’d hardly hear from her when school is in session,” said Spory. “She’s also very fun to be with when school’s not in session.”

Kajima’s hard work at IUP earned her a Master of Arts degree this past May and a Master of Fine Arts degree in August. Although her major is painting and drawing with a minor in fibers, her current work has shifted to mixed media and video art.

Kajima sees even her finished artwork as pieces in the unfinished work of her art as a whole. Once, she took a painting she had completed and tore it into strips, which she placed on the floor in a new arrangement to create a pattern like a mosaic.

“My art is constantly changing,” she said. “It’s the same with human life. It’s constantly changing. It’s universal. I’m finding out what my most powerful art is. My current work is more conceptual than before.”

This fall, Kajima is doing an internship with the Children’s Studio School in Washington, D.C., an art-based institution where children learn other subjects through artistic projects. For Kajima, who has traveled to thirteen countries outside Japan, it is one more exciting opportunity and one more new place to see.