When 16-year-old Shawn Garret arrived in the Japanese mountain town of Takyama, she received more attention than she anticipated. ''It was a very traditional town,'' she says. ''Teen-agers don't grow up as fast there as they do (in America). They were shocked I was there alone.''
Miss Garret was among 20 US students chosen to take part in the Benihana of Tokyo Scholarship Program, sponsored by Benihana Restaurants in the United States. The program is designed to promote cultural exchange between Japan and the US. Each student lived with one or more Japanese families during a three-week stay in Japan, studying various aspects of family life and culture.
Many of the students were impressed with the close family relationships they observed in Japan.
''Family life is much more disciplined in Japan,'' says Pamela Wood, a senior at Copley Square High School in Boston. Miss Wood stayed with three families. In two of the homes she visited, the grandparents lived with the family.
''There are open lines of communication between children and parents, and between children and grandparents. The housing is so crowded they know they have to respect each other,'' she says. ''But some of the older people are upset because they feel the young people don't take good care of them.''
Jonathan Warner, a senior at St. Petersburg High School in Florida, stayed with four families during his stay. Grandparents lived with three of the four families.
''Young people seem to spend as much time with their grandparents as with their parents,'' he says. ''The kids seemed to have more respect for their grandparents than with their parents, but their parents had the final authority.''
In the town of Takamatsu, which has a population of about 300,000, he found that ''parents and the school
seem to keep closer tabs on young people than they do over here. The school actually takes control of the children from the parents. The school sets rules for before, during, and after school. If a kid gets arrested, the police call the school first and the parents second.''
Kristin Richards, who is now a freshman at Stanford University, studied the role of women in Japan.
''The Japanese really cherish ancient traditions. Japanese women are subordinate to men; they don't have as much freedom as they do here. Women are concerned about not straying from tradition because they think they'll be looked down on by family and friends,'' she says. ''Young women are career oriented,'' she adds, ''but they think along the lines of secretary or clerical office work. Some women are beginning to break out of the mold.''
During her stay in Japan, Danielle Moss of New York City found that women usually maintain their career until their late 20s before they get married.
In the first family she stayed with, the wife gave up a professional career as a musician when she married in her early 30s. Until that time she lived with her family. Now she gives a few private lessons from her home.
One of the families Miss Moss stayed with had three children, aged 3, 6, and 8. The father worked long hours but still arranged for time to be with his children.
''The children got up an hour early so they could take a small walk together with their father,'' she says.
She, too, believes the small living quarters contribute to the togetherness of Japanese families.
''Because they live in such small spaces there's no chance to get away from each other, but they didn't seem to mind at all - no one complained,'' she says. ''Respect is utmost in the family for each individual. You would no sooner act disrespectfully to your brother than you would to your mother - or anyone else for that matter.''