Frank Mondelli '14
Q: What made you interested in studying about Japan or studying the Japanese language?
My interest in Japanese language and culture grew out of my enrollment in an Okinawan martial arts class during elementary school. At first just interested in learning how to defend myself, within a few sessions I became far more fascinated with martial arts philosophy and mental discipline than fighting. I devoured all the books I could on Japanese history and aesthetics, and by the time I was in high school I was recording Kurosawa films on my DVR during school to watch when I came home. I suppose I just wanted to expose myself to different ways of perceiving cultural and linguistic relationships in the world. Japanese culture consistently provided me with results that I found either beautiful or thought-provoking.
Q: How did you decide on your major and minor? If Japanese/Asian Studies was not your major, how did your study of Japan or Japanese complement your major?
Although the large selection of potential academic paths at Swarthmore excited me, I knew as soon I was accepted that I would at least take the Japanese language courses. I even contacted Gardner Sensei ahead of time asking about study abroad opportunities, failing to realize that I was being quite hasty! From my first semester, I could tell the professors in the department were not only brilliant instructors, but also compassionate individuals dedicated to helping their students achieve the highest level of academic and personal fulfillment in Japanese. It didn't take long to decide that I wanted to take full advantage of the incredible language instruction and resources of the department to gain a holistic understanding of Japanese language and culture. I became a Japanese major, and never looked back!
Q: Describe a memorable classroom or extracurricular experience studying Japanese or Japanese culture.
This question is difficult to answer because there were so many experiences in each semester that I find memorable or note-worthy. I will list just a few things that I think are highlights of the department and my experiences there.
1. Each semester of language classes culminated in a special project that incorporated everything we had learned up to that point. These projects took the form of skits, videos, podcasts, and other creative endeavors where we were granted full control over the process (with the exception of making sure the Japanese was correct!). It was always fun to work in a group and create something tangible to show for all our hard work.
2. Each academic year ended with a Curry Party, where we would gather in the Friends Meeting Hall and make Japanese curry and other treats under the guidance of Jo Sensei and Suda Sensei. We would then then eat while celebrating the end of the year and watching some of the projects from the language classes. Events like these helped continue our learning of Japanese language and culture beyond the classroom. For example, we would cook in Japanese, food would be served according to social status (e.g., what year we were, whether there were out-group members such as guests we brought), and we took great care in cleaning up the space afterward.
3. The department enjoys close relationships with a large variety of Japanese universities and associations. One notable example is Tamagawa University. Their world-famous Taiko and Dance troupe would come visit us each year, not only to perform but also to eat lunch with us and talk with us after their performances. Sometimes we even were granted the opportunity to give them a tour of the campus in Japanese! Interacting with the troupe gave us a unique opportunity to talk with and get to know Japanese people our age.
4. The department offers a rich variety of culture courses in an inclusive atmosphere. Courses in Japanese poetry, film, literature, food culture, drama, calligraphy, and more ensure that there is no shortage of interesting classes students can take. Oftentimes we would take these class with students otherwise unaffiliated with the department, which would help add new perspectives to class discussions. In addition, the relationship the department had with the Tri-Co enabled me to take advanced language courses in Haverford College and participate in a Bryn Mawr 360 Course Cluster (a system where one takes three courses simultaneously which all tackle the same large topic from different disciplinary angles). In my case I was able to take the "Perspectives on Sustainability" course cluster, which explored disasters and rebuilding in Japan in the last century through art history, urban studies, literature, and film. We also put on an exhibition in the libraries at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, and the following semester some of us had the opportunity to curate a film series at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute!
5. I would be remiss to not mention that aside from all these special events and extra opportunities, daily life as a Japanese major was always invigorating, challenging, and, honestly, fun. Some of my best memories as a Swarthmore student took place in those classrooms.
Q: How would you describe the experience of learning Japanese language to someone who is thinking about studying it for the first time?
I think one of the best things one can do going from English to Japanese upon entering college is to try to throw away "thinking in English." The two languages are fundamentally different in structure, often requiring us to conceive of concepts in the opposite order we would in English, or add an extra piece of information we wouldn't use in English, or drop words in English that we tend to think of as necessary to form and link concepts (e.g., "a," "the," plurals). It's much easier to start fresh - try to learn the Japanese language with minimal presuppositions as to how language itself should work. You'll be rewarded greatly when you begin to express ideas in a form that gradually becomes more and more familiar over time. At least, this is what worked for me. You will have to work hard, but the pay-offs should be enormous.
Q: Did you study abroad in Japan? If so, please tell us a little about your experience.
I participated in the Princeton in Ishikawa (PII) program in summer 2012 - the first time I ever went to Japan! I lived in the city of Kanazawa, which is a wonderful medium-sized city in Ishikawa Prefecture. Between the intense classes and an unforgettable homestay experience, PII was a great introduction to being in Japan and strengthening my Japanese. I next presented at an academic conference in Okinawa during spring break 2014, and then won a Fulbright award to do research in Okinawa for nine months starting that fall. That experience, in which I worked to help preserve the indigenous Okinawan language, saw me apply everything I had learned at Swarthmore on the field. Without my previous experiences in the department, my year would not have been a success. (On that note, every time I have ever gone to Japan, it was with generous institutional support - I could never have done so myself.)
Q: What are you doing now? What are your future plans? How has the study of Japanese and Japanese culture affected your life?
After my Fulbright year, I moved to Washington DC to take a job at a consulting company and figure out my graduate school plans. I've now graciously been accepted into Stanford University's East Asian Languages and Cultures Japanese PhD program this fall (2016), and look forward to continuing to pursue Japanese culture and language studies for the next few years. This summer I'll also be attending the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies Summer Program in Yokohama to better prepare myself for academic research in Japanese.
The challenging intellectual discussions and work associated with my Japanese classes at Swarthmore exposed me to new ways of understanding and analyzing Japan and human culture as a whole. Even if I were not going to pursue Japanese in my graduate studies, I would still be grateful for the linguistic and analytical skills I've gained from the department. Beyond academic skills, I have also been inspired to one day help run a Japanese department someplace and help the next generation of scholars perform valuable research and change the world - one paper at a time!
I am available to reach out to for questions for anyone considering attending Swarthmore or pursuing a Japanese/Asian Studies major or minor. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.