Q: What made you interested in studying about Japan or studying the Japanese language?
My interest in Japanese language and culture was piqued through exposure to its popular culture (anime, J-pop, and video games). As someone who already spoke Spanish quite fluently, I entered Swarthmore with the desire to learn a completely different language, one that would challenge me in both academic and cultural ways. I considered Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic as options, but opted for Japanese because of my prior exposure to it. Thus began my journey into all things Japan as a freshman at Swarthmore.
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?
I did a Special Major in Educational Studies and Political Science with a minor in Japanese. Though at first I did not quite see how Japanese could complement my studies in Education/Poli Sci, I was later able to appreciate the overlap that could exist during a political science course I took while studying abroad in Kyoto and later as I considered applying for the JET Programme as a post-Swarthmore option. While on the program (for three years), I was really able to take the fullest advantage of my major and minor and found JET to be the perfect outlet for my interests in teaching, education, and Japanese language/culture.
While it was not required to know Japanese to enter the program or to have studied education priorly, the challenges and opportunities that arose throughout those three years really utilized and further broadened the knowledge and skills I developed in both Education and Japanese while at Swarthmore. I became more interested in comparative education, Japanese education, and did all my lesson planning with Elementary school teachers in Japanese.
Q: Describe a memorable classroom or extracurricular experience studying Japanese or Japanese culture.
At Swarthmore, I had countless memorable experiences in the classroom. To this day, I still remember the different songs we learned to remember how to conjugate verbs, learn numbers, etc. I remember the joy and energy of our Japanese instructors, each with their own teaching style, which was more than needed sometimes during those early morning lessons. I never once had a dull moment in Japanese class, because it was always so challenging and engaging. I also loved looking forward to doing the yearly group plays in front of the rest of the Japanese section, as it was a fun opportunity to integrate everything we had learned in class that year and to present it in an entertaining manner.
While studying abroad in Kanazawa, one of the best extracurricular experiences was when all the students had to join in the local festival less than a week after arriving in Japan (most of us for the first time). We learned three different traditional dances and performed them the same day! During my second time in Japan, in Kyoto, a very memorable classroom experience was getting the opportunity to take non-language classes (other subjects, such as religion, art, history, and political science) with Kyoto University students. It made for a very rich and unique experience to be able to study alongside actual Japanese students and become friends in the process.
Q: How would you describe the experience of learning Japanese language to someone who is thinking about studying it for the first time?
If you have never studied a foreign language before, especially at the level of academic rigor that Swarthmore is known for, I won't lie that the experience will be quite challenging and maybe, at times, frustrating.
There are many aspects of Japanese that are relatively easy for English speakers to pick up, such as the pronunciation (there aren't really any tones, like there are in Chinese) and the introductory grammar. However, there also parts of Japanese that are such foreign concepts to us that it's no wonder they pose a difficulty - writing (kanji and kana), polite language and honorifics (keigo), and the culture itself, which reveals itself through the language.
That all being said, I have nothing but positive memories from my time as a Japanese student at Swarthmore. The instructors set you up for success and give you many opportunities to seek guidance and support if you need it (office hours, study sessions, extra-curricular events). As long as you are willing to put in the extra work that a language like Japanese requires, you will succeed.
I am quite fond of the Japanese section at Swarthmore because, unlike most other classes you will take, you see them every day Monday-Friday! Students naturally bond because of the sheer amount of time you spend with each other everyday, toughing it out in Japanese class. Thus, a wonderful community forms amongst all students and faculty that is there for you for a lifetime.
Q: Did you study abroad in Japan? If so, please tell us a little about your experience.
I did two study abroad programs, one during the summer after my sophomore year (PII - Princeton in Ishikawa) and another during the spring semester of my junior year (KCJS - Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies). They both offered the opportunity to do a homestay with a Japanese family during the duration of the program, as well as the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as tea ceremony, calligraphy, shogi/go, kimono-wearing, flower arrangement, zazen, lessons in Japanese instruments shakuhachi and koto, etc. I found my appreciation increasing for all things Japan and my mind was opened to so many aspects of its culture that I otherwise would not have known about.
I cannot begin to express how valuable my homestay experiences were. I had both a positive and a not quite so positive homestay, but I learned deeply from both of them. It is simply not enough to go to class, study, and come back to your own place. If you are going all the way to Japan, I encourage you to go full-force and opt for the homestay experience, as challenging as it can be at times. Your family will directly and indirectly teach you so much about Japanese and Japanese culture that your classes simply cannot. While some programs have a language pledge, students do not always make the effort to practice Japanese with each other, which is why the homestay component is so important.
One of the most unique opportunities I had while studying abroad was to become a member of salsa club at Kyoto University (Kyodai). Each study abroad student was required to join a Kyodai extra-curricular club and it was our choice to join whichever we wanted. At the time, I was extremely interested in Latin dance, so I wondered what it would be like to learn it while in Japan. The experience of learning two challenging things at once - to understand native-speaker Japanese, to learn a dance in a language that was still quite difficult for me - was invaluable and humbling.
Q: What was a memorable work/volunteer experience you had while in Japan?
After finishing three years on the JET Programme, I felt it was time to try something new. I applied to work as an English/Spanish Instructor for the Global English/Español Training (GET) Programme aboard the Ocean Dream, the current ship running voyages for the NGO Peace Boat (Yes, I went from JET to GET!). Peace Boat is an organization that works for peace, human rights, environmental protections, and sustainable development through education, raising awareness, and connection-building through events and projects both in Japan and abroad. Their yearly 3-month-long voyages are one aspect of this. I worked aboard the 81st southern voyage which visited ports in China, Singapore, Madagascar, South Africa, several cities in South America, a few Polynesian islands, and more.
Here was my chance to finally teach a language in context. I had the opportunity to work with small groups of students, mostly older Japan people, who were eager to learn and use the target language with people aboard the ship, including teachers and crew, as well as in ports with local peoples and guides. Moreover, it was the first opportunity I had to officially incorporate and utilize several aspects of my Latin heritage towards educating people of non-Latin heritage.
Very few things give me more pleasure than remembering the sound of my Japanese students practicing their Spanish or of reminiscing on salsa dance lessons I would give aboard the ship to anyone interested. The beautiful thing about Peace Boat was that it was a space for anyone and everyone to share their skills, passions and interests through classes, events, lectures, and workshops. It celebrated and valued differences and brought together people of all backgrounds, ages, and nationalities. Each voyage is a small floating village that comes together for 100 days that must eventually come to end but leaves each of its passengers with an unforgettable experience.
It is a wonderful opportunity for those seeking to teach languages in a global context, get into translation/interpretation work, or other internationally-minded work, and it's a perfect complement to JET (many former JETS join the voyages) or other work/study done in Japan.
Q: What are you doing now? What are your future plans? How has the study of Japanese and Japanese culture affected your life?
Currently, I am living in South Florida and am teaching, tutoring and dancing on a couple different dance performance teams. After five years of having lived in Japan, I felt it was time to come back to my family in the U.S. and to reflect upon and figure out a way to utilize the incredible experiences I had while studying and working in Japan. I am considering doing a Dual Masters Degree in Social Work and International Studies next year in order to find ways to work specifically with immigrant/refugee populations. I'd also like to somehow incorporate Japanese into my life, by either teaching the language/culture or interpreting for Japanese people.
My studies in Japanese and Japanese culture have affected me in ways I cannot even began to describe. I started off being interested in the more obvious aspects of the culture that we are exposed to in the Western world, but my time there really opened my eyes to other things I might not have become interested in if I had not spent a significant amount of time there (calligraphy, Buddhism/spirituality, festival culture/traditions, language dialects, Asian culture in general, traveling, hiking, learning other languages, etc.). I'd like to think that I am a much richer person for it.