Learning Japanese at Japan Society: Laughter, Culture & Connection
In late August, Japan Society appointed Tomoyo Kamimura as the second-ever director of its Language Center, which opened in 1972 with a single class, and has grown into one of the nation's most respected Japanese language learning facilities. Formerly coordinator of The New School's Japanese program, Ms. Kamimura sat down to talk about her experience teaching Japanese and plans for the future of the Center. This is part one of a two-part interview.
Congratulations on your appointment!
Could you walk us through your journey of becoming a Japanese teacher?
My interest in teaching Japanese was sparked while I was an exchange student at Michigan's Kalamazoo College from Waseda University in Tokyo. During that time, I taught various levels of Japanese as a student teacher. When I later became a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Oregon, I was a teaching assistant to Yoko Matsuoka McClain, who is the granddaughter of famed novelist Natsume Soseki. That experience really had a big impact on me. I discovered the deep pleasure of learning and teaching--just the sheer joy of sharing knowledge and connecting with students. I learned that through her and through teaching at the University. Do you know the literal meaning of “sensei,” which is how you address a teacher in Japanese?
It’s “before, birth,” right?
Right. “Sen” means previous or before, “sei” means to be born. I was born before you, so I have that much more experience and knowledge that I can convey to you. Even though I was not much older than the students I was teaching--I was maybe 23 or 24 and they were in their early 20s--I still felt that sense of responsibility and leadership. I really learned the meaning of sensei from that initial experience.
You took a slight detour from teaching. What happened?
After receiving my MA in Linguistics, I returned to Japan where I continued down the teaching path by becoming an English lecturer at Tokyo University of Science. After three years of teaching English grammar and composition to Japanese undergraduates, I decided to try my hand in the completely different field of finance. I obtained an MBA from Columbia University and, upon graduation, worked at an investment firm. After several years, I realized finance was not my calling, I decided to take a break. In retrospect, I believe working in finance was really just a break from my true calling—teaching. I learned a great deal about finance and business, which benefits me tremendously in running a language program.
Did that have any affect your teaching philosophy?
Although aspects of my teaching have evolved over the years, my core philosophy has remained unchanged. It starts with establishing a personal connection with students based on mutual trust. Once we share that, students are more receptive to learning and I am able to focus on conveying my knowledge to each student.
One effective "hook" to establish this rapport is humour. I find humour tends to put students at ease and lessens feelings of intimidation brought on by the seriousness and rigor of a “difficult” language like Japanese, with its sometimes daunting body of knowledge (for example, Japanese has few western-style cognates or sentence patterns, and two sets of alphabets totaling 92 characters, which must be mastered early on).
You've said that Japanese culture is vital to teaching and learning the Japanese language. How so?
The more I teach Japanese, the more I realize the importance of introducing the culture and customs of Japan into the curriculum. In each lecture I make a conscious effort to weave in various snippets of Japanese daily life and customs. I also find that an offbeat approach is an extremely effective teaching method. Some of the "odd but true" cultural phenomena I cover in classes include slurping noodles, the no “ladies first” custom, the “can’t say no” custom, nose blowing, yakuza tattoos, self-deprecating modesty, “holey” socks, giggling, chopstick and bowing etiquette, and body language, among others.
We've discussed on this blog before that a lot of young people become interested in Japanese through manga or anime. What would you say is the motivation for some of your older students?
If you see men taking Japanese, it's often the case their wives or girlfriends are Japanese. Or they went to Japan as a tourist, loved it there and want to go back. Now they really want to communicate a little bit with people. So that’s their motivation. You don’t see as many American women married to Japanese men, but there are some. And it’s the same reason for them: “I want to communicate with my husband’s family.”
Some of the older students have intellectual curiosity as well, or the kind of thing where they have been very interested in the culture since they were very young.
Japan Society has many cultural offerings in addition to language classes. Do you think that is why the Language Center has the reputation as one of the top in the U.S.?
Definitely. It’s because we have so many varied attractions: cultural lectures and demonstrations, a gallery, a film program, performing arts, business panels--we are constantly doing something tremendously interesting. Even our building is an attraction with its unique Japanese architectural elements. All these things combined really help to differentiate this school from others.
Also Japan Society is located in the middle of New York City, so we have people from all walks of life here. And there are Japanese cultural events all over town, not only at Japan Society. We could not have been number one in a little tiny isolated village in some unpopulated state, with not much going on. Location and activity really have a lot to do with it.
You said the city has people from all walks of life. Do you see that reflected in the classroom in terms of age groups, race, etc.?
Yes, we have students of all different ages. Probably the youngest is around 15, a high school student, to 65 or so. We have New York Times reporters, retired doctors, housewives, businessmen and all that. Last year I had a very interesting mix of people. One high school girl, who was good at Japanese because she taught herself, started partnering with an Indian-American who had his PhD from Cambridge on Einstein’s theory or something. I saw his thesis online. He was the real deal.
At first I wanted to kind of separate them. I thought, “Okay, there’s another high school student, so why doesn't she sit with him?” But the two wanted to be partners and stayed together for the whole semester. And they did very well together. They developed their pair conversation into something different, and she would always give him Hello Kitty candy. Something like that makes me really happy, you know, different people sharing this one purpose, to learn Japanese, but with very different life goals. And yet they achieve something together.
You are planning to try out a suite of unconventional thematic classes during the spring 2014 session, which starts in February. Can you tell us a little bit about these?
The themes are actually hooks to captivate students, but the core class is essentially teaching the fundamentals. Long-time instructor Mami Miyashita-sensei has been preparing a karaoke-based class for several years. When she presented the idea to me, I said, “That’s really catchy, let’s give it a try.” Each student will bring a song they want to sing, and they will explore the song in class--its vocabulary, grammar, structure, even idiomatic meanings. At the end of class they will try to sing the song. Hopefully with a better understanding of its meaning.
Do you think making material fun increases retention?
If you are interested in certain things, you pay more attention. When you are over 20 and try to learn new languages, you have to attach emotion to the learning process. Otherwise it’s very difficult to memorize. If you think about it, much older people, people in their 50s who want to learn Japanese, cannot always remember everything. But if I tell them a funny story about a grammar concept, they are more likely to remember. Emotion has to be involved. Like with songs. The words people learn in songs will stay in their heads if it means something to them.
The other new courses are conversation courses for the higher levels, and an advanced course that will read a complete novel--a kind of intense book club that will try to get through one novel each semester. The Center has traditionally been known to offer 12 levels of Japanese, but with these new courses there are now 13.
As Director, do you intend to do more to bring regular Japan Society programming into your lessons?
Oh yes. We already tried it out with the Japan Society Gallery this most recent session. We took students to see the Mariko Mori exhibition. It was pretty successful. I think students really enjoyed it. It has to be a win-win situation. Our Gallery will gain audience and our language students gain a cultural experience unavailable elsewhere. We took teachers to meet the head of the Gallery, Miwako Tezuka, and she trained them to explain aspects of the art on display. So depending on the level, if you’re taking Level 5 students, Level 10 students, the explanation is going to be a little bit different. We have to do it a few more times to see if it’s really working towards our goals.
Do you see yourself incorporating something like performing arts or even lectures in Japanese?
I would like to. There is so much that goes on here every month. Also one day I would like to offer something like a Cinema Class that coincides with Japanese film events taking place at Japan Society, so that students see the movies and talk about them in class. We have to utilize what we have upstairs in the auditorium and Gallery. We have this tremendous, precious resource, so why not use it to the advantage of our students?
Waku Waku Japanese, the series of short videos that introduce fun Japanese words and phrases, has become very popular with visitors to the Japan Society YouTube page. Do you have plans to continue the videos moving forward?
We are actually creating another version, kind of in between the fun of Waku Waku and Miyashita-sensei’s more grammar-based Japanese language videos. I think it’s going to start in early 2014. I have already chosen the instructor. What I am thinking of is to use it as an introduction to Japan Society as well as a fun way to learn some of the basics of the Japanese language. For that purpose, we may actually shoot the videos in front of the waterfall or in the library, to show this beautiful building to people who want to visit. We won’t of course show everything, because otherwise they won’t come to Japan Society (laughs).
To be Continued!