Friday, December 27, 2013

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!

Thank you.

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!

--Andres Oliver

Start at the very beginning! 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merlin, Madagascar, and Mori: The Mystic Road to Stonehenge

Mystic origins of the cosmically synced Transcircle 1.1

Jacquetta Hawkes, the British archaeologist and writer, once stated, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.”

I don’t know which Stonehenge Mariko Mori deserves, but looking at Transcircle 1.1, the Stonehenge-inspired, LED-powered circle of monoliths at the center of her current Rebirth exhibition, it’s clear which one she desires: one that serves as a channel for our ancestors.

With Transcircle’s combination of ancient British and Japanese spirituality, specifically Druidic and Shinto traditions of ancestor worship, Mori joins a long line of people to associate the monoliths with themes of death and rebirth.

Archaeologists and researchers continue to debate the purpose of the standing stones, with theories ranging from the conventional (Stonehenge is some sort of giant celestial observatory) to the curious (the stones were chosen for their acoustic qualities). Though our temporal separation from the founding of the wonder, dated some 5000 years ago, complicates explanation, that hasn’t stopped many, including Mori herself, from positing their own interpretations.

One of the earliest and most enduring stories surrounding Stonehenge stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136), perhaps best known as the source of much of the King Arthur mythos. Strangely enough, one of the main actors in the Arthur drama also plays an important part in Monmouth’s account of the construction of Stonehenge.

Wishing to erect a monument to several hundred British nobles slaughtered at the hands of the treacherous Hengist, Aurelius Ambrosius, King of the Britons, consults Merlin for advice. “Send for the Giants’ Dance that is on Killare,” the wizard says, prompting an expedition of gallant knights to bring back the stones, or Giants’ Dance, in question. After wresting the stones from the Irish king, Ambrosius’s forces convey them back to Britain, where Merlin uses his magic to set them in their current state. No pullies and cranes. No armies of workers. No rafts. Just magic.

Most relevant to Mori’s work is the fact that Monmouth interprets Stonehenge as a place of burial and commemoration, rather than as the astronomical instrument that others later took it to be. While Mori’s Transcircle 1.1 focuses much more on rebirth than on the finality of earthly burial, both this piece and Monmouth’s Stonehenge tie the monoliths to some aspect of death, exemplifying the “creative stream [reaching] right down to the present” that Mori uses to describe her affinity to that other ancient legacy of Japan’s Jōmon period.

Talking about “creative streams” Mori takes her greatest artistic liberties in interpreting the monoliths through the lens of early Druidism, an idea both widely repudiated and enduringly popular. Though the Druids probably did not appear until around 400 BC, several thousand years after the beginning of the construction of Stonehenge, and also conducted the majority of their rites in groves rather than in temples, this knowledge has not deterred Mori and others from echoing the undoubtedly romantic idea of Druidic mysteries.

“Stonehenge as Druidic temple” owes much to the work of John Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian who both excavated the ring of holes now named after him and wrongly attributed the monoliths to the work of Celtic Druids. However erroneous, this connection, strengthened by a generation of Romantics in later centuries, proved enduring enough to influence both Mori and current neo-pagan groups. While Mori celebrates this tradition through her art, neo-pagans do so by descending upon Stonehenge to mark the solstice—prominent among them, a bearded former soldier who goes by the title of Rev King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders. [Note: Mori's recent "Sun Pillar" installed on an island in Okinawa prefecture also utilizes the light of the solstice sun (video).]

Arthurian legends and Druidic tie-ins have largely fallen out of favor in today’s Stonehenge research. That being said, an endeavor known as the Stonehenge Riverside Project, responsible for some major excavations of the site in recent years, reflects elements of both traditions, as well as of Mori’s own work.

In his writings on Stonehenge, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes the claim that the stones were transported by giants “from the farthest ends of Africa.” The thought of transporting these monoliths over a distance of a few miles, much less several thousand, seems almost impossibly daunting, placing Geoffrey’s story firmly in the realm of fiction. However, Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist behind the Riverside Project, wouldn’t write Africa out of the story entirely.

Back in 1998, Pearson and Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist, published a groundbreaking paper in which they drew parallels between Stonehenge and Madagascar’s tradition of ancestor worship, putting forth the idea of a “Stonehenge for the ancestors.” The two drew a comparison between Stonehenge as a home for the dead and Woodhenge, a nearby collection of timber circles they believe to be the remains of a human settlement, as a home for the living. Pearson and Ramilisonina saw the same dynamic at work in Madagascar. Speaking with National Geographic in June of this year, Pearson says,
In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, "Well, I don't think that's necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago." 
But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.
In light of this research, Mori’s reimagining of Stonehenge in Transcircle 1.1 as a kind of antenna for cosmic and primal energies begins to look far less speculative. Indeed, the immense age and incompleteness of Stonehenge make it open to a variety of interpretations, like all high art and low art.

You can almost imagine the same thing happening in reverse with Transcircle 1.1. Now a centerpiece of an artist’s rebirth, centuries later it falls into disrepair, turning up in some mundane location. What was it for? Who made it? With what purpose? A sun marker. Cemetery. A temple. All of the above. Or none. We can dream, and wonder.

--Andres Oliver

Image: Transcircle 1.1, 2004. Stone, Corian, LED, real-time control system; 132 3/8 inches diam., each stone 43 3/8 × 22 1/4 × 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Installation photograph by Richard Goodbody.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sword Unconcealed: The Martial Legacy Of The Samurai

Kendo. Via.

It was 1877, and the samurai were in trouble. According to Stephen Burnbull's The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, Saigo Takamori, the leader of the last great samurai rebellion against the Meiji government and the engines of change, was moving down the slope of Kumamoto Castle under heavy fire. His progress was soon impeded as he took a bullet to the groin, forcing one of his followers to carry him down the mountain. Finally, they reached a secluded gate. Turning in the direction of the imperial palace, Takamori took a knife, plunged it into his belly, and committed seppuku, honorable ritual suicide. The Satsuma Rebellion was over. So was the age of the samurai.

Fast forward to the present, where a visit to any Japanese high school reveals groups of boys and girls clad in black hakama robes, their faces masked so that they look like angry wasps. With a scream and a lunge, they drive their wooden swords against a shoulder. A neck. Searching everywhere for an opening.

This is kendo, the “way of the sword.” As David A. Hall tells us in his Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts, an exhaustive work drawing on decades of study and practice, the kendo tradition almost disappeared after the death of Takamori and disenfranchisement of his samurai brethren. With the Meiji emperor passing a set of laws known as the Haitorei edicts in an effort to outlaw the use of swords, long considered an emblem of samurai status, the romantic way of the sword survived only through the modern art of kendo and the other schools that Hall outlines in his book.

Americans might be familiar with the Haitorei edicts from Japanese media, even if they have never heard the term itself. For example, many will remember the scene in The Last Samurai (not exactly a paragon of historical authenticity, but it does provide some context) where the young samurai Nobutada, played by Shin Koyamada, is stopped in the street by some police officers, who promptly relieve him of sword and topknot to his cry of “Yamero!” “Stop!” As a member of the samurai class, which for centuries enjoyed the right of sword ownership as a status symbol, being deprived of his katana and wakizashi, a smaller sword, would have been especially humiliating for Nobutada. After all, in the words of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the famous Japanese shogun of old, “the sword is the soul of the warrior.”

For all its symbolic importance, the katana was not often the weapon of choice for a samurai on the field of battle. As David Hall tells us in his encyclopedia entry on kyuba no michi, or “way of the bow and horse,” the people of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods identified warriorship with one’s skill as an archer, especially while on horseback. Later centuries saw the rise of firearms and squads of foot soldiers armed with yari, or long spears. Just as books and movies like The Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride have given rise to the romantic ideal of soldiers meeting each other one on one, exchanging witticisms as much as blows while they dance the dance of swords, modern takes on samurai history give the impression that battles rested on manful thrusts and parries of the katana. In reality, swords did not enjoy widespread use as a primary weapon until Japan’s invasion by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and even afterward, the sword generally played its greatest part off the field of battle in duels or assassinations.

Others might know Haitorei through popular anime series Rurouni Kenshin, which depicts the adventures of the titular Kenshin after he renounces the life of an assassin. Events unfold during the dawn of the Meiji era, with everything from the first steam engine to Western dress exemplifying Japan’s transition to a new age. This being the case, Kenshin’s practice of carrying his sword openly at his side, even if it is a reverse-blade sword made for disabling rather than killing, often brings him trouble while out in public. We also learn another bit of history through the character of Saito Hajime, the Dirty Harry of the Japanese police force. Not that any of the heroes and villains of the series seem to pay much regard for the sword carrying law, but as a member of the police, Saito is one of the few who does so within the boundaries of the law.

This detail accords with the historical record. Even after the passing of the last Haitorei decree, one outlawing carrying of swords for the general public, Tokyo police were allowed to carry swords in the course of their duties. In fact, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, protégé of the illustrious Saigo Takamori and founder of the first modern police force in Tokyo, advocated for including the sword as part of police training in a book called Kendo Saikoron (On the Revitalization of Kendo). David Hall expands on this history in his encyclopedia, where he tells of the 1886 creation of a standardized training curriculum for police that included elements of kendo.

It is important to note that the term kendo did not come into use until the seventeenth century, when a period of peace prompted some practitioners of martial arts to include a spiritual element in their training. In this sense, while modern kendo reflects little of the kinds of stylized katana fights seen in films like Kill Bill, and perhaps only a shadow of the martial legacy of the samurai, it certainly stays true to the spirit those same samurai were expected to represent: one of courage and discipline, and the kind of sacrifice seen on the slopes of Kumamoto.

Note: David Hall appears at Japan Society today for a Japanese martial arts demonstration, featuring several local practicing groups. 

--Andres Oliver

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Destination JS: A Suite Of Japanese Sweets From Katagiri


Destination JS explores the sites, shops, and eateries surrounding Japan Society or specializing in Japanese goods.

Pocky and green tea ice cream are all very well. I’ll even grant you Hi-Chews. But if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese sweets, turn your eyes to the world of gooey rice and red bean paste.

This week at Japan Society, Luane Kohnke, author of Gluten Free Cookies, and Nicole Bermsensolo, founder of Japanese confectionery Kyotofu introduce visitors to the little-known tradition of Japanese sweets (making heavy use of rice, sweetened beans, and fruit ingredients like yuzu, many Japanese desserts are naturally gluten free).

To mark the event, which promises tastes of miso brownies, green tea cupcakes, and yuzu muffins, I stopped by Katagiri on the Upper East Side to pick up some treats. The store claims the distinction of being the oldest Japanese grocery in the U.S., and in the vein of nearby Dainobu, offers everything from fresh fish to bento.

As I stepped gratefully into the warmth of the store, I made straight for a glass cabinet to the side. Inside sat an assortment of the kind of packaged Japanese sweets you find in all the train stations in Japan. Seeing as I didn’t want to buy an entire box, I purchased three individual sweets from store.

Delectable dorayaki. Via

Having enjoyed 7-Eleven dorayaki many times while studying abroad in Japan, I decided to go with this one first. The concept is fairly straightforward: take a round, pancake-like exterior and fill it with anko, or red bean paste. The spongy dough is reminiscent more of castella than of a pancake, resulting in a fairly light snack (though blogger YummyIndulgences attests to the existence of custard dorayaki). I was also pleased to find myself biting into chunks of chestnut, which I imagine are a regional or seasonal variation.

There is some debate regarding the origin of the name of the snack, with Taniguchi Takuya, owner of Usagi-ya, a popular Tokyo sweets maker, proposing two theories. In one, dorayaki takes its name from the shape of bronze Chinese dora gongs. In the other, the name derives from the ancient practice of grilling the confection on top of the gong itself.

Regardless of its linguistic origin, dorayaki is commonly associated with two colorful Japanese characters, Doraemon and Benkei. Much like Garfield has his lasagna, the anko/pancake combination is apparently the favorite snack of beloved Japanese manga and anime character, Doraemon. The other connection ties the snack to Benkei, the warrior monk of legend. According to one story, Benkei was once served dorayaki while being tended to by an elderly couple, who used a gong to grill the snack.

To die for daifuku. Via.

The dorayaki washed down with a fitting glass of green tea, I moved on to the next treat: daifuku. This one will perhaps be more familiar to anyone who has visited a Japanese grocery, as there are usually enough varieties—sesame, strawberry, matcha—to merit an entire shelf. I ended up going with the strawberry flavor.

I’ve heard some people have a phobia of having things stick to the roof of their mouth. Those individuals might want to stay away from daifuku, which requires a good deal of chewing to break down the glutinous (but gluten-free!) exterior. As with dorayaki, love of anko is also a requirement.

Unlike the strawberry daifuku I had purchased before at Dainobu, the selection from Katagiri contained a layer of cream in the center, creating a nice textural balance between the mushy rice dough, the thick red bean paste, and the smooth cream. In fact, it put me in mind of mochi ice cream, which is now available at many supermarkets throughout the country. Apparently, this creation arose through the efforts of Japanese Lotte Co., which released its Yukimi Daifuku mocha ice cream in 1981 to great success. With the company producing familiar varieties like cookies and cream, newcomers to the world of red bean paste and daifuku might want to start their journey here.

Nom-nom-nom monakaVia

At this point in the meal I was holding out for a change from red bean paste. I had picked the last treat at random from the glass display in the hope that the Japanese script-adorned wrapping would fall away to reveal a new flavor. Instead I found… more red bean paste.

The dessert that I later learned is monaka contains anko paste between two mochi wafers. The outside is almost indistinguishable from an ice cream wafer, and, in fact, it seems that some Japanese variations substitute ice cream for the anko. One restaurant has gone against tradition even further by stuffing the wafers with foie gras.

While tasty, the monaka was the least exciting of my three selections, providing neither the soft, pancake-y goodness of dorayaki nor the chewey challenge of daifuku.

With places like Dainobu, Katagiri, and Bermensolo’s own Kyotofu (available at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, and elsewhere) bringing an entire tradition of Japanese desserts to New York, geographical distance is no longer an obstacle to the average consumer. Just do yourself a favor when tasting and add some of Japan's non-red bean paste delicacies to the mix.

--Andres Oliver