Tag Archives: NHK

Sophia and Sugamo

By: Sheila A. Smith


Senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

 As a college student, I spent more than a year at Sophia University’s Comparative Cultures Department, studying intensive Japanese language and taking courses in Japanese culture. My language learning began at Sophia, starting from scratch as a child would to master this opaque and easily deconstructed language. I loved the kanji, the ideographs that told their own story, and I found the sound of Japanese soothing… Unlike English, it seemed absent of edges and elbows, until of course I ran into the abruptness of masculine form and delivery.

Sophia was a wondrous place, full of classes on Zen Buddhism, Japanese literature, Meiji history, the archaeology of the Jomon and Yayoi era and classic Kanbun. My intensive Japanese language class attracted a broad range of students from Europe, Asia, and the United States. Our teachers had developed their own methods, having taught the priests and nuns of the Jesuits in Japan for decades, and I remember their strict emphasis on ridding us of our foreign accents. Hours were spent in the labs with NHK tapes, designed to teach hyōjungo to TV announcers. Once released from class, we would burst forth into Tokyo, a mass of foreigners in all shapes and sizes, speaking to each other (loudly no doubt) on the trains in our heavily American, Italian, Swiss, and German accented Japanese!

But my knowledge of Japan benefited enormously from the extra tutelage of the Kuruba family. I lived with them in their home on the grounds of Hakusenji Temple in Sugamo, sharing a room with Michiko whom I had met in the United States. I slept on a futon, ate breakfast in the morning in the cramped kitchen with o-tōsan, a Japanese salariman, and came home at night to the rhythm of Japanese family life—bath, dinner, and conversation about everyone’s day. On the weekends, Keiko, Michiko’s older sister, would come by with her husband, pregnant with their first child. Yōzō was born not long after I arrived, and I got to be part of the excitement of welcoming the first Kuruba grandchild.  Little did I know then that I would be part of his life, and the other five grandchildren born in the ensuingyears, for decades thereafter.

The days were structured by my commute between modern Tokyo and shitamachi. I commuted to Ichigaya by the quaint 19th century Tōden, a small streetcar that still operated in the northern part of Tokyo. I can still hear the clang of the Toden bell, and being swayed back and forth as it took its turns around the tight corners of track that hugged shitamachi. At Higashi Ikebukuro, I transferred to the Yurakuchō Line, and entered the 20th century. After hours of Japanese language learning with my cosmopolitan classmates, I would journey back to Hakusenji’s quiet each afternoon. My Japanese mother would be waiting, with o-cha and dorayaki or some other Japanese sweet, ready to help me with my kanji and the Kōjien. Then, we would go out to the market where Hiroko would teach me the names of vegetables and fish, and we would chat with all of the shōtengai merchants. Needless to say, I ended my days exhausted, only to be awakened the next morning by the sound of the temples priest reading his prayers punctuated by long notes of the kane bells.

Sheila A. Smith at the Asahi Symposium, giving a speech.

My study abroad experience led to a research career working on Japan. Sophia was an amazing place, and the centuries old Jesuit pursuit of scholarship in Asia still discernible in the approach to cultural studies. I went on to pursue a PhD at Columbia University in New York with an East Asian Studies faculty in the humanities and social sciences. Later, I returned to Japan many times—to the University of Tokyo for research for my doctoral dissertation and then again several times as a visiting scholar at Japanese universities, including the University of the Ryukyus and Keio University. Today, I visit Japan two or more times a year as I continue my research and writing on Japan as a policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve changed my focus from language and culture to politics and foreign policy, but I still make the journey to my Japanese home in Sugamo. I now have four generations of Kurubas to help me understand the topics of the moment, and still, I have Hiroko to help me with my vocabulary. Only now, at the age of eighty-eight, she uses an electronic dictionary. 

My ability to live, work and study in Japan was built upon the foundation of those early years of Sophia and Sugamo. My friendships with the Kurubas and others in Japan have lasted a lifetime, and continue to anchor and enrich my life. I was a different person by the end of my study abroad in Japan, made more patient and I hope more tolerant by those early discoveries. I met many others who came to learn about Japanese culture and society, and continue to listen to the Japanese conversation about who their nation, its past and their aspirations for its future.  Perhaps equally important, I learned so much about who I was in my study abroad, and cannot wait for my son to have the chance for that amazing journey, crossing cultural boundaries, navigating differences, and finding himself in the process.

If you don’t speak, you won’t learn

Joelle Metcalfe (from newsletter)By: Joelle Metcalfe

My name is Joelle Metcalfe and I was a Bridging Scholar in 2009 – 2010 at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Since my time in Kyoto, I graduated and returned to Japan to obtain a Master’s degree in East Asia foreign policy at Waseda University, focusing on Japan’s diplomatic relations with North Korea during the Koizumi administration. I interned for a number of organizations related to Japan’s foreign policy, including a Washington DC think tank, the US government, the United Nations, freelance for the Japan National Tourism Organization, and the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo bureau. After graduating from Waseda, I now work at my first job as a reporter for a major Japanese newspaper, assisting coverage of the United Nations in New York. Without the Bridging scholarship, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get as far as I have, and the reason why is because this scholarship gave me one chance that I chose to take very seriously given the financial and time constraints of study abroad.

If I were to give advice to a Bridging Scholar studying abroad in Japan, controversial as it may sound, it would be this: don’t sit at the “gaijin table.” I use that term in reference to my experience, in which I would observe a picnic table where a large group of the study abroad students would sit together everyday conversing in English, separating themselves from the Japanese students in the cafeteria. But in a broader context, my advice for any study abroad student in Japan is don’t surround yourself solely with the English-speaking student atmosphere if you came to Japan to learn the language.

In this sense, I am an advocate for a 24-7 immersion strategy: as much as possible, as often as possible.  At Ritsumeikan, I would try to limit my English outside of the classroom and avoid clubs meant for international students, including language exchange or English tutoring programs. On the way to school, I would listen to NHK news podcasts on my headphones, and even if I didn’t understand some words, I would write down the repetitive ones and look them up later, as news is practical and consistent enough to learn vocabulary. After class, I would go to the club building and meet with my cinema circle and we would sometimes go to the theater to watch domestic movies, which helped visualize words and actions. In the evening, I would meet up with other Japanese friends at an izakaya, which is common for students to do, and it helped my listening and colloquial conversation skills so I wouldn’t sound like I was talking from a textbook.

The logic behind this was knowing that my time in Japan was limited, and I didn’t know if I would be able to go back, so I wanted to spend every waking moment submerged only in Japanese. Around campus, I would often seek out conversations with Japanese students that were not interested in studying English, so there would be no “safety net” if I got stuck in conversation. I was not the only student to immerse myself during the term; others in my class chose clubs like Yosakoi dancing or soccer in order to jump headfirst into an extracurricular surrounding (which Japanese students prioritize more than class), with positive results on their language ability and lifetime friends.

During the period I was a Bridging Scholar, my junior year in university, I passed the JLPT N2, which meant that I could concentrate on passing the JLPT N1, the final fluency certification exam, in my senior year. This progress in my language learning greatly helped the scope of my future plans, as those looking for work in Japan are expected by many Japanese companies to have a JLPT N1 certification on their resume, which is something I don’t think students are often told. After my study abroad, I wanted to prove foremost that there are other career routes that Japanese language majors can take besides teaching English in Japan, which I was often told at university is the major career route. Personally, I cannot agree with English-teaching as a career path as I don’t feel it justifies the hours and thousands of dollars of tuition I spent to learn Japanese.

My study abroad at Ritsumeikan is the period of my life that I treasure the most and that first exploration of Japan was the happiest time for me, but I will not sugar-coat the immersion strategy–learning a language is uncomfortable and intimidating. Even with four years of language classes, there is no magic wand you can wave where you will suddenly be fluent in all 2000 daily-use kanji or the punch-lines of Japanese comedians. There will be words you don’t know, embarrassing cultural faux pas, and sometimes even the threat of being isolated. Putting yourself in an English-speaking bubble with a close group of international students may feel like it’s much easier, but I found that it was through listening to natural conversations in Japanese by a group of peers in a social setting that I could recognize speech patterns that would self-correct my own way of speaking over time; if you stay in the bubble, you stay the same. No matter what proficiency level you are, you’re going to have to be stubborn, sit with the Japanese students, put yourself out there and talk; more often than not, they will not be the ones to strike up the first conversation. If you don’t speak, you won’t learn.