Tag Archives: University of Tokyo

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.

The Lasting Impact of Study Abroad

by Masako Notoji
Masako Notoji is a retired professor of American Studies from Tokyo University.  She served on the Japan CULCON Panel for six years.

Masako Notoji is a retired professor of American Studies from Tokyo University. She served on the Japan CULCON Panel for six years.

The very first Japanese individual who experienced a home-stay in America was perhaps the young fisherman Nakahama “John” Manjiro (1827–1898), who had been rescued from his drifting ship by Captain William Whitfield to spend three years from age 16 with the captain’s family in Fair Haven, Massachusetts. There Manjiro learned English, Math, navigation, and ship-building skills before he returned to Japan in 1851.  The beginning of the Japan-U.S. encounter would have been much more difficult without the contribution of Manjiro’s interpreter skills, knowledge, and personal dedication.

It’s obviously unrealistic to compare Manjiro’s dramatic life in the mid-19th century with what we experience today, but the fact that he was brought to the U.S. alone and was treated as a ”real” member of his host family and the local community remains a key to personal growth, self-discovery, and the development of deep, mutual understanding.

My first experience abroad was at the Seattle suburb of Edmonds, Washington, where I spent my high school senior year, 1966-67, as an AFS exchange student.  To share the day-to-day joys and sorrows with an ordinary family is perhaps the best way to understand a society different from your own, and I was fortunate to have a wonderfully generous and loving American family to host me for an entire year.  Those were the days when the exchange rate was 360 yen to a dollar, and international telephone calls home were unthinkable for a teenage student.  At the end of this total immersion in life in the United States, I had a strong desire to seriously study this dynamic and intriguing society, and decided to major in American Studies at the University of Tokyo.  I chose to do my graduate studies at UCLA and eventually spent a good part of my professional career of teaching and doing research on U.S. popular culture and ethnic relations at the University of Tokyo.

Through these studies in the U.S. at different stages of my life, I have met and made lasting relationship with many individuals.  How mutually important such a network of friends could be was brought home to me when the great earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan in the spring of 2011; the people who emailed me in the immediate aftermath of the disaster included my American family and many from my student days at Edmonds High School and UCLA.  I had stayed in contact with many of them, but in March 2011 some took great pains to locate me to offer their assistance and encouragement.  This is just one illustration of how long and deeply my life has been touched and enriched by studying in the United States.

Looking back, I feel it was important to expose myself to a different culture when I was relatively young, full of curiosity and the spirit of adventure, albeit with my personal immaturity and language and other difficulties.  I was allowed to make mistakes, experience misunderstandings and frustrations, and deal with life on new terms, all of which contributed to my personal development and my learning the skills for interacting with Americans and other international individuals from different walks of life.

Flexibility of thought, sense of humor, and the fundamental belief in the possibilities of mutual trust that I learned from my overseas experience proved to be particularly helpful when I was later involved in various cultural and educational exchange relations between Japan and the U.S. in a more official capacity.  During the period between the mid-1990s and the 2000s, I was one of the initial faculty team to launch a short-term undergraduate exchange program between the University of Tokyo and several partner universities in the U.S. and other countries of the world, and as part of my public service outside the campus I joined the Japan CULCON Panel and the Fulbright Commission to work with members of the U.S. government and various cultural institutions.

In addition to the tremendous personal gain from the experience abroad, I would like to emphasize, as I regularly do with university students around me, that the face-to-face encounter with an unfamiliar culture is increasingly more valuable in today’s world of ever expanding globalization and sophisticated communication technology.  There is a greater need for a young generation of individuals who are able to collaborate with others of diverse backgrounds and ideologies in finding common values and creative solutions to new crises that challenge the humanity toward the mid-21st century.  Study abroad still is a reliable source for opportunities and hopes.

Picture: Masako Notoji in front of her ancestral home, where she hosts visitors from overseas.