Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009

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Tradition or Cliché? Forward or Backward?

Tradition or Cliché? Forward or Backward?
Hisae Kobayashi, senior lecturer in Japanese

Reflections on teaching by Hisae Kobayashi, senior lecturer in Japanese

by Hisae Kobayashi


Hisae Kobayashi, senior lecturer in Japanese at Connecticut College, gave the following talk at the annual faculty dinner on May 4, 2009. Kobayashi is the coordinator of the Japanese language program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. In 2008 she received the John S. King Memorial Teaching Award, given each year to a teacher-scholar who demonstrates high standards of teaching excellence and concern for students.


What comes to your mind when you first hear the word “Japan”? Do you have any specific image of Japan or Japanese people or the Japanese language? You might have heard “Arigatoo gozaimasu,” “ Sayoonara” or “Konnichiwa.” Did you hear pitch accent rather than stress accent? Can you count how many beats “sayoonara” has? How many of you know that the Japanese language has two kinds of syllabaries, one called Hiragana and the other called Katakana, as well as Chinese characters (Kanji)? Hiragana and Katakana each has 47 letters. In addition to these two syllabaries, there are 1,945 Joyo Kanji that Japanese must learn in school. Moreover, there is more than one way of reading of each Kanji.

Several years ago (Joanne Toor Cummings ´50 Professor of Art) Maureen McCabe asked me what my favorite flower was. My response was, “Cherry blossoms when they start blooming and when they start falling like snow.” You might be surprised that I said cherry blossoms — how cliché! Although I like cherry blossoms, I don´t like them in full bloom.

Flower viewing is one of the most popular customs in Japan. It is called hanami. There are various art forms using cherry blossoms as their motif, such as waka, haiku, popular songs, paintings and so on. The following tanka was written by Ki no Tomonori in the ninth century:



Here is my translation: “In the peaceful spring days full of soothing lights, why do cherry blossoms rush to fall like an unsettled mind?” Centuries later, Japanese still enjoy viewing cherry blossoms.

In fact in Japan there is a cherry blossom forecast. It tells when and where cherry blossoms will start blooming. On the evening news, a weather person says, “Next week a cherry blossom front will arrive in Tokyo.” The “front” starts from Okinawa around the end of January and ends in Hokkaido in May. Every spring many people have picnics under the blossoms. People plan their outings according to the cherry blossoms forecast.

Picnics and parties are not the only events that take place under cherry blossoms. Sometimes the tea ceremony is also held under the cherry blossoms. My aunt Yoshiko was invited to Connecticut College in April 2004 to demonstrate the tea ceremony. She is a tea master of Urasenke School. When she welcomed her guests, who were Connecticut College students, and made tea, her every movement was calculated meticulously from beginning to end. Because she moved so naturally, at first we all thought that we could move like her easily. However we soon realized that was not the case, since the students trying to imitate her started moving clumsily and making mistakes.

The Chanoyou, or tea ceremony, was introduced to Japan in the ninth century from China. In the 16th century, wabi-cha was established. Instead of ostentatious elements, spiritual aesthetics were emphasized. The Chanoyu transports you to the spiritual world from the material world. By lowering your head when you go through a small entrance, you will leave your social status outside the tea room. Meticulous movement of the host carries beauty and grace. You can taste sweetness of the bitter whipped green tea after finishing a sweet confection.

When my aunt performed it, she moved precisely but gracefully. How could it be? I believe that her performance was built upon a firm foundation of rigorous training. She spent many years taking lessons from her master. At home she kept practicing over and over until her entire body memorized every movement. Even now, at an age over 60 years, she continues taking lessons.

When I took my Japanese students to Japan during the spring break in 2006, my students met with my aunt Yoshiko. She offered a workshop of Chanoyu to them. One of my students loved to learn how to whip green tea powder. He went back to my aunt a couple of times. I approached him while he was whipping his green tea. He took his eyes off his tea bowl, looked up me and said, “Mine is not as frothy as the tea master´s. I practiced a couple of times, but it didn´t become like hers.” I said, “Oh, I´m so sorry, Danny. You need to practice it for a long time in order to make it as frothy as hers.” Instead of discarding the tea, he drank it because he didn´t want to be disrespectful to Yoshiko. I trained him well in this respect.

We live in an age of technology, high-speed Internet and globalization. Our culture demands that every problem be fixed immediately as well as painlessly. Advanced medical technology is eliminating pain. When you want to communicate with people no matter how far or close they live from you, you contact them by cell phone or e-mail. When you write something on the computer, Microsoft Word corrects your spelling immediately. We don´t have to memorize the right spelling anymore as long as we use a computer. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have been pursuing faster, easier, pain-free solutions. Are we happier now?

Our students are products of our current age. They cannot use a dial phone because it is too slow. Without their cell phones, they cannot go anywhere because they feel disconnected from a life-support machine. They are not patient enough to wait until they can see a result of whatever they are engaging. They cannot watch old movies because the stories go so slowly. They lose their interest immediately. They can focus only for 10 minutes maximum.

It is extremely challenging for me to teach this generation because language learning is completely against their culture. It is absolutely necessary for students to be patient with themselves until they start seeing their progress. It is also challenging for them to know that there is no easier solution.

The Japanese language is very different from English structurally. English is called SVO language, which means that the word order is subject, verb and object. By contrast, Japanese is called SOV language, which means the verb comes last. Moreover, Japanese behaves like a case language such as Latin or German. Japanese has particles, and each particle defines the function of the noun that the particle is attached to. In other words, the word order doesn´t matter as long as the right particle is attached.

Pronunciation is also different. Japanese doesn´t differentiate “r” from “l.” At the same time, it is more important to pronounce vowels correctly and clearly in Japanese than in English. Soba and sobo are complete different words. Soba is a Japanese noodle and sobo is grandmother. Pitch accent is also important. Ame (low-high) means candy and ame (high-low) means rain.

How can I help my students who were born in the late ´80s or in 1990 to learn Japanese? After all, I need to tell them that there is no updated, technologically advanced method of studying Japanese. Everything is different from what they have learned. Even though American education doesn´t put an emphasis on memorization, they must memorize Katakana, Hiraganai and Kanji. There is no quick remedy to improving their memorizing skill except spending time practicing. Since Japanese and English don´t share vocabulary except for foreign words, students need to memorize hundreds and thousands of lexical items.

Because Japanese is a highly contextualized language, I always create a context in class. The students have to act out as if they were in Japan. They have to pay attention to what is said even though they are not called on. As a roleplay, one day they are working in a Japanese company, and another they are exchange students coming to Japan. In every situation they encounter various problems and situations. They must find a way to solve problems without offending native Japanese speakers — from children to respected elders. Needless to say, in order to solve their problems, they have to find everything they need from what they have already learned in class. My classes are conducted in Japanese only. This may cause students to feel thrown into the darkness without light. I need to assure them that I will not abandon them as long as they try hard. At the same time, I have to remind them of their responsibility.

Rigorous training shapes not only our physical appearance but also our intellectual abilities. Through training, we learn how to discipline ourselves in order to make progress. We all have gone through rigorous training in one way or another. Unfortunately, rigorous training is often associated with a negative image. However, students need to know that only through discipline and rigorous training they will acquire something they cannot buy at the store, something that will last a lifetime, something they can be proud of, and something so profoundly beautiful as my aunt´s tea ceremony. And when they reach their destination, then they can simply enjoy the view of the cherry blossoms falling like snow.


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