A friend to kanji learners worldwide

A tribute to JT columnist Mary Sisk Noguchi: student, teacher, traveler and inspiration

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Longtime readers of The Japan Times will remember Kanji Clinic, a regular column that featured every month on the Bilingual page from 2001 and then bimonthly from 2010 until 2012. With her friendly and encouraging style, columnist Mary Sisk Noguchi helped readers unravel the complexities of Chinese characters, adding an element of fun to a process that is too often fraught with frustration for many learners of Japanese.

Mary’s fans were no doubt disappointed when her column ended, and few could have known of her untimely death last year on Dec. 21 at the age of 56. For this belated tribute, The Japan Times spoke with her husband, Mitsunori Noguchi, a professor of economics at Meijo University in Nagoya.

“We first met in 1985 at Duke University in Mary’s home state of North Carolina,” Noguchi explains. “I had just finished my Ph.D. there, and she was teaching Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies, having recently returned from a three-year stint working at Shudo University in Hiroshima. The department had arranged a picnic for their language students and was looking for native speakers of Japanese to join them for conversation practice. Mary’s boss, a friend of mine, asked me to come along, and that’s how we got together.”

The couple married two years later and returned to Japan in 1988 after securing university teaching jobs in Nagoya. Although Mary spoke very fluent Japanese, she wasn’t yet able to write well. “It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried to learn kanji, but she found it hard going,” her husband says. “Then one day, an older Japanese colleague cited her inability as proof of the commonly held view that only Japanese and Chinese could master kanji. In other words, that it was too hard for foreigners raised in the West.”

Mary was very upset by this remark, which became the catalyst for a renewed push to get to grips with kanji. At this point, she came upon the work of Japan-based academic James Heisig, a specialist in the philosophy of religion at Nanzan University, but probably best known to students of Japanese for his iconic “Remembering the Kanji” series, first published in 1977. His unique method teaches students to learn elements of the complete characters and fuse them together in the mind with a unique short story, or what Heisig calls “imaginative memory.”

“This wasn’t the traditional approach for learning kanji that I knew from my schooldays, but it struck a chord with Mary and she eagerly began absorbing more and more kanji,” her husband notes.

Mary later became friends with Heisig. “Mary was more than just another reader who happened to find something useful in my kanji books,” he recalls. “She was a teacher with that rare gift of breathing new life into what was really no more than a private record of my own learning experience. Knowing her was — I have no other way to say it — an unexpected grace.”

She began branching out, sharing her enthusiasm and knowledge with other kanji learners. “Mary approached several newspapers about a regular column and The Japan Times was the one which took her up on the offer. The column debuted in April 2001. Then she decided she needed a website to accompany the column, and so I helped her set one up,” says Noguchi.

Mary’s Kanji Clinic website attracted queries from all over the world. Many were from readers of her column, but others came upon the site while browsing the Web. Questions ranged from kanji learners asking about specific characters to teachers of Japanese seeking hints and advice. Mary responded to every email herself. Although managing the website took a lot of her time, Mary thoroughly enjoyed it.

There was much more to Mary Sisk Noguchi’s life than Kanji Clinic, however. She taught cross-cultural communication at Meijo University, where her duties included preparing students for studying abroad; in her private life, she was busy raising two sons.

She also enjoyed many close friendships, and was an active member with her local chapter of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ). Fellow member and good friend Sue Conolly recalls Mary’s zest for life. “Mary was the kind of person who could be completely inspirational without even trying. She was passionate about a lot of things, and her passion was infectious. But she was always the most enthusiastic about having fun, sharing stories and making connections with other people.”

For much of her adult life, Mary lived under the shadow of cancer, having overcome first cervical cancer as a very young woman and later two bouts of breast cancer. Yet she refused to let this prevent her from pursuing the things she enjoyed, including foreign travel. She visited over 30 countries, many of them with her family.

In the fall of 2011, Mary began experiencing terrible pain, and with the new year came the unwelcome news that her nemesis was back, this time in her brain. Despite her increasingly fragile health, however, she remained active, continuing her columns and making plans for an early summer visit to see family in the United States.

“She wanted to see her own mother again, and so, against my advice, she traveled to North Carolina for a month from the end of June in 2012,” says her husband. “I asked her to wait until August, when I could take some vacation time, but she was determined to join her mother and relatives for a family vacation that they all had planned together.”

Fortunately, the couple’s younger son, 15 at the time, was already on summer vacation from his international school and was also able to travel with his mother.

“By now, the tumor in her brain was affecting her memory and sense of balance. She couldn’t walk very far, and so was reliant on a wheelchair for mobility. However, thanks to her meticulous advance planning and assistance from our son and her family, the trip proceeded smoothly.”

Mary’s produced her very last Kanji Clinic column while in the U.S., dictating the words to her son because she could no longer type them herself.

That column was published July 2012. Mary spent the last month of her life in hospice care, in accordance with her wishes, before dying peacefully in December.

Mitsunori Noguchi continues to answer queries from people who find their way to Mary’s Kanji Clinic website. All her Japan Times columns are archived on the site, along with a multitude of useful articles and links for kanji learners. Among them is a free download of Mary’s “Kanji Breakthrough,” a series of lessons originally published in The Nihongo Journal magazine, which ceased publication at the end of 2007.

“Mary got a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure from writing her columns and from hearing from readers around the world,” her husband says. “In that spirit, my thanks to those who supported her and my best wishes with their kanji endeavors.”

Mary Sisk Noguchi’s Kanji Clinic site is at www.kanjiclinic.com. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jacobus Smoak

    Never forget

  • natureradiant

    The caption “A friend to kanji learners” is very appropriate .Though the friendship with a great number of these difficult pictorial letters/words is not so easy , the author’s approach is to be supported better learning of nihongo. Thaks a lot for rousing interest .

  • Rodrigo

    Such a great work. Be in peace wherever you are.

  • Marco Casolino

    I’m deeply saddened by the news of her untimely death. Her column was very educating, witty and a pleasure to read. Thanks for all…

  • Michele Sisk Gregory

    Thank you for a beautiful tribute. Mary was my sister, and I lived in Japan myself in Hamamatsu for 5 years. Our family is touched & thanks the Japan Times.

  • Theodore Shaw

    I am very saddened to hear this. Mary was very helpful to me as a student of Japanese about 7 years ago. Without her advice and recommendations, in all likelihood I wouldn’t have gotten over the hill and become functional in Japanese. I hope that her family can be comforted that she selflessly made a positive influence on many.

  • David Boerner

    Wonderful tribute! I’m inspired to start studying kanji again.