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Language teacher Kae Minami

by Judit Kawaguchi

Kae Minami, 32, is a bilingual language teacher. For the past seven years, she has had an outstanding record as a top Japanese juku sensei (prep school teacher). Her foreign students start out with virtually no knowledge of Japanese and almost all of them pass their Japanese university entrance exams, usually within one year of studying. And they are going places: In 2010, one-third of them got into ichi-ryu (top-tier) universities, such as the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Keio University, and all others have made it to very respectable second-tier universities. Minami loves learning as much as she does teaching. Since getting her master’s degree in comparative culture from Sophia University, she’s been on a roll, collecting certificates in education. But her real strength is time management: Not only does she teach Japanese during the day and English at night, but on the weekends she helps bring breaking news to Japanese audiences as the coordinator of a TVT Japan KK simultaneous interpreters’ newsroom, which covers the BBC World News. Oh, and she’s a translator, too.

The tea ceremony is a lesson in life. It’s spiritual and very educational. You learn to be a good hostess and a nice guest, too. And the sweets you get are my favorite part of the ceremony!

Language is culture. The presidents of the popular online shopping store Rakuten and the clothing chain Uniqlo have a great opportunity to spread Japanese culture around the world using their native language. But instead, they insist that their Japanese employees use English, even among themselves. This seems so inefficient, against business sense and very sad from a cultural viewpoint. I’m bilingual, but I feel weird speaking English to a Japanese person. Do French people speak English among themselves if all members of the group are French? I doubt it.

Japanese is not a minority language. It’s good to master English, but Japanese is not such a minority tongue as many assume. It’s the ninth most widely spoken language in the world among first-language speakers, and thanks to the popularity of Japanese technology and culture, it’s also the ninth most-studied language. So, if you add together the primary and secondary speakers, Japanese is the 10th most widely spoken language in the world with 133 million speakers. In some countries, students can learn Japanese at elementary school and many universities have Japanese departments. Japanese companies should hire foreigners who make the effort to be fluent in Japanese.

So much gets lost in translation. Japan has a high-context culture that involves inferences to similar or shared experiences, so a lot is understood without it being stated. We refer to this as “reading the air, the atmosphere.” We say, “ii desu,” meaning “that’s good,” “kekko desu ,” for “that’s fine” and “muzukashii desu” for “that’s difficult,” but all these usually really mean “no” in a conversation. As my students master the Japanese language, their nonverbal skills also improve and they can understand the real meaning of a conversation.

Japanese political leaders are terrible at looking at the big picture. They don’t look at things in the longterm or in a wider context. Maybe most Japanese lack strong macro-vision but have good micro-vision instead. (Not politicians, though ? many of them are bad at both.) For example, lots of shotengai (local shopping streets) are dying out around Japan. The shop owners only care about their individual stores and they don’t try to unite to make things efficient and happy for everyone in their street. They are good at details, making delicious sembei (rice crackers) or tofu, but they are not very business-savvy and lack a wide vision.

Show the learning process to the students. Teachers don’t need to know everything. We just need to be curious and show students how to ask questions.

What you wear and how you look is part of the way we communicate. It’s nonverbal but says so much. Japanese public schools always have at least one “Jersey teacher in slippers.” Such a teacher would wear a polyester jersey (tracksuit) and plastic slippers to class! This outfit is not a good choice if you want to show and gain respect.

There are many hidden treasures in history. I once interviewed former tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots. It totally changed my thoughts about them. They are very charming grandpas now, but the war and the pain will be in their hearts forever. We, the younger generations, should be thankful to them. Every year I go to see them at the Mitama festival at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

If you’re a shy perfectionist, communicating might be tough. That’s how many Japanese are, and that’s why they can’t speak English. They are obsessed with details and think of language as a goal when it’s actually just a tool. Like with any tool, the more you use it, the better you get at it.

The best way to learn languages is to listen, repeat and then speak. It’s so simple. Don’t buy too many learning aids, just stick with one and do it many times. There is a difference between understanding and using a language. Unless you’re a linguist, using it should be your priority.

Japan needs media literacy education ? it should be mandatory in schools. The media has an agenda and we should not swallow everything they throw at us. Children must be taught to question the news, no matter where it comes from.

To know one’s country, it’s best to leave it. By age 20, I didn’t like Japan because for three years in high school we read a lot about how terrible the country was. Lots of books on the public high school reading list for gendaibun (contemporary literature) were negative about Japan. “Follow the American way, it’s better. The Japanese way is outdated.” All I wanted to do was move to the United States. So I applied for Sophia University because it has an exchange program with the University of California San Diego. But once in the U.S., to my complete shock, I discovered many students from all over the world loved Japan! My university even had a manga group. I was asked so many questions about Japan, but I had no idea what to answer. I felt so ashamed, so I began studying Japan. The more I learned, the more I loved my country.

Do volunteer work; it’s good for you and others. I translate documents for free for an NGO that helps the T’boli tribe in the Philippines. I learn a lot and feel happy to contribute.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/ Twitter: judittokyo