For the greater part of her life, Setsuko Arima has lived in the same district of Kanazawa-ku in Yokohama. She is devoted to the neighborhood, which is highlighted by the 13th century Shomyoji Temple, its garden with red bridges over a wide pond, and its background of an open field and wooded hills. She knows local histories and legends. Away from the heavily trafficked highways, her home keeps a feel of the countryside and village intimacy.
Arima has had a varied career. She says that earlier in life she had never dreamed of teaching English, strongly interested in the English language though she was. Now she teaches students of many levels, most of them by telephone. “My life is really exciting and unique,” she said.
As a child she was, she says, “independent, very practical and liberated in thought.” As an adult, she takes unflagging delight in the world around her, in details and quotidian duties. She has made her own way, has taught herself advanced computer skills that she uses constantly, and has developed her own definite ideas on the teaching of English to Japanese people.
Arima comes from a family of scholars. Her father, a graduate of Keio Medical School, was a pathologist who encouraged his six children to enter the professions. Her mother, she says, was “a typical Meiji period lady, patient and full of ideas.” Since Arima was brought up in a scholarly environment, “what people generally call study was my favorite pastime,” she said.
She spent part of her early childhood in Tenshin, China. After high-school graduation in Japan, she obtained a technician’s license in clinical pathology, and went to work in a laboratory.
“While learning and working, I studied English by attending many conversation classes,” she said. “The more I studied English the more I became involved in Japanese culture, because people from abroad asked me a lot about Japan. I studied Japanese history, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, and began learning noh songs and dances. A missionary I met in Tokyo greatly influenced my thoughts and behavior. On her recommendation, I went to live in England for two years, and visited Italy, Holland and Germany as well. On my return, I went to work for the old Tokyo Hilton Hotel, that was then in Akasaka.”
She was there a dozen years, seeing herself as “a bridge between the resident guests and floor attendants.” She was appointed to the hospitality desk in the main lobby, then became manager of the Japanese restaurant.
She left the hotel in order to study business and technical English, and Japanese as a foreign language. Gradually she believed that she had found the key to effective English teaching for Japanese people.
“I realized that when I was studying English I wrote a lot,” she said. “Good native speakers corrected what I had written, and told me whether the expressions I used were common or not. In that way, I learned practical English. When I began teaching my private students, I became more aware of how English lessons were generally given in schools. Lessons in writing and speaking were almost always unemphasized, and time given instead to unhelpful grammar lessons. I am sure that lack of practice in free writing and speaking is the reason for even university students here being unable to speak English.”
In 1976 Arima established her Practical English-Japanese Institute in Yokohama. She encouraged her students to write diaries in English. “I corrected what they had written, and asked them questions about it. In that way they began to speak English naturally, on subjects that interested them.”
In those early days of her institute, Arima accepted students of all ages. In her enthusiasm, she overworked and neglected herself until her health suffered. Now she restricts her teaching to students above high-school age, and e-mail communication has taken over from the keeping of diaries.
She is still a member of the Communication Ability Development Institute of Tokyo, running a branch office for the institute. She has been obliged to give up her volunteer work for the Yokohama center, where she taught Japanese mostly to students from Asia. She goes as often as she can to England, sometimes taking her students with her. She writes her own books in English, and has her own photographs to illustrate them.
She said: “The favorite pastime of my girlhood has turned out to be my most cherished work. My profession has kept me happily occupied for nearly 25 years now.”