Tomoko Marshall / East Asian Languages

The essence of culture in ordinary life

“Sushi!” That was the first response I received from a group of middle school students when I asked at my visit to their school what they associate with the name ‘Japan.’  But, I don’t think such a response would be uncommon in my Japanese classes either. Unlike when I first came to the U.S. nearly twenty years ago, I now work with students who not only know the word “sushi” but have also tasted it, thanks to the Asian food lovers and the health-conscious people in this country. However, when I ask my students who have tried sushi what the word means, they usually reply ‘raw fish’ and try to impress me with a list of so-called ‘weird’ food: tofu, seaweed, nattoo (fermented soybeans) etc.  Some lucky students in a Japanese class had made sushi with their classmates and enjoyed it. In that way, the real meaning of sushi – “cooked rice flavored with vinegar” — was visibly understood. That activity had perhaps been planned by a creative language instructor who incorporated it into a language lesson. Nevertheless, it is not unusual (and my class is not an exception) that extensive or intensive discussions on the culture in the classroom are often left unfinished, or fade into the already jam-packed syllabus.

My students are typically assigned to watch Japanese television dramas, and to use them as listening exercises or as preparation for their skit projects etc. However, the class spends no more than 15 minutes of class time in the entire semester on discussing the videos they have watched, or what they found linguistically or culturally interesting.  They do manage to scratch the surface of the essence of Japanese people’s everyday lives, and gain insight into their decision-making processes, life choices, their behavior, body language and facial expressions. Though their fascination is apparent and such discussion is valuable in foreign language education, time always runs short and they are left unsatisfied.  Thus, my dream idea is simply to have extended time with my students to explore the cultural essence that is rooted in the ordinary life around us.

For my dream project, I’d like a small group of Japanese language majors who are already equipped with a good amount of knowledge and cultural experience to team up with me.  I’d like them to explore Japanese culture in ordinary life, whose essence may well be overshadowed by stereotypes, misunderstandings, tradition, or perhaps the time constraints that we face every day, and to share their interpretations of these phenomena.  My job will be to explore their learning process by combining some ingredients that the local Japanese community can offer to stimulate their intellectual views and curious minds.  Going back to the sushi story, for instance, if my students heard a story from a local sushi chef, would they taste sushi differently next time? Would it open a new door to understanding food preservation ideas as practiced in a Japanese household? Would the beauty of the presentation of sushi make them see the sensitivity toward beauty in the setting of an ordinary Japanese dinner table or the packing of kids’ lunch boxes? Would their appreciation of a wooden sushi dish be different if they learned about it from a local woodcrafter?  Would they notice the high quality of the tea served with sushi after listening to a Japanese woman who had learned the tea ceremony in her youth?  The possibilities are endless, but I am interested in what to offer and how to offer it to the students to bring out their creativity and understanding of the cultural essence to share in the discussions.

For the purpose of starting a conversation with the students, I’ll ask them to share their experience of “bizarre” Japanese culture, perhaps beginning with Japanese food and diet.  Based on that, we’ll choose resources that we can look into — for example video clips, blogs, written texts etc. After that, we’ll come up with ways to satisfy their desire to meet some Japanese people in Charlottesville who can share their extraordinary experiences in their ordinary lives. Then, the process of dialoguing will continue.  Throughout the course of the project, I plan to include some hands- on activities: field trips or visits to local businesses etc. In this way, they will be able to use all senses.

Summary of ideas on discussion topics and activities, with estimated costs:

Proposed Theme 1: Food and Diet

1. Video viewing and discussion: After watching JAPN2020 video projects [by former students] regarding outreach activities for introducing Japanese food to a broader audience, students will share their thoughts on the video projects: how those video makers (students) saw the uniqueness of Japanese culture.  Students will also discuss seasonal food, and how food ties into Japanese culture. (Refreshments-Japanese snacks and tea: $100)

2. Movie viewing and discussion: Students will watch clips from the movie “Tampopo” (Juuzo Itami, 1985) about a family run noodle shop. They will discuss how it portrays Japanese culture in ordinary family life.  They will also make a noodle dish together from scratch, while studying the recipe in Japanese. (Video and ingredients: $100)

3. Dine at a local Japanese restaurant:  Students will talk with the owner about his journey to becoming a restaurant owner in Charlottesville, and also ask the owner his perspective on the uniqueness of Japanese food and diet from his perspective. (Dinner: $200)

4. Meet with Japanese people in Charlottesville:  Students will talk to them directly (in Japanese as much as possible) about their experience of living in Charlottesville in terms of food and diet.  Students can ask them what their experience of growing up in Japan was like in terms of family meals, seasonal cuisine, comfort food etc. Students will also try to design, prepare, and decorate a lunch box while learning some techniques and ideas from local Japanese parents.   (mini workshop: $200)

Proposed theme 2: Art and lifestyle

1. Meet a Japanese woodcarver: Students will see the art of Japanese woodcarving demonstrated.  Students will focus on the product not only as art but as part of people’s lifestyle, and ask the master about his professional as well as personal perspective on those topics.  (mini workshop and travel expenses: $200)

2. Tea ceremony demonstration by a local Japanese woman:  Students will

participate in a mini-workshop on the Japanese traditional tea ceremony.  They will ask her about her experience in training to be a licensed practitioner, how it influenced her lifestyle, and how she sees the tradition passing on to the next generation, from herself to her daughter, for example. (Tea and sweets, seasonal lunch and traveling expenses to the tea house at Morven Farm: $500)

3. Meet more art-minded Japanese people in Charlottesville: Though they don’t call themselves artists, they display their artistic talents in local markets and at cultural events:  Japanese crafts, painting, calligraphy etc.  Students will meet them and discover their love of the arts, possibly while watching their demonstrations.  They will also try to find out if those Japanese people see their work as having been influenced by their cultural or ethnic background. (refreshments and mini-workshops: $300)

Proposed theme 3: Music and lifestyle

1. Meet a local violin practitioner and/or piano teacher:  While students listen to a couple of Japanese tunes of their choice, they might find out more about her background in music and her perspective on Japanese music in her own life. Students will have a chance to learn a Japanese song. (Japanese seasonal snacks and drinks: $50)

2. Night for music with Japanese college students: Students will share their own favorite Japanese music with each other.  They will examine the lyrics and discuss with Japanese students how they see aspects of Japanese culture within the music or lyrics.  Interested students can perform a song. (Refreshments: $50)

3. O-hanami (Spring picnic under the Cherry blossoms):   Japanese people sit under the beautiful cherry trees, enjoying a Spring day with family, friends, coworkers etc.  As students capture this Japanese tradition, they will invite Japanese professors to try Karaoke together (as Japanese will) at an outdoor picnic. They will ask the professors to share their experiences as Japanese in the U.S., and what Japanese characteristics or qualities they think are forever preserved in them or their life style as a result. (Sushi and refreshments: $300)

All the proposed themes and activities are subject to change.  I plan to present these ideas to the students participating in the project and modify them together along the way. I am open to and strongly invite student’s ideas and suggestions, with a view toward making it a worthwhile experience for them by offering them a choice. I anticipate that the number of activities will be 3-4 per semester.  Along with the proposed activities listed above, the costs of this dream project covers primary expenses for refreshments at meetings, outing expenses, guest entertainment fees, travel expenses, and mini workshops fees, which should come in at around $2,000. However, an additional $1,000 would be efficient for possible field trips:  Mochi (rice cake pounding) for the New Year and also getting together with a Japanese drum troupe for the annual Spring Festival in April.  Those are also great opportunities to spend time together and talk face to face with local Japanese people.