Three years on the rock: a reflection

Last week, a panel of professors working in Portland State’s Japanese department gathered the community to discuss what makes the Japanese program at PSU so remarkable. Professors Larry Kominz, Suwako Watanabe, Patricia Wetzel, Emiko Konomi and Jon Holt revealed that stability, varied course offerings, progressive thinking and a focus on speech instruction sets the program apart from others.

However, perspective can’t only be framed by those who instruct in order to give outsiders a sense of the PSU Japanese program, can it?

The fact of the matter is PSU’s Japanese program may absolutely be regarded as one of the best in the country. As a supplement to last week’s lecture, professors and students both new and old reflect on their experiences.

Humbly Unique

On the surface it may seem strange that instructors within the Japanese program would gather to talk about how great their own program is. However, it should be noted that their confidence holds necessary cultural implications.

Professor Jon Holt, instructor of Japanese literature and language, had a few words regarding the event’s seemingly less-than-humble title from a cross-cultural point of view.

“In Japan, one hesitates to say one is the ‘best’ — there’s a strong sense of humility that runs in the culture,” said Holt. “So it’s hard for me to say we’re the best at what we do. On the other hand, American culture demands you say what exactly you’re good at, so I need to say, here and now, I think [PSU has] one of the best Japanese programs in the United States. I’ve been amazed at how well organized and well supported our program is.”

Professor Suwako Watanabe, director of the third and fourth year Japanese program at PSU, added clarification on why she believes the program is one of the best.

“Instead of an instructor lecturing things ‘about’ Japanese, an instructor and students practice using Japanese in various situations,” said Watanabe. “A strong emphasis on speaking and listening makes our program a unique one.”

Indeed, the program utilizes a unique separation of speaking and listening to Japanese from reading and writing Japanese into two different classes, with speaking and listening being the central area of focus.

“We believe that your reading and writing skills fall in line after you’ve mastered how to express yourself verbally [and] how to listen…” Holt said.

The Team-Teaching Approach

Another aspect of the Japanese program that is unique to PSU is the varied team of lecturers who teach many of the language courses. Students will see up to six different instructors spread between both the speaking and listening and the reading and writing classes per week, each teaching a different hour of the class.

“The team-teaching approach is one of our strengths,” said Watanabe. “Almost every language course is taught by a team [consisting] of an instructor whose first language is [English] and a Japanese native speaking instructor. Students [are] exposed to different types of speech as well as receive instruction on the content that is most efficiently taught in their first language.”

“Look at other institutions and the Japanese programs they offer. How many have 5 Ph.D.s teaching Japanese and Japanese culture?” said Holt.

But how do students feel about the approach?

“At first, learning from several different instructors was really challenging because I couldn’t develop a rapport with any one professor or learn their teaching style well enough for me to succeed,” said Berlioz, a junior in the program.

Berlioz has recently transferred to the PSU Japanese program from another school. After only a few weeks in the program at PSU, his story has shifted from one of struggle to one of illumination.

“[I found the team-teaching method to be] a great benefit because it forces me to listen to so many different ways of speaking Japanese,” said Berlioz. “I’ve learned a lot of different communication styles so far during the short time I’ve been in the program.”

Many students seem to have similar views on the method. Despite feeling difficult and alienating at times, the utility of the method comes across and students are grateful for it. Take Marie for instance, a sophomore majoring in Japanese at PSU.

“You miss out on having that familiarity with just one [professor],” said Marie, “but each of the teachers has a different way of speaking… so you have to get used to that. No one person talks the same, so I think it’s useful.”

Transfer Trials

Even a program with as much esteem and drive can have its faults. As a new and progressive system of language instruction there are issues that should be addressed, according to students.

“Without a doubt, one of the most difficult things is helping students transition from community colleges into our program,” said Professor Holt. “PCC and others do a great job preparing students up through second-year, but we often see a gap in knowledge when students cross over to PSU. We’re just geared differently.”

The transition from an outside Japanese program can leave many students in a vulnerable and frightening position, as is the case with recent transfer-students Berlioz and Toulouse. Both had and continue to have trouble adjusting to the demands of the program.

“I dislike how difficult it is for transfer students to be able to transfer into such a unique program,” said Toulouse, a junior from PCC. “It splits the transfer and concurrent students up due to our differing educations.”

“There are a lot of people in [my] class who transferred from another program,” said Berlioz.
“They were exposed to one way of learning the language, but in coming to PSU, you’re expected to hit the ground running as though you’d been in the program the whole time. I think that’s something the program should address: they should work more closely with their partners in the region to ensure their [transfer] students’ success. As it sits right now, if you started as a first year student at PSU, you’d do quite well because you wouldn’t know any other way.”
Marie, who has been with the PSU Japanese program since her freshman year, seems to corroborate this perspective.

“First year, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” said Marie. “I was scared out of my wits because I didn’t know what to expect. I scraped by the first term… but it’s really useful to have started at first year. It’s the only reason I can get by as easily as I do now. It’s not for everyone; some people just can’t do it, and they struggle so much that it causes them to stress until they make themselves sick.”

Three Years on the Rock

“Ishi no ue nimo san-nen,” is an old Japanese proverb that literally means, “Three years on top of a rock.” A more idiomatic translation might be: expect to work at something for at least three years before seeing results.

The hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in the PSU Japanese program may seem like a tall order, but this proverb reflects the attitude prospective and current students must carry if they wish to do well.

“We are very confident that a fourth-year exiting student can go to Japan and speak Japanese and use it for employment,” said Holt.

Gabe Rosen, a veteran of the PSU Japanese program, is a great example of what hard work and dedication to the program can result in.

“[I] was immediately attracted to the program because it seemed so deliberate and professional and serious,” said Rosen. “I didn’t know that I was going to become serious about learning Japanese before I started classes, and was so impressed right away that I changed majors.”

After graduating Rosen went on to open his own Japanese-style pub in Portland, Biwa, which has since enjoyed great success. He warmly recalled his time spent in the program before opening his own restaurant as an important challenge in his life.

“Studying Japanese at PSU was very time consuming and required a lot of focus. I had Japanese first thing in the morning five days a week for three years and I knew that every single day I was absolutely expected to be prepared… The faculty clearly took their work so seriously that I very much felt driven to work at their level of expectation,” said Rosen.

“I think the rigor of studying Japanese has helped me in lots of ways… speaking the language and culture of Japan has opened up a huge fascinating world to me and enriched my life in countless ways,” said Rosen.

As for current students, they seem to agree that while the program is challenging, what defines whether or not one succeeds is their willingness to rise and accept these hardships from wherever they may be at in their study.

“I’ve had to struggle with the format, but I’ve taken them on for my own benefit to look at them as challenges to be overcome instead of shortcomings,” said Berlioz.

“It’s a difficult method to get used to, but I feel like it is starting to have a big impact on my Japanese language skills,” said Toulouse.

“People either take the ‘this program is too hard, I hate it,’ route or the ‘this is really tough, but it’s a challenge I’m going to take advantage of’ route,” said Marie. “It is tough, but it’ll be useful later on… If people can stick with it, they’re gonna be able to succeed.”