Nihon-get it together, Sewanee

 

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Sewanee: The University of the South. Photo courtesy of forbes.com

Nora Walsh-Battle, C’19
Contributing Writer

 

Look, I could start this off with some cutesy anecdote about the ways Japanese has helped me in life and academia, two very distant realms. Or, I could rattle off statistics about our increasingly global society, the tough job market that awaits for most liberal arts grads, even about the impact of language learning on cognitive function overall. Maybe even toss in a ‘konichiwa,’ or a whole sentence in Japanese, only to translate it in the next line.

All of these I considered, but ultimately I think this editorial, condemning the discontinuation of Japanese at Sewanee for the upcoming academic year, will be a lot more effective if it’s written in my own tone of voice.

Studying Japanese at Sewanee is like eating fugu, a variety of pufferfish that is extremely toxic when prepared incorrectly and still sort of toxic when prepared correctly: you’ve been emphatically warned against it, you’re constantly on edge, it feels like every moment could be your last, and when it’s over, you’re euphoric. Preparation, cachet, and experience are essential to ensuring fugu’s continued popularity. In the case of Japanese at Sewanee, these essentials have all been neglected, which has in turn led to the program’s obscurity.

In terms of cachet, Japanese garners virtually none from the twelve-hundred-and-some members of the student body. Enrollment in Japanese for the past few semesters, as documented by the registrar, is of course nowhere near that of Spanish, Italian, or French, but comparable with sections of Russian, Chinese, and German some terms, and consistently surpassing that seen by Arabic. (Latin and Greek will not figure into my case, as they are not modern languages.)

Aside from ailing Arabic and employability, poster child Chinese, what do the remaining modern languages have in common? They all have funding for events, the departmental push required to cultivate a community, and language houses in which the community can congregate for events.

Why would you take Japanese, with four hours a week for four semesters, no free yaki-tori or even a California roll for Coming of Age Day, and maybe a Ghibli movie in the Gailor basement every year, when you can take German and celebrate Oktoberfest, chow down on crepes at the French house, celebrate Franco’s death like the Spanish, etc., etc., all for the same time commitment?

Other languages have the same time commitment as well as more tutors available (Japanese has one, once a week), more professors in the field (again, we’ve only got one of these), more culture classes and electives (one per semester for Japanese) to finish your GenEds or an associated major like Asian studies or International and Global Studies, and a slew of Sewanee-endorsed, and sometimes funded, study abroad options for those who would prefer not to spend a semester away.

I have the good luck of being away this semester in Tokyo, and my understanding of Japanese from four semesters at Sewanee has, obviously, aided me in not looking like a complete tourist idiot. Less obvious benefits of my Japanese experience include: reading the haikus of Basho in a poetry class and being able to read the original hiragana accompanying the translation; understanding the pointed use, or misuse, of respectful endings in a Kurosawa film; winning second place in international karaoke fall of 2016; and others which I won’t list.

Cutting Japanese, as well as presumably Professor Nuffer, an under-utilized instructor who was committed enough to the language to meet with students at eight a.m. for an independent study in the fall semester, is a grievous mistake on the part of Sewanee and an affront to those who have already committed time, effort, and interest to the program, myself included.

 

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