YuYu interview Fumiko Ishii

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Can you tell us about your current job?

I teach Japanese and Japanese culture at Irvine Valley College, which is a community college where a wide range of students—from high school students to adult workers—are learning. Their objectives vary; they go to school to pursue their hobbies, for career improvement, for new challenges, etc. So, it is difficult for me to focus on a single direction when I teach. My first priority is to help students acquire knowledge and skill of Japanese, one of the foreign languages required to transfer to a four-year university. While teaching alone by trial and error, twenty years have passed. My classes have grown so much that I now teach about 300 students per semester. I also started teaching a Japanese culture class three years ago at the Dean’s request. I’d say it is their interest in Japanese anime or Japanese culture that motivates many students to learn Japanese. Another idea is that speaking Japanese will look good on their resumes when they are searching for jobs.


—— Can you tell us about your classroom teaching principles and activities?
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At home on her (second from the right) 9th birthday, 1956.


To learn a foreign language, it is important to listen and speak in that language as well as get used to the language. So I conduct 90% of my class in Japanese. The teaching methods that I use are the Natural Approach (a method in which learners acquire language in a natural setting, similar how most people learn first languages) and the communicative method (interactive). But the most important thing is to treat your students with love and support as if you were their parent. In fact, I am thankful and am respectful of the students who take the trouble to learn Japanese. I keep it in mind when I teach. Some come to my classes after a full day of work, so I try to offer interesting classes that take their minds off of work. I use a variety of materials and activities in my classes, including: a Pelmanism using hiragana, katakana, and kanji cards; color cards to practice verb conjugations; and flash cards to stimulate the right brain. I sometimes ask the students intriguing questions, such as “What would you do on a date?” When I think they are mentally tired, I may let them stand up and stretch or sing “Do-Re-Mi” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” They have chosen to come to my classes, so I offer them a fun learn environment where they can laugh and sing together. That’s my way of teaching.


—— What brought you to the US?

Thirty-five years ago, I met an Air Force pilot when I was working as an interpreter at the Osaka Expo. Later, we got married and moved to California. After that, I moved to Germany with my husband because he was stationed there. I lived in Germany for three years until he became violent, which grew progressively worse. I eventually left secretly with my 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son and returned to the US. I didn’t feel like I was alive. Still, I had to survive and feed my small children. So I worked very hard to find a job in California. I finally got a full-time job at a law firm in Orange County. They were looking for somebody who was able to speak English like a native speaker and read and write in Japanese. It took me ten years to finalize the divorce. Our case went to the Supreme Court because we needed to settle many issues, including child support. It took a huge amount of time and effort. I ended up paying my lawyer so much so that I could have bought a house.


—— How and why did you decide to pursue your current career?

Five months after I started working for the law firm, I happened to find a Japanese class in Irvine Valley College’s catalog. The name of the instructor was not provided there, so I called the school. They told me that they had yet to hire a teacher for the class because it was a new class. So I applied for the position and was hired. I didn’t have any teaching credentials or experience, though. I was worried and nervous. Moreover, I’d have to teach the class at night after my full-time job and needed to get help from a babysitter. My life was on a minute-to-minute schedule. But, I was amazed by a person’s ability to adjust to a new environment. I started working as a Japanese teacher to earn some extra income, but I came to have a strong passion for teaching. I grew more and more fascinated by the teaching profession because it allowed me to use my creativity, to use my qualities, and to be deeply involved in students’ lives through education. In 1999, when my children had became old enough, and I was convinced that I was teacher material, I went back to school. I received my Master’s degree in Asian Studies from California State University. At that time, I worked full-time for Mazda as a data analyst. During the day, I did office work; at night I worked as a part-time college instructor and worked on my graduate studies. It was a superwoman’s schedule.


—— What is your achievement?
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In front of the Takasaki Kannon statue that her great-grandfather Yasusaburo Inoue built and paid for in 1936. (second from the left, 1981, age 34)

 
I don’t want to sound boastful, but my students did a wonderful job in a talent show competition this spring, which was held for students of Japanese in Southern California. My students at Irvine Valley College participated in the competition and performed in a short play, a session of storytelling with pictures, and a paper puppet show. The judges paid us a compliment: “Irvine Valley College took most of the prizes. It’s because the teacher’s enthusiasm is exceptional.” We participated in the competition and received a lot of prizes, which seemed to show me that my efforts had been recognized. That made me extremely happy. Another thing that made me happy was that I teach popular Japanese classes in this small college that have more students than those in a university. My students say, “This is the last class that I want to skip,” “This class is so much fun that I’ll move on to the next-level class next semester,” or “The teacher is my Japanese mom.” Those kind of comments bring a tear to my eye.


—— You also work as a simultaneous interpreter. What is the secret of your success in mastering English?
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Ms. Ishii (right), age 18, with her family before coming to study in the US, 1965.


When my children were small, I worked as a translator or an interpreter to make a living. Today, I work as an interpreter only for events that interest me. It would be imprudent for me to claim to be a simultaneous interpreter, but I have some tips to share about learning English. I’d say that it would be difficult to master English if you didn’t have the will to immerse yourself in the English-speaking community. Put yourself in an English-only environment. Actively interact with Americans and keep trying to  communicate with them. These are important points. Japanese and English are different from each other in grammar. As for English pronunciation, it requires movements of muscles with your mouth and tongue that are difficult if you haven’t acquired them as a child. Additionally, you need to understand that to learn a language, it is essential to learn about the culture of that language. I often advise my students to sing their favorite songs and repeat beautiful poems from memory. It is important to repeat them again and again until they automatically come out from your mouth, although you don’t understand what they mean.
 
Still, English is merely a tool to express your opinions and thoughts. Before putting your thoughts in words, you need to ask yourself if you have something that you want to tell the other person. If not, “speaking English” per se is meaningless. When I ask Japanese students how they feel about Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to The Yasukuni Shrine, for example, I sometimes receive an indifferent response, like, “I don’t know.” I hope they’ll learn to have and express their own opinions. They don’t have to follow others. When you have a lot of things on your mind, they will eventually come out as words, whether it’s in English or Japanese. Although you don’t speak English fluently, if you make an effort to make yourself understood, there will always be people who try to understand you and communicate with you.



—— What have your cross-cultural experiences in the US taught you about life?
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Japanese class at Irvine Valley College (2005).


I’ve been a fan of America since I was a teenager. I went to a Christian high school, Koen Girls High School, and had the opportunity to come to the US to study at a Christian college, Maryville College of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis (presently Maryville University). In those days, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) was popular, so I was interested to learn about America, including
racial issues. That was about forty years ago. It was expensive to study abroad because the foreign exchange rate was 360 yen to the dollar. I can’t imagine how much my parents worried, letting their daughter go to the US alone. But, this was the start of my US learning experience.
 
The ultimate lesson I’ve learned in the US is “freedom requires sacrifice and responsibility.” Americans know very well that being independent, which guarantees freedom, requires much obligation and responsibility. This may be a difference between Japanese and Americans. Americans are raised to be independent. In the US, babies sleep in their own rooms, whereas in Japan, babies sleep alongside their parents. My daughter and son, who were raised in the US, and left home after entering college. They found jobs and apartments on their own. They became independent without hesitation, which made me a bit lonely. A Japanese person living in the US sometimes misses the Japanese hospitality that understands the Japanese type of “emotional dependency.”
 
Since the US is a multiracial society, you have to express in words what you want to say. Otherwise, people won’t understand you. To live in such a society, you need to say clearly what you think. Here in the US, you can’t expect that others will read your mind as they do in Japan. “If you don’t say in words what you want, people won’t understand you. Say clearly what you want!” I’ve repeated it to many Japanese students studying here. To be honest with you, I had difficulty communicating with people because I’m not talkative by nature. I still have that difficulty. (Laughter)



—— Who has been a big influence on your life?70_6.jpg

It was Ms. Jeanne Egasse of Irvine Valley College who trained me in methods of teaching foreign languages twenty years ago. She was a Spanish language teacher and a 1960s-hippie-like woman. When I met her, she was planning to set up a Japanese language program at Irvine Valley College. The original candidate for the instructor position returned to Japan at the last minute, so Ms. Egasse hired me instead, although I was unknown in the field. The class started a week after I was hired. So, on the weekend, I went to Ms. Egasse’s place with my children and received training in teaching methods. After the class started, she enrolled herself in the class and gave me feedback after class. So, my children and I visited her every weekend. After twenty years, my children still remember her very well. If I hadn’t met Jeanne, I would have been just a middle-aged woman who could speak a bit of decent English.


—— What is your motto?

“If there is a will, there is a way.” If you are willing to work hard, you can realize any of your dreams. I truly believe so. Then solutions will come. I read a book called “Conversation with God” a while ago. It said something like, “Although you don’t express your wish in words, it will eventually be realized if you only think of it.” I totally agree with that passage. When I read it, I was moved because I thought my long-term question was finally answered. In other words, whatever you do, from daily activities to the way you think, you must do your best as a human being. This is easy to say, but difficult to do.


—— Can you tell us about your dreams for the future?
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From left to right: Coco (daughter), Ms. Ishii, Willam (son), 1995.


I’d like to introduce Japan’s rich culture to as many students as possible. Living outside Japan, I often realize how beautiful and profound the Japanese language is. I’d like show such wonderful aspects of Japanese not only to Americans but also to the Japanese. It seems to me that the young generation in Japan today does not make efforts to improve their communication skills in their own language. Meanwhile, high school students learning Japanese in the US sometimes have a better understanding of the language, including the sonkeigo (honorific form) and the kenjougo (humble form).

Language is “kotoba” in Japanese, which literally means “the speaking leaf.” A leaf has life. In a mild spring, buds of new leaves vitalize people. In a hot summer, the leaves create shade. In a sentimental autumn, the leaves change color and heal loneliness in people, and then fall. In an icy winter, the tree prepares for the next season. Any tree lives by receiving nutrition through its leaves with the help of the sun. In this way, “kotoba” is a short word, but has a rich meaning. Moreover, “kotoba” means the spiritual power of words. I’d say that only Japanese has such spiritual delicacy while there are countless numbers of languages in this broad world. I hope that Japanese people will recognize the freshness of their language that is being lost in today’s Japan.
 
I have a dream…. An American, who has a good command of the beautiful, profound Japanese language, travels in Japan. When she talks to the people there in melodious language, they realize how stylish their mother tongue is. Then, they start cherishing their language even more….


Fumiko Ishii ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

Fumiko Ishii is Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at Irvine Valley College. She was born in Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, on February 10, 1947. After studying at Maryville College of the Sacred Heart, she received her B.A. from International Christian University in Japan and her M.A. from California State University at Long Beach. She came to the US after marrying an Air Force pilot whom she met in the Osaka Expo. After living in Germany, where her husband was stationed, she divorced him and returned to the US. In 1985, she started teaching Japanese at Irvine Valley College while working for a law firm in Los Angeles. In 2003, in order to become a full-time teacher, she resigned from Mazda North America Operations, for which she had worked for sixteen years. She has also worked as a Japanese-English simultaneous interpreter. Ms. Ishii currently lives in Irvine, Orange County.


(09-16-2005 issue)