—— When did you open your English school in San Diego?
I moved to San Diego in 1974 and opened my school two years later. It’s been 27 years since I started. I not only teach English conversation, but everything related to the study of English to Japanese students living here. San Diego has changed quite a bit during the last quarter of a century. There were only two Japanese restaurants and just one Japanese market downtown... and the Kearny Mesa area, where Mitsuwa and Nijiya are now, were only fields. There weren’t many Japanese companies then either, only Kyocera and a handful of others. There really weren’t many Japanese people then. Since I could speak English, I received many requests from the local expatriots asking me to help put together or file various documents. I always had a flood of requests, which led to many requests for me to teach English conversation, so I started an English class teaching businessmen and their families.
—— When did you become interested in English?
Since junior high school my English scores were very good, but I was the type of person that whenever I would get up in front of people I would turn red. My English teacher in junior high school, who knew my problem, told me “In order to overcome your shyness, you should join the English debate team.” I really started to study in earnest after entering high school, where I had an excellent English teacher, who was an American minister. He taught me everything from A to Z about English and while I studeid with him I was learning how to express myself and overcome my fears of speaking in public. It eventually got to the point where I actually enjoyed speaking English.
In college I majored in phonetics, in the Department of English Literature. I was also teaching English to a group of 400 people who were members of ESS (an English conversation study club). I was also a member of the cast of an English theater group that was in a competition sponsored by F.U.E.T (Five University English Theatricals). As a matter of fact, I even won an award for one of my performances.
In 1968, the famed stage director Richard A. Via of such well known Broadway shows as “Hello Dolly”, “The Sound of Music”, etc. recognized the strength of my performance and pronunciation when he came to Japan. At that time, I had been chosen as the lead in a production of “Our Town”, performed by a cast of Japanese students, which toured Japan for three months.
—— Were you also an English teacher in Japan?
To tell the truth, in Japan I was the disc-jockey of a late night radio show called "All Night Nippon". During that time, I received many awards from English speech contests and because of that I hoped to get a job where I could use my English ability, I didn’t want to limit myself. I thought if I went to broadcasting school I might find something there, so I started attending the Tokyo Broadcaster’s Academy, while I was a university student. It was there I met an instructor who would become very influential in my life, Mr Goro Itoi, who is a legendary D.J. now. He was one of the first D.J.’s of “All Night Nippon” and very successful, but since his English was not that great, he chose me to work with him part-tme while I was still a student. I came to the U.S. with him many times and had the opportunity to interview many famous artists such as the giant of blues, BB King, the blind genius guitarist, Jose Feliciano and Harry Belafonte, who had the hit “Banana Boat”, et cetera.
—— Why were you so determined to come and live in the United States?
I had been working as a D.J. in Japan for 2 years and I wanted to improve my English ability, so in 1969 I enrolled in the Washington D.C. Institue of Modern Language, where I studied pedagogy. After that I went to Michigan State, Hope College, where I majored in speech. Even after I came to the U.S. I kept in touch with Mr. Itoi sending artist information and interview tapes to Japan. Overall I was a D.J. for 15 years. My motivation for coming the U.S. was the 1961 televison broadcast of President Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I was impressed by his powerful words. That was a speech that guided and inspired young people throughout the world and made them want to aspire to greater things. I admired the frontier spirit and freedom of expression of the U.S. and after I heard that speech I knew I had to go there. When I was 22 I came here as a student, determined to stand on my own two feet and live a life in which I could serve as a bridge between Japan and the U.S. In my heart I had no intention of ever returning to Japan. So I boarded a Greyhound Bus and for $99 I toured New York, Chicago, and then traveled over the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico and Arizona, staying 3 or 4 days in each city before finally making my way to this idealic place San Diego. Of course I liked the wonderful climate, but I also liked the city’s desire to preserve its natural beauty and scenery by limiting the development of high-rise buildings.
—— Besides your English school did you start any other kind of business?
Teaching English was my primary business, but I also started a karaoke lounge in 1979. As a matter of fact, I was the first person to introduce karaoke to San Diego. I ran that business for about ten years and had a lot of fun planning the many different and colorful events. Young people probably don’t know or remember that in the ‘70s there was a popular amateur talent show called “The Gong Show", from which I got the idea to, in 1980, produce and hold a San Diego Gong Show in my lounge. The competition wasn’t only limited to Japanese, there were also American contestants looking for fame and trying to be discovered. If the judges thought the performance was interesting, but not worthy of a prize, we would bang the gong and kick them off the stage (laughing). It was so popular that before I knew it, it had become a monthly event. We also held an annual event called “Kohaku”, for Japanese people, a kind of singing “battle of of the sexes” with men and women separated into red and white teams. People would take this contest very seriously and judges invited professional singers from Los Angeles to compete.
—— When you’re teaching English what do you focus on?
In my English conversation classroom we use a small group system with a limit of five students per class. I try to do my best to give individual attention. Currently, we have approximately 70 students, half of them are Japanese students who are working to improve their TOEFL scores. The other half of our students are usually businessmen or housewives who are trying to work on their conversation skills. Our classes are 90 miniutes long and 90% of the students taking TOEFL classes, coming for three months for an average of 4 days per week, can improve their scores by 50 points. It doesn’t matter what level the student is at when they enter, I first teach them the functions of the basic parts of speech and the 5 basic sentence types. To remember the basic rules, such as which words are nouns and adjectives and how they’re used is very important. If you’re a child, you can just listen to English, and learning it by heart is the best way, but for adults the situation is totally different. After living in Japan for 10 or 20 years and then trying to learn English like a child is very difficult. If you can remember the patterns of grammar, you need only replace words, which is the most important shortcut to improve your English.
As you know, even though Japanese people are really good at grammar, they have a hard time with conversation. That’s because they don’t get enough practice listening. People have three kinds of memory. For example, when your driving your car on the freeway you may see an advertisement for Seaworld, but five seconds later you’ve forgotten it, that is called instantaneous memory. After you study something in class you might remember the lesson for two or three days. If you don’t review it you’ll completely forget it in two weeks, that’s called short-term memory. If you can develop your short-term memory, by review and practice, that information will be converted into long-term memory. For example, when a child is learning how to ride a bike and his parents are holding the bike, at the moment when the parent releases the bike and the child can ride on their own is the point at which short-term memory is converted to long-term memory. If something is commited to long-term memory the child will be able to ride a bicycle for the rest of their life. If you can convert English into a long-term memory you will never ever foget it. So for English it is more effective to practice listening than writing. I always recommend to my students to record anything in Japanese and then wait 10 seconds and record its English translation. When they listen to their tape, they will hear the Japanese first and if they can not translate it into English in 10 seconds they will hear the English translation. With a tape you can practice in your car, bath or wherever you go and convert your short-term memory into long-term memory.
—— Tell us your goals for the future?
The basic principle of American education is respect for the value of the individual and freedom of thought. From the time Americans are in elementary school, children are doing things without depending on others, thinking for themselves, acting independantly to achieve thier goals. My job is to help as many Japanese as possible to understand this American disposition by how they express themselves in English. To help these students, as well as Japan, to raise their level and ablility to be participating members of the international community. In English sentences the subject and verb come at the beginning and the compliment and object come after the verb. Take for example, the sentence " I go to church everyday, except Monday." In Japanese the verb comes at the end of the sentence and it becomes "I Monday except everyday church go” so unless you hear the last portion, you don’t know what the speaker wants to say. They’re very different.
The reason Americans can express themselves candidly and unambiguously is partly due to grammar. So grammar has an affect on the character of the nation. Generally, the reason Japanese people avoid speaking directly is because they are too careful to be polite, so their character becomes the same way. That’s why when Japanese people are speaking to others in the international community they are vague and unskilled at communicating. Based on this experience, I always thoroughly teach my students the importance of the 5 basic sentence types and word order. Some of my students have already become English teachers in Japan. To see them doing this with the skills that I’ve taught them makes me very happy. To see my students’ abilities improving everyday gives meaning to my life. I never felt that teaching English was ever a chore, that’s because I’m sharing the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience. I think I’d like to keep teaching for another 20 years, no, until I die...