YuYu interview Sister Helen McHugh

9e
 

How is it that an English Professor in San Diego came to be so interested and involved with Japan?

Well, I had always had an interest in Japan, I suppose because some very dear friends of our family are Japanese, but truth be told my deeper involvement happened in a sort of round about fashion. You see I was a faculty member at the University of San Diego, Chairing the English Department in the late seventies when I became eligible for sabbatical. As an English Professor, I was always interested in linguistics, so I set about going to Scotland for a semester. Unfortunately for me, the University wasn't interested in having someone come for such a short time and informed me that I would have to enroll for 3 years. I didn't have 3 years, so I choose to go to Oxford! There I had the opportunity to attend lectures at Trinity College and All Souls College, among others. It was wonderful... a feast!


—— It sounds wonderful, but Oxford is still quite a way from Tokyo.

Though my plan was to spend the first half of my sabbatical in England, I was hoping to spend the second semester in Japan. I'd always wanted to go, but had never had the opportunity. My original purpose... and this is what I told the sabbatical committee, was to study what are called in linguistics "loaned words", in particular, words that the Japanese language had taken into itself from English. I think I began my research in England, but not much... I was going to do most of it in Japan.



—— Did you have some place in mind that you wanted to study at in Japan?

9 2 As you know, in addition to being a professor I am also a nun and I belong to an international order... the Religious Order of the Sacred Heart. The Society of the Sacred Heart has a University in Tokyo, ... the University of the Sacred Heart or Seishin University, so of course that is where I choose to go. The Japanese don't really have a concept for the term "sacred heart" so they use "seishin" as its nearest approximation. It was a large campus located in Shibuya-ku, and that's where I stayed... along with the other Sisters. At one time or another, I believe it used to be one of the residences of the Royal Family and after the war our order bought it. It is a beautiful place, so much so that Kurosawa even used its "Tori Gates" in one of his films. Shortly after I arrived, one of our Sisters in the English Department had been asked to go to Rome, so they asked me if I would be interested in taking the position... and I did.


—— What were your impressions when you first arrived? It must have been quite different
from Oxford, or San Diego for that matter.

Well I was fascinated by it! Just fascinated. The beauty of the gardens for instance... I would love to try to erect one but I'm afraid it's beyond me now. And the museums! They had the most gorgeous exhibits. It seems the best things from Europe eventually traveled to Japan. Over time our friends, and they do this for all of the "gaijin", took me to Kyoto, Kamakura and Hiroshima, among others. It is certainly a beautiful, beautiful country!


—— As the saying goes " When in Rome... " did you adopt any of the Japanese lifestyle?

Oh I'm afraid I didn't have as much luck as some others in that regard. For instance, we had a little chapel where the sisters would gather and have prayer together and most of the Sisters would sit on cushions or kneel on their haunches. I couldn't manage that! When I tried I would get pins and needles. It's really a difficult position if you're not accustomed to it. As far as eating was concerned, I never quite acquired the ability to eat with chopsticks (laughing)... it seems I don't have the fingers for it.


—— How were your students at Seishin?

9 1 They were pretty good! I remember the first class I had... I wanted to expose them to American literature and so it was like the "opening of the west". They were great! Japanese students tend to be reluctant to speak... especially English. They're more used to being indoctrinated, but that group really enjoyed Mark Twain. They really went at it! Other classes tended to be rather quiet... sometimes I felt I needed a can-opener or something! They don't want to make mistakes.


—— When you came back to San Diego I know you helped to establish the Seishin Summer
Program at USD, how did that come about?


Before I left Japan, some of the faculty there were thinking of organizing some sort of summer travel /study abroad program in the United States. Shortly after I returned, I was contacted by one of the Sisters at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, asking if it would it be possible for us to organize such a program at USD. I thought it was a wonderful idea and the University thought so too! I think it was the following year that we hosted the very first group of Japanese students at USD. I asked for freshmen because I thought it would be better if we could catch them young! My sister, Sister Marie McHugh, likewise shared my fondness of Japan and helped in the program. Every summer she would come from the San Francisco Bay Area to help out. Eventually, she was also asked to teach at Seishin University and one day, after I had retired, she contacted me from Japan saying, "I think there's an opening and if you are willing I think you'll be asked to take it." I was... and I did!


—— Now I've heard that Seishin has also had some prominent alumnae?

You must be referring to The Empress Michiko. Yes, she was a student there and an excellent one at that. She was President of the student body while she there and after she graduated, she joined the alumnae of the Sacred Heart becoming the President of our Chapter in Japan. Every three or four years we hold an international meeting of our various Chapters and she was our alumnae representative from Japan at the Belgium conference. She had many friends at the convent and even after her marriage she would return now and then. The program was dear to her and everyone just loved her.


—— I understand that in addition to being an alumnae of Seishin University she was also a private student of yours, how did you happen to meet then Princess Michiko?

I believe Princess Michiko had asked the President of the University if one of our Sisters would be available. She was an English major when she was at the University, and she just wanted to converse with one of the English speaking Sisters. Not a formal lesson, but just to have a bit of conversation. So the President asked me, "Would you like to do that?" and I replied, "Oh, I sure would!"(smiling) So on those days when I was to meet the Crown Princess they would send a driver to the campus to pick me up... and deliver me to the Palace of the Crown Prince. The grounds were absolutely beautiful... I remember being there when the cherry trees were in bloom and there were cherry blossoms everywhere. Oh they were gorgeous!
 
I didn't teach her as much as we discussed things and current events. She is a very bright woman, very alert and passionate about children's books and literature. As I got to know her better, I knew some things that she might find interesting and I would tell her about some topics and she'd ask questions. She was always very natural and simple. Sometimes we'd discuss the articles in the local English language newspaper, literature, or the exhibits I had seen at the art museums. Ironically, she didn't go to them often... probably for security reasons. They would have had to close down the whole exhibit for her. She never said so directly, but I'm certain that was often the case.


—— Have you had the opportunity to be in contact with her since that time?

Just about four or five years ago a friend gave my sister and me a trip to Japan and, while visiting Seishin University, a friend whispered into my ear asking if I'd like to go and visit the Empress. So we went for a very brief visit to the Imperial Palace. What a lovely time. We were led into a room that faced a vast courtyard with trees that had the most beautiful deep green leaves... and the Empress sat facing us in front of the window. When she looked our way, she only saw us and the wall (laughing) but when we gazed at her, she was framed by the most gorgeous scenery... like a picture. She's such a lovely person, very gracious and sincere. It was an unexpected pleasure to see her again, and, before leaving, we invited her and the Emperor to visit San Diego...


Sister Helen McHugh ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

Sister Helen McHugh is a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, an international order of religious women with schools in 44 countries. She was born in San Francisco and currently lives in Linda Vista, with several Sisters of her order. She holds a B.A. from the San Francisco College for Women and an M.A. and PhD in English from Stanford University. She has taught in the English Dept. of the San Francisco College for Women, Manhattanville College and at the University of San Diego where she was the Chair of the English Dept. and instrumental in helping establish Summer Programs at USD for students from the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo.


(12-16-2002 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)