What skills can you develop by learning about culture in a global environment?

Professor Fujita specializes in examining history and culture from an international perspective with a focus on the history of Japanese foreign relations and global history, and Associate Professor Ogiso explores culture from the perspective of language, drawing on her experience of teaching Japanese overseas.

We interviewed them to hear their respective views on the meaning of learning about Japanese culture in the College of Global Liberal Arts (GLA), where students from a variety of different nationalities study side-by-side.

*Writing as of the academic year 2019.

Photo of Professor Fujita and Ogiso

What meaning is there in learning about Japanese culture?

FUJITA: My field of expertise is history, but it did not feel right to me that Japanese history is only limited to the country of Japan, so at university, I started researching the history of Japan’s foreign relations. Ever since then, I have taken an ‘outside-the-box’ approach to the study of history. Things you may not notice in Japan become clear when you compare Japan to other countries. In this way, I think it is important to take a bird’s-eye view of culture. For instance, karoshi, or death by overwork, is a social issue in Japan, so the government is pushing what it calls ‘work style reforms’. It is often said that the atmosphere in Japanese workplaces is one in which it is normal for individuals to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the team.

In the past, families and groups in farm villages used to help each other out so everyone could eat. It was a strategy of mutual assistance for survival. During the phase of economic development in modern Japan, this mentality was conveniently appropriated by the government to convince people to work ‘for the sake of the country’. By gaining an understanding of culture through the lens of history, students can develop the ability to change those practices that no longer suit the times, or that do not mesh with the kind of lifestyle they want to lead.

OGISO: I agree. I want our students to understand the culture of their own country without being bound by stereotypes. You cannot separate culture from language, so the cultural mindset of Japanese people is evident in the words they use. In Japanese, if someone invites you for a cup of coffee and you reply by saying ima chotto (‘Now is a little...’), that you are refusing the offer is understood. Japanese people try to read each other’s non-linguistic clues in this way to figure out the meaning of what is being said. In other words, communication in Japanese is based on a culture of ‘reading the situation’. As they pursue their studies in sociology and Japanese history, I would like the students in GLA to think about Japanese culture in terms of the language they use on a day-to-day basis.

FUJITA: The study of Nihonjinron, or the theory of Japanese national and cultural identity, is very popular among international students.

OGISO: Yes, national identity reveals itself in the way people live and the language they use. But, just as dialects like those of Osaka or Kyoto differ from region to region, it’s not really possible to group everyone in Japan together under the label of ‘Japanese’.

FUJITA: I think that’s right. I tell those students who want to study Nihonjinron that they have to rid themselves of their preconceived notions and stereotypes first. I expect GLA students to absorb new knowledge to use as a base to develop and share their own opinions.

What makes GLA unique?

FUJITA: GLA brings Japanese and international students together – they study together in mixed groups and live together in the international dormitory. Relating to the topic of Nihonjinron I just mentioned, I think there is a certain chemistry about it as a learning environment, in that student’s preconceived notions of Japan will, no doubt, change as they interact with local people and learning becomes tied to real experience. I think this makes it easy to generate synergies.

For me personally too, I hope firstly the students will have fun, but I also hope they will learn to appreciate, and use, a wide variety of forms of communication – after all, in providing an environment within which it is possible to experience such a diverse range of cultures in the course of everyday life, the GLA really does offer a wealth of opportunities not to be missed.

OGISO: It seems to me that the students get along very well while studying together. The international students have also been taking on elective Japanese language classes alongside their major subjects, which shows they are intent on becoming fluent in the language. Though regular classes are held in English, they have plenty of opportunities to use Japanese in conversing with native speakers outside of class. They study hard, of course, because they realize not being able to understand these conversations at all, would mean missing out on so much.

I’ve also heard directly from international students that they find Osaka – both the city itsef as a whole and local people – to have a very open atmosphere which makes it easy for international people to strike up conversations with locals in and around the city. Osaka Ibaraki Campus is also integrated into the local community, and I often see students talking to local people in the cafeteria. Yet another potitive is the neighboring city of Kyoto – rich in ancient history, and a little over 20 minutes away by train*, which means overall the campus is perfectly placed for students to take enviable advantage of the full spectrum of Japanese culture, from ancient World Heritage shrines and temples to modern Japanese pop culture.

FUJITA: I would like to see GLA students getting out and about and taking in as much as they possibly can. Kansai is a region that has played a central role in Japan’s culture, society, economics, and politics for over 1,000 years. I agree that Osaka is a great location, because it affords access to historical sites in only about 30 minutes. I’m currently looking into ways to incorporate field studies trips into my teaching to provide students with learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

Why is a global perspective important?

FUJITA: The Wakebayashi International Exchange Center is equipped with a Noh stage and a tea room, allowing students to learn about Japanese culture by availing themselves of these facilities as part of their everyday lives.

This notion of being incorporated into everyday life, is crucial I feel, because, in providing a constant presence and influence over the four years of the program, it sets up the fascinating prospect of students being able to assess how their own way of viewing Japanese culture has developed and changed during that period – their first aesthetic experience of the tea room will surely be very different to that four years later.

OGISO: Even if their Japanese improves, non-native speakers often find it hard to understand expressions based on culture and nature. For example, when it rains gently, the Japanese expression is shitoshito. As an onomatopoeic expression for simplicity or calmness, it is something you cannot necessarily learn from textbooks alone. By coming to Japan, I hope students from overseas can learn how to use these expressions for sensations that cannot always be translated into their native languages.

FUJITA: International students who come to study in Japan seem to experience a shift in their values after studying here for four years; and we expect them to graduate as adults ready and able to operate anywhere in the world with an expanded mindset adaptable to situations beyond the boundaries of their home country and culture.

OGISO: The Japanese classes I teach are a mixture of students of many different nationalities, and Japanese students sometimes join as volunteer assistants. This allows students to not only learn Japanese, but, by affording them an opportunity to compare circumstances in Japan with their home countries, it also enables them to develop a global perspective.

FUJITA: Indeed. GLA, as a liberal arts college, provides students with a exceptionally wide range of fields to study from – from the humanities and social sciences to the hard sciences. Japan may be the starting point for their academic journey, but the journey itself is not restricted to fields related to Japan; students are encouraged to explore topics by taking on board a wide range of perpectives, equipping them intellectually with the tools they need to contribute successfully to an ever more globalized world.

*JR Ibaraki Station to Kyoto Station is 22 minutes by rapid train. Rapid trains, at the time of writing, depart approximately every 15 minutes (weekdays and weekends).

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