Spending a semester in Japan, UMW senior Kaitlin Viloria was in a shop when a young woman asked her a question. The woman spoke no English and Viloria’s Japanese was limited, but they still managed to strike up a conversation.
Viloria wishes she was more proficient, she said, “but in that moment, I was proud of my ability to overcome the language barrier.”
Future Mary Washington students who travel to Japan will be able to communicate with confidence, thanks to the Japanese language courses UMW will offer starting this fall. Earlier today, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Keith Mellinger and Center for International Education Director Jose Sainz joined guests from the Japanese Embassy, faculty, administrators and city officials at the Jepson Alumni Executive Center to announce the new program. Japanese Minister of Public Affairs Takehiro Shimada gave a talk after the ceremony.
The courses come on the heels of the University’s inaugural Japanese exchange program. Three Mary Washington students – including Viloria – spent the fall semester at Akita International University (AIU), and four more will go this spring.
“More and more, I’m hearing that Japanese is incredibly popular and that young people love the culture and language,” said Mellinger, who sees the courses as a recruitment opportunity. He’s already reached out to Northern Virginia middle and high schools that offer Japanese as a foreign language.
“We hope that the language and culture classes combined with the opportunity to study abroad will attract current and prospective students,” Sainz said.
UMW will offer first- and second-year Japanese taught by a visiting instructor funded by a grant from the Japan Foundation, said Mellinger. If the courses prove to be a big draw, he said, there’s always the possibility of hiring more permanent faculty to teach the language or even introducing a minor program of study.
Mary Washington students can already choose from several Japanese culture classes, taught by Steve Rabson, an adjunct instructor and professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Brown University, as well as faculty from the departments of History and American Studies, Art and Art History, Political Science and International Affairs, and Classics, Philosophy and Religion.
When Rabson arrived at UMW in 2012, 46 students enrolled in his Japanese cinema class. And the enthusiasm is only increasing, he said, pointing to the active 30-plus membership of UMW’s anime club.
“Many students here took Japanese in school and want to continue their studies,” said Rabson. “Some even lived in Japan while their parents were stationed overseas.”
Through the Japan Foundation, Rabson secured grants for anime, film and literature courses; presentations by visiting lecturers and artists; and new library books. The foundation also sponsors an outreach coordinator, Minae Uehara, who team-teaches with Rabson.
In the past two years, Uehara has given lessons on calligraphy, origami and sushi-making on campus and in the Fredericksburg community. She also sees about 15 UMW students at weekly conversation hours, she said, where they can brush up on their Japanese or begin exploring the language.
Taking Japanese wasn’t an option when senior Rahi Taylor transferred to Mary Washington, so he participated in the exchange program in Akita last fall. Most AIU classes are taught in English, he said, but he practiced Japanese whenever he ventured off campus.
With plans to teach in Japan, Taylor hopes to enroll in a language class before he graduates in December, and he encourages his fellow Eagles to do the same.
“For students interested in studying abroad in Japan,” he said, “it’s a great way to give yourself a leg up.”