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From the Faculty of International Social Studies (Provisional Name) to the World

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Laura MacGregor
(Professor, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Centre, Gakushuin University)

Your experience in Japan
Tell us some of your best experiences in Japanese society

The first great experience here in Japan was while I was living in Sapporo. There was both a shrine and a temple near our condominium. One New Year’s eve, my husband and I ventured out in the cold and snowy late night to greet the new year at the shrine. It was amazing to me how quietly people stood in line as they waited to pray, give their offerings, then drink hot sweet sake (甘酒) and receive their new year’s fortunes (おみくじ). By participating in this ritual, I truly felt the depth of Japanese traditions. Adding to this moving experience was that all the while, we could hear the toll of the temple bell ringing solemnly nearby as the new year began.

The next year, we decided to go further afield to Hokkaido shrine, where we repeated this experience, though on a much grander scale. The peacefulness of the atmosphere on both occasions was truly enriching – I was amazed and moved by the immense quiet both times. Participating in new year traditions is one of the many treasures of life in Japan.

Another great experience is something that, fortunately, I can repeat every year: watching fireworks displays. Japanese fireworks are by far the best and the most creative that I have ever seen. I am always amazed that the program can continue for at least an hour – the fireworks just keep coming and coming. It is another of the gifts of life in Japan.

Of course, a third great experience is seeing cherry blossoms. My first magnificent encounter was on a trip to Kumamoto, where I visited Kumamoto castle. Amidst the castle buildings, the sky was completely pink and the air was filled with the light scent of the flowers. It is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. My impression then and always is “Wow.” Like the abundance and magnificence of the fireworks here, there is not such an abundance of flowers anywhere that I know of in my native country, Canada. Therefore, I appreciate these experiences all the more.

Tell us some of the things that you were surprised/shocked by in Japan.

It is always a surprise to me when I see kindergarten and elementary school children running around Tokyo parks with their classmates in the wintertime wearing nothing but t-shirts and very short shorts, while I am bundled in a warm winter jacket, hat, muffler, and gloves. After a time, I think I learned correctly that the purpose was to build stamina and good health. So now, I am less surprised when I see them and also high school students and adults outdoors without winter jackets or gloves on cold winter days.

Where I grew up in Canada, the telephone and hydro wires are buried underground, leaving the sky in full view. In Japan, there are high wires everywhere. I think it is a pity that they get in the way of seeing a clear view of the sky. Although there is much beauty in Japan, I believe this is one conflicting example.

Things you noticed/realized while teaching at universities in Japan

Since my first teaching experiences when I came to Japan 25 years ago were at junior and senior high schools, I will comment on what I noticed while teaching there. Above all, the atmosphere was very formal. During lessons, there was almost no back and forth dialogue between teacher and students or organized student pair work or group work. Students sat facing the blackboard and the teacher, copying down exactly what the teacher wrote on the board or what they were told to write. I wondered how students could learn effectively under such formal conditions. In my experience in high school in Canada, for example, we made our own notes, and asked questions during class. Furthermore, at least a few minutes of many classes were allocated for discussion.

Another example of the formality that I saw in some schools in Japan was how students greeted each other and their teachers with ごきげんよう. Finally, the boys in most schools that I visited here wore European military style uniforms, which seemed very regimented to me. There were also very strict rules about appearance, including such things as hairstyle, and skirt and sock lengths. Students who failed to follow the rules were sent home or reprimanded to make the necessary corrections. The point of uniformity appeared to be extremely important and was different from what I had known in high school in Canada. Although there was also a dress code set by the school, it included commonsense things such as prohibiting bare feet and bathing suits at school. I think these different attitudes toward formality are examples of an interesting cultural difference and there are logical explanations for both ways of doing things.

What do you want to teach at the Faculty of International Social Studies?

I’d like students to develop their independence and learn how to express their opinions logically and confidently. I find that many students are not good at giving logical, concrete reasons for their ideas. It puts them at a disadvantage in discussion and in writing. Therefore, I want to help students become clear and logical thinkers, speakers, and writers. I will take charge of Academic Skills class, in which one of the things I will teach is writing. In that class, I will teach students how to organize their ideas, make an outline, and write essays and short papers according to a standard format.

I would also like students to try new things, and have many different experiences. Through them, whether good or bad, they will learn to make choices, make decisions, and find out what they want to do and what they think is right. Therefore, I hope students take as many faculty and university sponsored opportunities for personal and professional development as they can. This includes of course study abroad.

Why students should go abroad?

I think that by leaving your country, you are able to gain a more realistic view of it: its culture, traditions, history, and its social and political and economic systems. By comparing where you live with where you find yourself, you can become more critical and more analytical, and also more appreciative. Besides that, going abroad to study or work is a fine way to help you develop greater independence and become a stronger person. For these reasons alone, I hope that students will make the most of their experiences abroad.

At the same time, it is important to have an understanding and some knowledge about your own country. To contribute to that, travelling in Japan is essential. I can say without a doubt that the best experience growing up was my family's trip across Canada - from Toronto Ontario all the way to the farthest point west on Vancouver Island. It was an enriching family and cultural and historical experience for which I am forever grateful. Therefore, in a word, travelling in your country, for any length of time, is essential to your personal growth.

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