OWL Talks

Japanese Culture: Learning About Our Pacific Neighbor

Posted by Jessica Collette on Jan 16, 2017 3:03:00 PM

students in tea house

When I learned that I needed to take an upper-level interdisciplinary Honors seminar in order to graduate as an Honors scholar, I found myself scared. Would the workload be too much? Despite my reluctance, I steeled my nerves and signed up for the course with a Pikachu smiling on the information sheet, Japanese Culture, taught by Professor Brian Chen. I couldn’t be happier that I selected this Honors seminar.

Professor Chen’s class goes far beyond the basic knowledge of Japan that Americans have. Our first order of business was to address the beginnings of the Japanese language. Culture always begins with the formation of a unique language, something to truly define a culture as its own. For the Japanese, their language came from the introduction of Chinese to the country. This was the language of the nobles and was used in all official writings. Women and those of lower classes were not allowed to learn this language, so they created their own local language by changing the characters of Chinese, which were pictograms (characters that represented words), into ideograms (characters that represent sound). From here, the local language of Japanese was born. To add to our understanding of the creation of the language, we were given sheets with characters in Katakana (used in official documents) and Hiragana (used in casual writings) and were taught to write different phrases. We were also taught how to speak some Japanese by learning key phrases such as “good morning” and “good evening.”

From here we really got going. We read articles addressing the importance of archeology in Japan, the various cultural differences in raising children, and the difference between Shinto as an ideology and Buddhism as a religion. Professor Chen brought in different professors to teach us the art of calligraphy, the history of Kabuki and Noh theatre, and the history of earthquakes, tsunamis, and natural disasters in Japan. He also invited a localtaiko group to perform at Dever Stage, where they not only performed, but also allowed us and others in the audience to come on stage and try playing their taiko drums. We also took a fieldtrip to Washinan, a traditional Japanese teahouse and garden at Mt. Holyoke College, where we learned about the art of tea ceremony and Japanese aesthetics.

Mountain River Taiko
The Japanese Culture seminar was more than I expected when I signed up, and I am beyond glad that I took the chance. I have learned so much about a culture that few of my friends talk about outside of anime and manga. Professor Chen made every class entertaining and informative. Discussions were engaging, and he is always willing to hear the opinions of others to further civic engagement. Though there was quite a bit of work, Professor Chen was available for assistance.

students in meditation garden
Professor Chen plans to offer the seminar again. When he does, I highly recommend taking the class. The subject matter is interesting, and Professor Chen adds flair to everything he teaches. Arigato, Professor Chen!


Jessica is a History major from Holden, MA.

Reprinted from the Squirrel Squire, the newsletter of the Honors Program

Topics: Civic engagement

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