At 2:40 pm, a deep voiced chime which reminds me of our front door bell back in Edmonton tells students at Wakayama University they’ve got ten minutes to get to their next class. As they dribble past me in two and threes, I stand in the hallway and peer at my class observation itinerary. The next class I’m scheduled to sit in on is a Japanese Studies class, taught by Dr. Takehana Keiko.
I’m on day two of a five day needs assessment tour of classes being taught in English at the Faculty of Tourism Research. What I see and hear will help my department and I at the University of Alberta to figure out how we can best assist the Wakayama instructors to teach their subjects in English. English-medium instruction, as it is officially called, is a major component of many universities’ internationalization initiatives in countries where English is neither the first language of the instructors nor the students.
Japanese Studies is a graduate level class with only 4 students-2 from Japan, 1 from Gabon in West Africa and 1 from the Solomon Islands. I‘m surprised to see the class is being held in the professor’s office rather than a classroom. She welcomes me warmly when I arrive and asks me to make myself comfortable. I settle in at the back of the office on a comfy white couch while the students sit at a small table in front of the professor’s desk.
Today’s lecture begins with an explanation of the historic role of Korean ambassadors in Japan and continues with discussion of Japan’s newest World Heritage sites. Dr. Keiko offers generous time and space for the students to ask questions, provide each other with answers, and bring their own experiences to the discussion. She encourages a quieter student to give input and helps out when someone searches for the correct English word. Throughout the discussion, she listens attentively to what the students have to say, is genuinely curious to hear more of their stories, and laughs with authentic joy at their jokes. Who wouldn’t want to use English to express themselves with such an appreciative professor for an audience?
The 90 minute class rushes by. After the students leave, Dr. Keiko and I settle in to talk about English-medium instruction. During our conversation, I find out that not only does she have a background in linguistics but also a passion for Japanese culture. She is a master of chanoyu, the art of the tea ceremony, which has existed in Japan for 500 years. Then, she gives me two gifts: a book on the tea ceremony which she has recently translated into English, and an invitation to stay for tea with her.
I glance at the time and realize I’m supposed to be meeting with three grad students who want to talk to me about their experiences of learning in English. “That’s fine,” says Dr. Keiko. “Please come back when you are finished.”
An hour later, I’m sitting down with the professor and one of the grad students, Kaori Yanata, who is researching spiritual and religious tourism in Japan. Dr. Keiko asks us each to choose a bowl for our tea and offers marble-sized rice cracker balls drizzled in caramelized sugar “because the tea can be a little bitter.” She spoons a little lime-green powdered tea into each bowl, adds hot water and whisks until the water foams. Then she hands us our bowls and invites us to drink.
Although my first taste is a little bitter, the flavor soon smooths out to become faintly sweet. We intersperse sipping and nibbling on rice balls with conversation about tea. I tell them about people paying $75 to have afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, Canada, a price which shocks all 3 of us. It seems even more excessive to me now, having enjoyed the hospitality of this simple but meaningful ceremony in the heart of Wakayama University with two fascinating Japanese women.