Teaching Nihongo to Seniors

Betty Santoki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

A very good friend, a Sansei, once asked me, “I’m going to Japan for the first time. Can you tell me what helpful word, expression or sentence I should know?” I told her, “You look Japanese, so when you’re shopping, at a restaurant or on a train, if you do or say something out of the ordinary, people will stare. That’s when you point to your nose with your index finger (a Japanese gesture) and say, ‘Hawai‘i kara desu.’”

She returned from her trip saying it was very helpful to know these three words, “I’m from Hawai‘i,” especially, because she won the Awa Odori contest in Tokushima, Shikoku. When the emcee called her up and started to speak in Japanese, which she of course didn’t understand, she pointed to her nose and said “Hawai‘i kara desu.” He replied, “Ahh, so desu ka?” Then, he used his limited English to award her a certificate and flag for being the winner.

Having heard this story, another friend at the Newtown Recreation Center suggested I start a Japanese language class for senior residents. I previously taught Japanese at several high schools, then English to English Language Learner students at an elementary school. Following retirement from the Department of Education, I was a substitute teacher for two years. Dissatisfied, I yearned to do something more rewarding.

There were so many seniors going to Japan interested in learning the language, I thought perhaps I’d undertake this challenge as a community service.

The announcement to Newton Estate residents read, “Conversational Japanese Class, Tuesdays from 9:00-11:30 a.m.; Limit 30 people at no charge. Contents for the course: vocabulary, grammar, translation and basic conversation.”

After just a few weeks, registration for the course reached the maximum 30 people limit and spilled onto a waiting list. I accepted 40. The seniors and a few not-yet seniors ranged from no knowledge of Japanese to an understandable level. It was going to be difficult but I was ready to take on the challenge.

We used the University of Hawai‘i first-year language text, “Learn Japanese, New College Text, Vol. One,” by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano. I prepared a syllabus and a lesson plan, however, the varied levels of the language made it difficult — the advanced students were bored and the beginners struggled.

After a few confusing sessions, I divided the course into two classes: beginning and intermediate Japanese. Those who went to Japanese school or took courses in high school or college were placed in the intermediate class. Others who had no prior Japanese language skills were placed in the beginning class. We covered pronunciation, expressions, vocabulary, phrases and translations.

Teaching beginning and intermediate classes separately continued for eight semesters (four years). I began to think teaching a class of 40 students or more each semester was trying, so I began to rethink the class structure.

In 2016, I changed the class format. Rather than teaching all the classes myself, I assigned a joshu, a teaching assistant, to help me and added writing hiragana, katakana and kanji to whoever was interested. I combined the classes into one large class for two-and-a-half hours.

Ten of my best students were selected to become joshu, which divided the class of nearly 50 into five groups. The students felt more confident speaking in smaller groups of similar levels. Joshu meetings were held to discuss methods, plans and student movements. These joshu were volunteers and spent a lot of time dedicated to quality teaching.

Pre-COVID-19 Class Structure

At the beginning of each class, joshu would ask a question such as, “Soto o mite kudasai. Donna hi desu ka?” (Please look outside. What kind of day is it today?) Students might reply: “Ii tenki desu,” (It’s a nice day); or “Ame furi desu,” (It’s a rainy day).

In the early years, typical lesson plan included bunka (culture) of Japan, including new year traditions and Obon festival.

In later years, advanced bunka topics such as omotenashi (hospitality); Keiro no Hi (Senior Citizens Day); karoushi (death from overwork); ha-fu (half -blood); konbini (convenience store); Burakumin (Untouchables); and cosplay were introduced. Other bunka activities included a guest pastor who came to talk about arigatai (thankfulness) and also taught the class calligraphy.

Santoki Sensei (middle, wearing orchid lei) with her Nihongo I, II class after their spring session commenced in June, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Betty Santoki)
Santoki Sensei (middle, wearing orchid lei) with her Nihongo I, II class after their spring session commenced in June, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Betty Santoki)

We have gone on outings including Natsu no Bon Odori (Summer Bon Dance); Aki no Tsukimi (Autumn Moon viewing); tour of the Honouliuli Internment Camp; a “Buddhism and Western Culture” lecture by Dr. George Tanabe; and a visit to Tokai International College to view a calligraphy demonstration by the award-winning artist, Koji Takehara of Japan.

In class, we viewed movies like “Oshin,” “Picture Bride” and “Hula Girls.” After the movie, students would answer questions and we would have a discussion about the movies’ prevalent theme.

Kaiwa (conversation) was camaraderie time. Topics included: watashi no shumi (my hobby); kodomo no toki no hibi (days of my youth); wasure rarenai keiken (an unforgettable experience); hajimete no koibito (my first love); ichiban hazukashii keiken (my most embarrassing experience). Students were encouraged to speak in Nihongo, it was a fun, learning and emotional activity.

Textbook work was the next order in class. Topics included dialogue, grammar, vocabulary and translation drills. Students translated English drill handouts and, if doubtful, crosschecked with the Nihongo sentences in the text.

At the end of class, sensei went around the room to say, “Jikan desu yo. Kyooshitsu wa owari mashita,” (It’s time, class has ended). Those learning writing (hiragana/katakana/kanji) remained for another 30 minutes.

After class, students would often linger to talk about their recent trip to Japan; the food they enjoyed; and an endless array of stories of Japan.

“Hawai‘i kara desu” Becomes Understandable Nihongo

Now, if a student is in a department store and the clerk asks, “Nani o sashiage mashoo ka?” (What would you like?), the student doesn’t have to say, “Hawai‘i kara desu.” They will be able to reply and say something like, “Sono chiisai hako no omanju o futa hako onegai shimasu.” (May I have two small boxes of those rice cakes please.)

If my advanced student is in Sukiyabashi in Ginza and someone is lost and comes up and asks, “Mitsukoshi Depaato wa doko desu ka?” (Where is the Mitsukoshi Department Store?), the student who knows where Mitsukoshi is will be able to help the lost person and say, “Kono michi o massugu itte, tsugi no shingoo no yotsukado o wattate tsuki atari ga Mitsukoshi Depaato desu.” (Go straight on this road cross the street at the next intersection with the traffic light and Mitsukoshi Department store will be in front of you.)

When asked why they come to learn Nihongo, the majority of students replied that they love to go to Japan. Learning to speak the language has helped them tremendously. Others have also said that although it’s difficult, it’s a way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Japanese class is a time for socialization while learning a language and having fun at the same time.

Surveys were taken after every semester and many commented that the class made traveling to Japan easier and they enjoyed hearing about their other classmates’ travels and life experiences.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled all classes at the NRC. During this interval, I contemplated discontinuing the classes for good. There was no one to take over volunteering this time-consuming endeavor. However, not having the opportunity to talk to my students, especially about Japan, was too disheartening. I wanted to continue.

In the spring session of 2020, the students received lesson plans and translation assignments via email.

Then, the thought of teaching Nihongo via Zoom came to me for fall 2020. Four of my former joshu and I got together and discussed if this would be feasible and they were in favor of continuing the program. So, the Zoom Nihongo Atsumari (Gathering) began.

Of the 40 former students, only 25 signed up. There were varied reasons for not signing up: “I don’t want to be seen on TV”;  “I don’t have a laptop, desktop”; “I don’t know how to operate a computer.”

Although I lost many students, others (via word of mouth) enrolled, including two students from Washington State and other areas of O‘ahu.

Recent spring and fall Zoom sessions averaged about 20 students and we continue to cover grammar, expressions, translation, dialogue and bunka.

This past spring semester I began getting the students familiar with colloquial Japanese rather than confining only to standard (formal/polite) language found in the text. I began jotting down conversations in Nihongo from the KIKU-TV program, “Yasashii Jikan.” Students were assigned to translate the Japanese into English. We discussed the various standard/polite to the colloquial Nihongo. Because they only read the English subtitles, they didn’t realize how different the colloquial was to the polite/formal Nihongo in the text. This was another new learning experience.

Perhaps, as time goes on, I’ll get additional ideas in the future as I continue to teach on Zoom.

Betty Santoki is a retired high school Japanese language teacher and an elementary school ELL teacher. Before graduating from the University of Hawai‘i, she flew for four and a half years as a flight attendant for the now defunct Pan American World Airways (“Pioneers in The Sky,” Hawai‘i Herald story, printed on March 3, 2017). Presently, she volunteers teaching conversational Japanese on Zoom mainly to senior citizens. She is also a member, having served as the vice president and president, of the World Wings International Hawai‘i chapter, a philanthropic organization comprised of former Pan Am flight attendents, raising funds for St. Francis Hospice as well as the World Wings International’s Doctors Without Borders.


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