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English / Japanese

[Department of International and Cultural Studies, School of Foreign Studies]
Professor AZUMA Hiroko

Words are one of the tools that people use. If a wrong way of saying something becomes fashionable, then that also is significant.

Words are a Means of Thinking and a Tool for Connecting With People

Quiz shows with material about the Japanese language and kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) are winning over television audiences. When I see those programs, I am amazed that everybody is so interested in “words.” On the other hand, I have misgivings about them because they seem to be reinforcing a normative mindset that says the person who knows the correct word is the best.

Words are a means of thinking about things and are one of the tools we have for connecting with people. Since words are instruments that people use, they also change according to the times and the social conditions. Therefore, if a wrong way of saying something happens to be popular, then that also is significant, so instead of correcting it or denying it, we can have fun analyzing it by using methodologies such as “Why did that saying appear?” or “How widespread is it?” New words naturally occur from a desire by society as a whole to “want to say it that way,” so they aren’t random at all. Words are produced and spread while they are being verified, consciously or not, by the grammars and structures inside our heads. For that reason, the first time you hear a neologism or a buzzword, you can get a sense of what it means.

Seeing Words as a Way to Understand Each Other Equally

Depending on the country or region, there are considerable differences in mindsets such as attitudes toward working, how to raise children, and the customs of everyday life. Last year I went to Brazil for the first time on the “International Cooperation Initiative,” a program commissioned by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The topic was issues regarding the education of children of Nikkei Brazilians (Brazilians of Japanese descent), who are increasing in Japan. São Paulo was as dangerous as people say it is, with the walls and fences of homes covered in graffiti and iron bars on the windows. Since the roads are full of cars and travel times can be unpredictable, appointments and routines change in response to the situation. Still, despite being tense about my own safety, during the course of meeting many people, I felt an indescribable sense of liberation, unlike in Japan. It hit me that you really can’t understand a place until you go there and see what it’s like for yourself.

There are many foreign residents and their families living in Japanese society right now and carrying the burden of Japan’s workforce. In order to protect their human rights, it is necessary to provide them with words as a tool for survival through finding mutual understanding and getting information, not the “proper Japanese” that has been taught to exchange students in universities. In addition to words, I hope to talk with them to find out about their needs regarding social security and other issues and work together with them to build a cooperative system for solving these problems for the local community.

At the university, I am currently in charge of the Japanese language teacher course, but I try to pass along to students a perspective of communicating by coming up with words in such a way as to be able to mutually understand others when they meet people from different cultural backgrounds. For people living in the same society, regardless of nationality and other differences, the desire to cooperate with each other and understand one another leads to peace of mind and happiness. I would like students to remain self-aware of this fact even after they graduate and become employees of companies. There are many problems and issues in the world that do not have a simple solution, but I believe the best contribution to local society that a university can make is to develop human resources who continue to look for solutions when they encounter such difficulties.

Profile

School of Foreign Studies, Department of International and Cultural Studies

Professor AZUMA Hiroko

Areas of Specialty: Japanese Linguistics and Sociolinguistics

Interested in the Japanese language for a long time, she went on to graduate school with the aim of becoming a Japanese language teacher. There, she analyzed phenomena seen in the distinctive grammatical structure of Japanese. As she stoically delved deeper into “words,” she became a researcher in no time. One of her favorite phrases is “Nan kuru nai saa” (Things have a way of working out), from the Okinawan dialect. Even amid the pains and hardships of everyday life, the spirit of going with the flow inside those words somehow struck a chord in her heart, she says. She is also in charge of the Japanese language teacher course, which is a sub-major course.

Interview: HAYASHI Yūgo; Writer: MIYAMOTO Yumiko

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