Oct. 3, 2007
By Anita Martin
Jennifer Musser, a senior magazine journalism student, began watching Japanese films in high school, fascinated by the country's cultural and religious traditions and its unique cinematic aesthetic. Her interest in Japan has since shifted to a more academic focus: she minors in both Japanese and world religions, and she recently won a Freeman-ASIA scholarship to study the Shinto religion in Japan for six months this year.
And she's not alone.
Musser is one of several Ohio University students who have won nationally competitive awards to study at Chubu University in Kasugai, Japan, this year. Along with Musser, Alexander Imhoff, an international studies senior, won the Freeman-ASIA Award; Rachel Briedis, a junior double-majoring in history and integrated social studies, won the Bridging Scholarship; and Christopher Hartsel, a senior in accounting, won the Japan Student Services Organization Scholarship.
Meanwhile, Patrick Maher, a 2007 linguistics graduate who minored in cultural anthropology, in addition to at least three of his graduating peers, won yearlong teaching appointments through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. American graduating seniors can apply for two JET positions: English teacher and the more competitive coordinator of international relations, which Maher won, marking the first time an Ohio University student has been offered the position.
"We're gaining momentum in our Japanese program," says Christopher Thompson, associate professor of Japanese in Ohio University's Department of Linguistics. "We have a number of students who are highly proficient with Japanese, largely due to our collaborations with Chubu University." Thompson also serves both as a visiting professor in the Department of Japanese Language and Culture at Chubu University and as the Ohio University-Chubu executive administrative liaison.
Ohio University students have been studying Japanese at Chubu since 1993, Thompson says, but the institutional partnership is older than that. Once primarily an engineering school, Chubu has welcomed Ohio students of engineering, physics and related disciplines for decades, and Chubu students have been coming to Ohio University for about as long, thanks to the Department of Linguistics' Ohio Program of Intensive English.
Thompson, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan, and raised there by American missionary parents, directed his first Chubu trip in 1999. Seven students attended. This year, 16 will study at Chubu, including the four award winners noted above. The program has enjoyed a steady rise in participation, adding one to three more students to the group each year.
"Interest (in Japanese) has always been here since at least the 1980s," Thompson says. "The difference (now) is that more students are studying abroad, gaining fluency in Japanese and going on to be employed in jobs related to Japan."
Thompson adds that the growth of the university's Japanese program, both in Athens and at Chubu, has to do with the symbiosis between the overall curriculum and the Education Abroad program, which couples classroom study with immersion fieldwork. What's more, Thompson and his colleague, Associate Professor of Linguistics Hiroyuki Oshita, have a knack for getting students interested in post-graduate opportunities to use their Japanese.
"It's rare for a public university this large to have the same faculty follow students through each of the stages necessary for successful employment in a Japan-related job," Thompson says.
Another possible factor: Japan is the second largest foreign economic investor in Ohio (after Canada). Manufacturing companies, robotics firms and subsidiaries of both Honda and Toyota, to name a few, all attract Japanese investment, making Japanese language skills a distinct business advantage locally as well.
But even without its market appeal, Japanese culture inspires many students. "I've always been interested in Japan and Japanese," says Briedis, winner of a Bridging Scholarship. "As a history person, I'm interested in Japanese history -- how Japan became so global so fast, but really sustained its culture."
Briedis and Musser credit Thompson and Oshita, as well as the Japanese population on the Athens campus (mostly courtesy of OPIE), for helping them earn their honors. Both students have spent a lot of time practicing their language skills with and getting to know Japanese students on campus, participating in organizations such as the Japanese Connection and helping to coordinate Japanese cultural activities such as the spring-quarter Sakura Matsuri -- or Cherry Blossom Festival.
In September, they put their Japanese skills to the test at Chubu, where they participated in weekend homestays with families, presented speeches at schools, took excursions to cities and cultural landmarks, and developed both professional networks and friendships.