UMass Students Helped Recreate Edo in Manhattan
Friday, January 12, 2018
Friday, January 12, 2018
On Saturday, October 21, students in Professor Reiko Sono’s course, “Japanese 397N Recreating Edo in NYC” took a fieldtrip to New York City. The participants included Patrick Carland (UMass, MA ’19), Catherine Decker (UMass, ’18), Alissa Marcello (MHC ’19), Xav Svetlichny (UMass, ’19), Amy Vieira (UMass, ’19). The fieldtrip was the culminating part of the two-month course in which students studied about Edo, the eighteenth-century capital of Japan now known as Tokyo, and produced twelve information boards. They were to assist a Japanese community called Japan Fes in putting on an Edo-themed street festival on the Upper West Side. When they got to the city, they were met by Mr. Masahiko Todoroki of Japan Fes and spent the afternoon helping him and his staff prepare for the following day. In the evening, they were invited to a Japanese restaurant and had the chance to interact with Japanese people over dinner.
The day started early on Sunday, October 22. The students gathered at the corner of Broadway and West 94th Street at 6:00 AM. While they waited for the tents and tables to arrive, members of the Japan Fes staff asked the students to help them clean the street with makeshift cardboard dust pans, which reflected a Japanese work ethic that strongly emphasizes cleanliness. The students continued to work side by side with Japanese vendors and staff throughout the day, from making a cardboard castle to grilling rice crackers and selling sweets. Japan Fes had reserved two blocks of the four-block fair which it filled with sixty-one Japan-related vendors. The students set up their information boards in the Edo-themed block. During the fair, they donned kimono in the style of eighteenth-century townspeople. Being in the middle of New York City and part of a larger street fair, thousands walked through the Edo block, many of them not knowing where Japan was located, let alone what Edo was. Nevertheless, quite a few stopped and spent time reading the information boards, and were impressed with the students’ attire. The students worked hard until the fair was nearly over and then took a bus home.
This project was made possible by support from the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, the Unit of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and a Five College Innovative Language Teaching Grant, and its primary goals were to promote the appreciation of diversity among the general public, enhance the students’ language skills by providing greater opportunities to converse in Japanese, and increase their knowledge of Japanese history and culture.
As mentioned above, many passersby were seen reading the information boards intently. The students also heard some say that they liked the fair’s theme. All in all, this was a rare opportunity to appeal to a large number of people not normally interested in Japan, and the students were proud to have made even a small difference.
In terms of the students, their intensive interaction with Japanese people over the two days turned out to be very effective in improving their language abilities. One student said in her report,
"I think the trip itself enabled me to have a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise had such as getting to use Japanese outside of the classroom to talk to Japanese people in several different contexts. I think this was very valuable, as often conversations in language classes are focused on the stuff we are studying, but there I had to use Japanese for more natural and less predictable conversations."
One notable feature of the Japanese language is its complex system of honorifics, which is based on the social system of human relationships and works in tandem with cultural behaviors and norms. In the classroom, instructors tend to focus on how honorifics work linguistically, but in reality, honorifics must be supported by appropriate degrees of respect. During the fieldtrip, students not only were forced to use Japanese, but witnessed how Japanese people behave in work situations. Such firsthand experience is crucial for understanding the use of honorifics.
Although the field trip took place in the middle of the semester, the students appreciated this unique opportunity and felt that what they received from it far exceeded the time they had devoted. It is unlikely that the Edo Street Fair will be repeated in New York City, but given the impact it made among people there and the effect it had on the students’ language skills, it may be worth hosting similar events in the area, and the Japanese program will continue to find ways to make a difference among their students, as well as in the community at large.