ELTE People from Distant Lands – An interview with Dr. Uchikawa Kazumi

ELTE People from Distant Lands – An interview with Dr. Uchikawa Kazumi
As part of our interview series, this time we interviewed Dr. Uchikawa Kazumi (Faculty of Humanities 2013, 2022), teacher and lector at the ELTE Faculty of Humanities, Department of Japan Studies about her university experiences, her ties with ELTE, her professional life, and her relationship to Hungarian culture.

How did you arrive in Hungary? Why did you choose our university?

I majored in Hungarian Studies in Osaka. When I say this, people naturally ask me why I chose the Hungarian major. Unfortunately, I cannot offer an answer that would make the Hungarians happy: it was not my decision, but that of the university. When I applied for the Osaka University of Foreign Studies (today’s School of Foreign Studies, Osaka University), there were two majors. Those who applied for one chose the language, and those who applied for the other could choose a specialisation (Language and Information, Japanese Language, Comparative Culture, International Relations, Development and Environment). However, as far as the language was concerned, the latter could only rank the language they wished to study from 1 to 24 when taking the entrance exam. I opted for the Comparative Culture specialisation. I didn’t deal much with languages before. To be honest, I mistakenly believed that all of us would study the language we ranked first, second, or third anyway. However, it turned out later that it was far from being so. A good friend of mine, for example, studied Hindi though she had ranked 17th on her list. (The Hindi major was famous for being very demanding and about half of the group failed every year). Unfortunately, due to my naivety mentioned above, I didn’t put down my ranking of the languages for myself, so I don’t know at which place the Hungarian language was on my list. I am ashamed to admit that when telling my uncle I was accepted for the Hungarian major, he replied, “Well, it’s Budapest, then.”, and I didn’t know anything about it. In some respect, it turned out to be much more advantageous later than if I had majored in English or French. In Japan, this is the only university where you can study Hungarian language and culture as a major. So, those who graduate in Hungarian there have much better prospects than those who learn a popular language.

That's how I became a Hungarian major. When I was a fresher, my father told me that once I started learning Hungarian, I should go there and see the country, as well. (My parents neither spoiled me nor were they too strict. They kept quite a distance but always supported me in anything I wanted to do and they helped me with their ideas so that I would succeed). I visited Hungary after three months of studying Hungarian in Osaka. I attended a summer university course at the University of Debrecen.

Staying at a dormitory with my two Italian roommates, various outdoor activities, much more casual clothes than in Japan, unfamiliar foods, drinks, packaging, transport, buildings, challenging but all the more rewarding communication... I enjoyed everything so much. (Just remembering it brings tears to my eyes). So, I became fond of Hungary very much.

Unfortunately, not all my classmates with whom I came from Japan felt this way. At that time, Hungary had a rather dark atmosphere because of the previous regime, and for those of us who arrived in Budapest by train after a sightseeing tour in Vienna, the contrast with the magnificent view we saw there was quite shocking. I also felt the difference, but together with that, I definitely got to like Hungary.

After the summer university, when I was already a third-year student, I came to Hungary again. This time, I didn’t only come for a month but for a whole year. It was during that year that I decided to live here after completing my BA. Returning after university, I was initially engaged in various things. First, I made money by purchasing objects at flea markets and sending them to Japan, where they were sold in a vintage store specialised in Eastern European retro stuff. Next, I became a salesperson in a small shop selling Japanese food and books. Then, a friend of mine called me to work for a moving company. She was employed there and they were expanding their department dealing with Japanese clients. While working at the company, I started teaching Japanese at the Budapest Office of the Japan Foundation. I was already teaching the language as a private teacher, and knowing this, a friend of mine teaching at the foundation informed me about the job opportunity. I started to teach groups and fell in love with teaching.

Until then, I loved teaching, for example, because despite being a native speaker of Japanese, I kept discovering new things about the Japanese language while teaching and it was terribly exciting to me. But since I started teaching groups, the work has become interesting from another point of view, as well. How should I structure the lessons? What can be done so that students learn actively, engaged, and collaboratively in a group?

Let’s invite Japanese people and make sushi together! ... Then in 2006, just as I decided to leave the company and make a living as a Japanese language teacher, the Bologna system was introduced in Hungary, and suddenly the number of students majoring in Japanese multiplied. A friend of mine from the ELTE Department of Japanese Studies asked me if I wanted to work with her because there was a shortage of teachers.

I was hired on the condition that I would continue studying for a master’s degree at ELTE besides working there because I had not earned any master’s degree in Japan. (According to the Ministry of Education, only 10-15% of university students continue their studies receiving after their bachelor’s degree in Japan. Additionally, I had never thought of becoming a university lecturer, so I didn’t feel the need for an MA degree). In 2006, the master’s programme did not yet exist as a separate programme in the new educational system (because there were still no students at that level). So, it was only in 2009 that I could enrol at the ELTE Faculty of Humanities and start studying for to MA in Hungarian Language and Literature. I specialised in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. After completing the programme, the head of institute recommended that I should also pursue a doctorate. I also obtained my Ph.D. degree from the ELTE Faculty of Humanities, but this time from the Japanese Studies programme of the Doctoral School of Linguistics. I wrote my doctoral thesis on Japanese language teaching.

Do you have any favourite university memory or experience?

My graduate studies lasted four years instead of two. Partly because I was working as a teacher at the same time, but mainly because neither my command of the Hungarian language nor my knowledge of Hungarian literature and linguistics was adequate. The ELTE Faculty of Humanities is the best such faculty in Hungary, and my skills were naturally not good enough. One of my courses was about the classical Hungarian language. I attended all the lessons but couldn’t comprehend anything. (I’m not even sure whether it was really about classical Hungarian, at least I believed so – I understood so little at that time). When I failed the third time, I asked my professor to give me a special assignment so that I could pass. My assignment was to write an essay about Japanese surnames. I ordered 13 scientific books on surnames from Japan, searched for articles on the Internet, and wrote my essay based on them. One day after the exam, my professor called me into his office. He looked at me with such a serious face that my heart sank for failing again. However, he asked, “Why don’t you refine the text and publish it in a journal of onomastics?” This was my first article published in Hungarian. (Névtani Értesítő 34. Budapest 2012. pp. 31–40). All this made such a great impression on me. My professor maintained the standard of the course throughout and did not put up with giving me a simple pass. Instead, he gave me another chance, and as a result, I managed to achieve something bigger than what I had expected myself.

What is your experience with the Hungarian language? What was the hardest thing for you to learn?

Although I have been learning the Hungarian language for more than twenty years, my knowledge is still unbalanced and incomplete. This is “thanks” to the fact that the students speak the Japanese language so well that I don’t need to speak Hungarian, especially with third-year BA students and MA students. But I like to practice. My husband started learning Japanese in Hungary more or less at the same time as I started learning Hungarian in Japan. So, at home, we speak Japanese on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Hungarian on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and English on Sundays. We start each day by thinking about what day it is and in what language we should address each other.

For me, the most difficult thing is still to decide whether a definite article is needed and or not. The conjugation of verbs is also challenging. It is not easy to decide when we say kérem or kérek, for instance. Of course, I know the grammatical rules, but in reality it is often more complex than that (and often I ask the Hungarians in vain because they don’t know either – like when I started teaching Japanese and couldn’t answer the questions addressed to me). I also make many other mistakes, but they are predominantly slips of the tongue.

Do you have a beloved place in Budapest and maybe some favourite Hungarian food or drink?

Well, I would say that the campus of the ELTE Faculty of Humanities is my favourite place, but not because I am giving this interview to ELTE. Although it is in the city centre, you can always feel what season it is. In spring, the plants start blooming in succession: laburnum, a tree with blossoms similar to that of Japanese cherry, and violets followed by roses, and then summer is coming. In the summertime, the leaves turn vibrant green, and we can drink beer or spritzer outside. In autumn, the big yellow leaves start falling and the ivy on the wall of the old building is beautiful. I can’t even find the words to describe the white campus covered in snow in winter. You can find stately buildings with a long history here; and yet, the whole campus has such a relaxed atmosphere. Poufs of different colours are placed on the grass in the yard, and the students lie on them talking, reading, or writing something. In Building A, where administrative matters can be managed and where the dean’s office is found, long cushions have been placed on the windowsills next to the stairs so that the students could sit on them with their legs stretched. The students are intelligent, curious, cheerful, creative, and have a good sense of humour.

From Hungarian dishes, I prefer the Hortobágy-style pancake, paprika chicken, chimney cake, poppy seed roll, etc. As far as the drinks are concerned, I like drinking white wine. Nyakas Irsai Olivér is my favourite. I also love lemonade (a Japanese acquaintance of mine coming from the Netherlands told me that he had never drank such fantastic drink anywhere else in Europe).

What would be your advice to university students who hesitate to go and study abroad?

Many things had an impact on me throughout my life. However, one of the biggest turning points was undoubtedly when I came to study in Hungary as a university student. The world literally opened up to me. I wouldn’t say that someone who hasn’t experienced what it’s like to live abroad cannot have a good life. My sister, for instance, still lives where we grew up and she got married to her local boyfriend. She doesn’t like travelling but I don’t think she enjoys life any less than I do. If, however, someone is fond of trying out new things and getting to know new cultures and people, studying abroad is definitely a great opportunity for them. At the university where I was studying in Osaka a special emphasis was put on foreign languages and degrees could be obtained in 24 languages. Students at this university travelled all over the world as tourists, backpackers, and volunteers, and also went on study trips for short and long periods, alike. Approximately 20 years have passed since I earned my BA, and now I can see how open-minded and courageous we were, and also what intriguing professions we have. In my opinion, the fact that many of us could experience life abroad influenced our lives to a great extent.

What made you become interested in tales and translating tales?

My mother loves children’s books. We had a lot of children’s books at home, and, of course, she also read a lot of tales to us, her daughters. Besides, when I was a little child, there were problems with one of my legs, and I couldn’t play actively outside. I was also in the hospital for a long time. That’s how I fell in love with reading, writing, looking at pictures, and drawing. For a long time, I was dreaming about having a job related to children’s books in the future, although I didn’t have a clear view of what kind of work that could be. As I said above, I ended up learning Hungarian by chance, so I thought I could translate tales from Hungarian into Japanese. I didn’t know how much chance I stood to get published, so at first, I thought that I would be very happy if at least one volume came out with my translations in my entire life. And now, as many as seven volumes have been published with my translations, which is a great pleasure for me.

What is the reception of Hungarian children’s books like in Japan, and what is the difference between Japanese and Hungarian tales?

I dedicated my master’s thesis to the comparative history of Hungarian and Japanese children’s books. During my research, I had the strong impression that the authors of Hungarian children’s books fundamentally tried to make these books enjoyable for children throughout history. Conversely, I found that children’s books in Japan were only seemingly written for children, but in reality, adults often wrote or commissioned them for themselves. Particularly in the 20th century, until about the 1970s, the difference between the two countries is striking. The two countries evidently have different historical, social, and political backgrounds, so you can’t simply compare them. Now I won’t repeat what I discussed in my over 150-page thesis in detail, but I definitely had this feeling.

At the moment, however, I believe that the market of children’s book is freer in Japan and children’s books are more diverse than before. There are almost no taboos at all: death, harassment, excrement, everything can be a suitable topic. There are all kinds of children’s books: thought-provoking, simply funny, artistic, and scientific ones... Many adults are also engaged in children’s books, either as professionals or as lay persons. Here in Hungary, on the other hand, I feel that children’s books are regarded as if they belonged to some kind of inferior culture compared to general literature or art.

What are you engaged in at the moment?

Although earlier I was bragging about translating children’s books, I must admit that, unfortunately, I haven't been able to do much translation in recent years. Firstly, because I was writing my doctoral dissertation. And secondly, because the Department of Japanese Studies has undergone major changes. For example, we started to have a lot more students (for a long time there were three groups of first-year students, now there are nine) and the number of teachers also increased (but there are still not enough of us). Moreover, the Japanese interpreter and translator specialisation, as well as the Japanese teacher training have also been launched. Japanese language teaching was my research topic during my doctoral studies and I also regard this job as my profession, which I truly enjoy. (There are certainly much better teachers than me, but for me, this is the best job I can imagine.) For these reasons, at present, I am investing most of my energy in Japanese language teaching and Japanese language teacher training.

Image courtesy of Dr. Uchikawa Kazumi