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Student organizations strive to get students engaged with Japanese culture

Two Japanese student groups aim to educate students and staff about the culture.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
The groups want to make the broader student body aware of Japanese culture and language.

When Joshua Rowan studied abroad in Japan at Hitotsubashi University in the spring of 2023, he was corrected on how to politely eat noodles, which caught him off guard as an American student.

“Slurping your noodles is considered polite there,” Rowan said. “I remember I was having dinner with a friend and her family while I was there, and her mom asked her why I wasn’t slurping my noodles.”

Rowan said this is one of the many differences between American and Japanese cultures he learned about while studying abroad.

“Japanese culture is just so different and on the other side of the spectrum from American culture,” Rowan said. “Learning about it has really helped me see the world from a different lens.”

Upon returning to the University of Minnesota, Rowan continued to embrace Japanese culture as a part of the Japanese Student Association (JSA), which is one of two student organizations on campus committed to bringing together students who are interested in Japanese culture and language.

Miya Molina, the co-president of JSA, said the organization’s goal is to connect people from diverse backgrounds through Japanese culture.

“We have a lot of events, usually one per month, related to a cultural happening in Japan or a festival that is commonly celebrated during that time,” Molina said.

One event JSA hosts is O-Shogatsu, which is a time of celebration for the start of a new year.

Molina said engaging with the culture has given her a different view of the world and has shown her a new way of thinking.

“In JSA, we try to be very welcoming and friendly,” Molina said. “I think that’s a lot of what Japanese culture is all about, trying to create that great environment where everyone feels welcomed.”

Alternatively, a new Japanese organization on campus is the Japanese Language Association (JLA). While JSA focuses more on connecting people through Japanese culture, JLA is designed to connect people through the language, according to Evelyn Peterson, who founded JLA.

JLA is open to all people, from those just starting to learn Japanese to those who are already fluent in the language. Peterson said she created JLA to harvest an environment where students felt supported learning Japanese.

“We wanted to create this community here on campus where students can have social events, find friends and be able to bond over learning Japanese and the struggles of it,” Peterson said.

Peterson added JLA is a place where students can work together, share resources and receive feedback.

According to Polina Koltsova, a second-year student who co-founded JLA, learning the language and engaging with Japanese culture has helped broaden her worldview.

“It has really helped me understand different perspectives better, and it has given me the opportunity to connect with like-minded people as well,” Koltsova said.

Marnie Jorenby, a senior lecturer of Japanese at the University, said learning Japanese can align with learning about the mutual history and the strong bond between Japan and the United States.

“The study of Japanese also leads to the study of Japan’s relationship with neighboring countries,” Jorenby said.

Jorenby added she has also seen the benefits of learning about Japanese on a more personal level. For example, Jorenby has observed students come out of their shells and express themselves through Japanese culture.

“Some of the art, animation, comedy and things of the Japanese culture are freeing for people,” Jorenby said. “I think students can often see themselves in anime characters, and that’s why they’re so attracted to it.”

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