PRIMARY ADVICE / Drawing inspiration from Japan’s heroes

By Helene J. Uchida / Special to The Japan News I wonder if teaching children about famous Japanese people who mastered English might motivate the children to learn English. What do you think?

N. A., teacher


I think teaching children about a famous Japanese person who mastered English would be a great motivational tool to help create enthusiasm for learning English.

Of course, teachers could select their own “English hero,” but if I were to pick a Japanese person in history, I would select Manjiro Nakahama (1827-1898), known in America as John Manjiro. I think he would serve as an ideal model.

He was 14 years old when his fishing boat was shipwrecked off the coast of Kochi Prefecture. He and his four friends survived on an uninhabited island until an American whaling vessel picked them up en route for Hawaii. On that whaling vessel he took his first steps on deck and learned American maritime procedures and English by trial and error. He learned both skills by doing. His friends were afraid of the foreigners, kept to themselves and had no interest in learning English. Manjiro took risks and failed many times, but he never gave up.

The captain was so impressed with Manjiro’s diligence that he offered him a job on the ship to sail with him from Hawaii to Massachusetts. His friends chose to remain in Hawaii, but Manjiro accepted the captain’s offer and sailed to the U.S. mainland, making him the first Japanese to step on American soil during Japan’s isolation era.

When he entered school in Fairhaven, he was the first Japanese schoolboy in America. He experienced bullying and discrimination, but he never gave up. His dream was to learn as much as he could and return to Japan to share his knowledge. After completing school, he sailed as a harpooner and eventually mined for gold in California to earn enough money for his and his friends’ return passage from Hawaii to Japan in 1851. He was eventually made an honorary samurai for all his accomplishments.

Since Manjiro was 14 when he left Japan, he was close in age to present-day teens. Because of this, I think young people would be able to relate to his story of bravery and courage.

Manjiro had it so much tougher than Japanese students of English do today. He had no teacher, no textbook, no CDs, no dictionary, no report card, no DVDs, no internet, no family support, no one to answer his questions and no one to encourage him. Yet he persevered.

I would go so far as to say I think all junior high students should learn about Manjiro on the first day of their English class in April. I would suggest that Japanese and non-Japanese English teachers nationwide, in public and private schools, at cram schools and at English conversation schools, begin the first English lesson by introducing him and telling his story, elaborating on his bravery, how he took risks, how he never gave up and how he helped Japan transition from its period of isolation.

It’s not easy to learn another language. But today’s present day adolescents have it much easier than Manjiro. Enthusiasm and a good attitude are key.

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Readers are encouraged to send questions to Helene J. Uchida on any themes related to teaching English — particularly those at the elementary and junior high school level — to with “Primary Advice” in the subject line. Questions to Uchida are also accepted via postcard at “Primary Advice,” The Japan News, 1-7-1 Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo 100-8055. Questions should preferably be written in English, accompanied by your name, occupation and the area in which you live.

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Uchida is the director of Little America, a Fukuoka-based company for training teachers of English.Speech

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