Japanese professor’s love for teaching lasts beyond retirement

Grace Holladay and Grace Holladay

Akiko Kawano Jones, teaching professor emeritus in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at BGSU, has a daily routine of offering a warm, “Ohayo gozaimasu” to her class. She has been instructing students at BGSU in Japanese language and culture since 1983, and has served the university as its director of Asian Studies from 2005 to 2019.

For her, teaching is a labor of love, and a journey that began years ago in Nishinomiya, Japan.

Kawano Jones spent part of her childhood in Okayama, Japan, alongside her family and grandparents. When she was of elementary school age, she moved to Nishinomiya, a city between Kobe and Osaka. There, she attended Kobe College Junior High School, a highly-competitive and revered school for girls. It was here where she would experience her first exposure to foreign language education.

“In those days, it was very hard to learn English because schools were teaching in the traditional way. [Kobe College Junior High School] was missionary, but was very famous for teaching English because we had American teachers [with a] special way of teaching English to the Japanese. So, that really made me desire to come to the United States. Kobe College Junior High School really made me as I am when I was young,” Kawano Jones said.

With the guidance of her teachers, she discovered her passion for English. In the ‘60s, the prospect of women in positions of business in Japan was uncommon. However, the disciplines of teaching language, as well as music, symbolized great sophistication in an individual. Kawano Jones had spent time learning the piano, much to the elation of her mother. Yet, she did not wish to pursue music, instead turning her sights toward English language education.

“I was asked to tutor children when I got to college. Students who were juniors in high school needed to have tutoring, and then my teachers in high school referred them to me. So, I was tutoring too, teaching English. It was so fun to motivate other people to learn something and make a little difference. That got me into teaching. Teaching language and learning language was my desire,” she said.

Kawano Jones was elected by Kobe College’s president to be the secretary for anything English-related. While she was serving in this position, the president was asked to find someone who would be able to teach Japanese at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

After her graduation, the president recommended Kawano Jones for the position. The job would have her working with the university’s professor from Japanese Studies as an assistant instructor, as well as teaching honors students at the local high school. Bucknell was one of few east coast universities in 1970 to have a Japanese program.

“So, 51 years ago, I came here to the United States,” Kawano Jones said.

She arrived with a plan in place of staying for only 10 months.

“When I went to Bucknell, it was so different. I am a city type. I would think, ‘Oh my goodness, no department stores?’ No taxis?’” Kawano Jones said.

Urbanity was not the only difference she would be facing. Citizens’ awareness between the United States and Japan in the ‘70s was nowhere near the level it has reached today. When the question would arise of where she was from, Kawano Jones often wouldn’t expect people to understand the answer.

“‘Oh, I’m from Japan. You probably don’t know Japan,’ and they didn’t,” she said.

Knowledge of the country in the U.S. was largely based on their exposure to books or other media, rather than firsthand travel or conversation with a Japanese native.

“I went to the elementary schools when they asked me to come in and talk about Japan, and the children would ask, ‘Where is Japan? Did you live in the paper house?’ Because they read [this in] books. ‘What would you do when the wind blows or the rain [falls?] [Do] you have cars?’” she said.

She wanted to stay in the United States and continue to teach, but her visa was coming to an end. The university worked to have her visa extended from three to four years, but the difficulties nearly had her overwhelmed.

On top of legalities, Kawano Jones worried about going against the wishes of her parents. However, during a phone call with her mother, Kawano Jones was assured when her mother voiced support for the idea of her staying for another year. While reflecting on this time, she realized just how different her life could have been.

“The congressman had to take care of [the visa] and they had to do a lot of things because I was supposed to be out of the country. So, if I had said, ‘Okay, if this is so much trouble, maybe I’ll go home,’ [and] if I had gone home, I would have had a completely different life,” Kawano Jones said.

        During her time at Bucknell, she met her husband. They met one another through her future father-in-law, who was a professor teaching a course that she intended to take. Kawano Jones remembers the warm welcome that she received from her father-in-law, as he assisted her in getting books that she would use to practice reading English during the summer months. When she and her husband married, it drew some uncertain feelings from her parents.

“My parents are not against Americans at all. However, I was the youngest child, and my sisters are much older, so I’m more like an only child. I was far away. In those days, I didn’t fear

it because I went to a school where there were always American teachers. But, now come to think about it, to my parents, America was still far away,” she said.

After their marriage, she and her husband lived in Arizona before relocating to Virginia. Her husband was pursuing a doctorate in Special Education at the University of Virginia. During this time, Kawano Jones was busy caring for her two children, the only time in her life that she was not teaching.

Once her husband had completed his degree, he applied and was accepted to teach at BGSU. The family moved to Bowling Green in 1982. Kawano Jones remembers that she found it quite easy to adjust to their new life.

But she missed teaching. So, she took a position teaching Japanese at BGSU under the mindset that it would be temporary. She found that she enjoyed teaching at BGSU, and set her sights on growing the small Japanese program. This would not be an easy task, as she still had young children to care for. So, in the late hours of the night, Kawano Jones dedicated her time to the Japanese program.

“I didn’t need much sleep. After the kids went to bed, I could work,” she said.

Kawano Jones forged the university’s Japanese Club with the vision of bringing students to a holistic experience of both Japanese language and culture. She continued to get more involved, taking over as Director of Asian Studies in 2005.

As the Asian Studies program grew, the more people got involved, and the more time she wanted to pour into the program. Kawano Jones feels particularly humbled to have seen interest in Japan among Americans surge from nearly-nonexistent to flourishing, and to have been working throughout it all. Many Japanese teachers in the nation have only been working during one of these two phases.

Kawano Jones cites her job as an important aspect of helping her through her children’s move to college.

“When the children left, I could not go home because I was so sad when I went home alone. So, I stayed in my office. Then, the students started coming all the time, and 7:30, 8 p.m., I was still here,” she said.

Her students became an integral aspect of having her passion realized. The way she sees it, they are agents of connection, encouraging and connecting American people to the real Japan, and by effect, the Japanese to the real America.

Bridging the two countries has always been the foundation of her motivation. She was awarded the Foreign Minister Award from the Japanese government, presented by Fumio Kishida, who is now Japan’s current prime minister. This award recognized her “Promotion of mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S.A,” according to record of the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendations from 2015.

Yet, Kawano Jones’ focus remains entirely on her students.

“I get too attached to the students. Especially when my children left. To me, it becomes sort of Japanese society, a group. My group is my Japanese class students. I want my group to be better than the other ones. Just like when you are a mother,” she said.

This affection can be felt from both perspectives, as psychology student Kari Gottschalk can attest.

“She is the first teacher I’ve ever had that felt like she cared. Our class is a little family and she is the epicenter of it all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a professor care as much as she does, or put as much as she can into her teaching,” Gottschalk said.

Gottschalk took both introductory courses of Japanese under Kawano Jones’ instruction. Her fellow classmate Bailee Brown also took comfort in Kawano Jones’ presence.

“I loved that I had her class for two semesters in a row. It brought consistency to being at college, where everything changes every semester. I got to know someone, and be with someone. In the second semester, instead of being disappointed to have lost my old professor, I got to keep one,” Brown said.

Kawano Jones’ influence does not end at the doors to a classroom. She has also become a role model for fellow professors in the Department of World Languages and Cultures. Ryoko Okamura, assistant professor and fellow teacher of Japanese language and culture at BGSU, remembers a key moment which helped to define the spirit she saw within Kawano Jones.

“It was a cold and snowy day and sidewalks on campus were coated with ice. She told me she [had] worn out her winter boots she just purchased and had to replace them. I thought it must be either winter in BG is bitterly cold or Kawano-sensei walked a lot. Later, I figured out it was both. She is a woman full of energy and opinion, which is not so common to the Japanese women of her generation, and a Japanese person with both Japanese and American cultural traits and minds,” Okamura said.

Christina Guenther, a German professor at BGSU, discovered that she shared a common childhood home of Nishinomiya with Kawano Jones, as well as mutual friends. With neighboring offices on the first floor of Shatzel Hall, Guenther and Kawano Jones have grown a close bond, which Guenther equates to sisterhood.

“During this COVID time, we’ve become isolated. We first started out visiting each other outdoors. But what has been wonderful is, especially on a Friday afternoon, Professor Jones will come over and bring me some green tea. Then we will sip a little bit on the tea. We’re always busy, always passing, but it’s always a pleasure to see each other and chat with one another,” Guenther said.

From her vantage point across the hall, Guenther has seen firsthand the care Kawano Jones holds for her students, in things such as comings and goings from speaking sessions, open office hours, and students just stopping by to talk.

“She’s always doing this for the sake of the students. She’s very dedicated to teaching, she’s very dedicated to the university, but above all, she’s dedicated to [the students.] In that way, she’s been tireless,” Guenther added.

Kawano Jones announced her formal retirement in May, but still plans on continuing to teach students despite this. She states that she is no longer in the phase of life where monetary concerns are a significant consideration, and intends to continue on for the sake of her love of what she does.

“She’s not someone that just quits, no matter how hard. I’m grateful for her class … all she wants is for you to try. I think if it wasn’t for her, I probably would’ve dropped out. Her willingness to always be there, kind of like a grandmother, that’s how she always felt to me,” Gottschalk said.