In 2011, the Japanese Language Program (JLP) in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (ALC) didn’t have enough students to fill up the classes it had planned for the semester. Administrators in ALC had been stymied by the situations, suggesting that some JLP lecturers be shifted from full-time to part-time status. But JLP Director Mayumi Oka knew what to do.

“Enrollment was down so low after the disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” Oka explains, “so I took a no-payment break of one semester so that I could protect my colleagues’ income. But that alone wasn’t enough. We knew that we had to do something to help our program to get more students to join us, so we figured out what was appealing about studying Japanese and did some promotion to return enrollment to its previous levels.”

Since Oka joined the department in 2000 and became the director of JLP in 2004, the JLP has gone from being a solid program with unrealized potential to, according to Oka’s assessment, one of the best Japanese programs in the country. Serving between 650 to 700 students every year, the program is particularly remarkable for its upper-level retention rates, where about 100 students study very advanced Japanese.

But there were challenges in making the program strong. Even before the 2011 dip in enrollment, one major factor for student involvement at the upper level was the lack of a comprehensive and compelling textbook for third-year Japanese language students. Oka and her team couldn’t find one that they thought was good enough, so they wrote it instead.

“That was a big project,” Oka says with a laugh. “We started working on it in 2004 and then, in 2009, it was published. At that time, we just wanted to use this textbook for our students in U-M and so there would be a strong textbook available. Now, it’s used all over the world, in Europe and Oceania and Asia and, of course, in the United States.”

Stronger Students

Oka received her master’s degree from the University of Rochester. From there, she taught Japanese at Sophia University in Japan, at Columbia University, and at Princeton before moving to Ann Arbor and teaching at the University of Michigan. She has published nine Japanese books (some of them co-authored), including volumes on the training of Japanese rapid reading skills and a dictionary of common metaphors between English and Japanese. In addition, three more co-authored books with her colleagues will release in a few years.

“I adored the U-M students I met when I came here, actually,” Oka says. “And I knew then that they had a very strong potential to be good Japanese speakers and to really gain proficiency in the language. I knew we could do a lot here, and I was inspired a lot from my U-M students to produce these books.”

The affection and respect that Oka felt for her students was and continues to be mutual.

LSA student Jordan Cleland studied with Oka for her entire first year in the Japanese language program. Cleland attributes the joy she found in language study for changing her mind about her academic plan—she went from being a single major political science student to a double major political science and Japanese language student—and for changing her career trajectory. Cleland now hopes to go to graduate school to continue studying Japanese language and culture after graduating and to eventually become a translator.

Asian studies major Sakila Islam also worked with Oka during her third year of Japanese study, and remembers the experience fondly.

“I still remember her as the teacher who would share funny personal stories with us in class,” Islam says. “I quickly realized how devoted she was to her students when I started going to her office hours to share my worries and questions about moving forward with Japanese. The fact that I can always rely on Oka-sensei to help me find a solution to my problems is unimaginably reassuring.”

LSA student Noah McNeal, a physics and math major, says he didn’t know if he’d be able to balance language learning classes along with his STEM work. But learning a language kept him grounded, and he stuck with the coursework and even found time to participate in a traditional performance of Japanese Rakugo and to co-found the Japanese Language Circle club on campus. It was at the Japanese Language Circle that he interacted most with Oka.

“We were fortunate to receive support from the Japanese language program and to work with Oka-sensei on developing a relationship between our student organization and the department,” McNeal says. “Her generosity and guidance has been an important part of our success.”

“I talk to Oka-sensei a lot,” Cleland says, “and I want to thank her for the skills she’s given me and the grace she’s shown me in this whole endeavor. Even when I didn’t have her as a sensei, she always made time to communicate with me about my post-graduate endeavors. She’s just so willing to help you and talk to you, and I totally appreciate her.”

“Once, during an announcement,” McNeal recalls, “Oka-sensei expressed her hope that we would move from seeing Japanese as only a hobby toward having it be part of our lives. After all, when you learn a language, you take part of its culture with you, and you can’t separate it from its context, from the people that give it life.”  

Leaving a Legacy

As the director of the JLP, Oka does even more than directing and educating U-M undergraduates.

Oka also runs a Japanese pedagogy course during most summers, where both U-M undergraduate and graduate students, other current Japanese instructors, and Japanese people who want to teach Japanese can train and learn here, benefiting from the program’s—and Oka’s—expertise. In this course, she also trains many Ph.D. candidates with an interest in language instruction, which can help candidates looking for tenure track professor positions to fill a wider range of potential positions. Oka has taught and trained about 200 Japanese instructors through her course and sent them out into the world.

Now that the program is on such a strong footing, Oka is thinking about the next chapter of her own life.

“It took almost 15 years, and now I’m thinking of retiring,” Oka says. “My younger colleagues are all excellent teachers. I’ve learned a great deal from all of them, and I think they are ready to make JLP really flourish.”

Along with a major donation, Oka and her husband made a bequest of $3 million to strengthen the Japanese Language Program in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Center for Japanese Studies financially. The money will be used to financially support study abroad opportunities for students and for professional development and for other purposes for Japanese language education.

“I recently asked one of my upper-level classes if anyone had been to Japan,” Oka says. “And only 8 out of 20 had been there. They are studying Japanese so seriously for years, but they don’t have a chance to go to the country.

“I want to support these students. Even just to visit Japan for one or two weeks would be great. If students can speak with some people in Japan, I think it can be such an instructive and enjoyable experience.”

Mayumi and Masao Oka were recognized for their generosity during a ceremony at Weiser Hall that included remarks by Dean Andrew Martin and Center for Japanese Studies Director Kiyoteru Tsutsui.

“We thought that it would be very meaningful for us to use our assets to support the Japanese language program, students of Japanese, and the Center for Japanese Studies community,” Oka said in remarks at the ceremony.

“At first, my husband and I wanted to make this donation anonymously. However, our donation coordinator, Gail, suggested that by clearly expressing our wishes for the fund, we would help ensure that they are realized, and that by making the donation public we can encourage others to make similar donations,” Oka said. “We appreciated the advice.”

Oka will also be donating royalties from her books, including many best-selling textbooks from around the world, to the fund in the hopes of supporting students, staff, and Japanese language and cultural education at U-M for many years to come.

“If we can experience different cultures when we’re young, it can mean a big life change,” Oka says of her family’s gift. “I want all of my students to have this opportunity. And I think that supporting my students and colleagues, it’s very worthwhile.”

Lastly, Oka added, “By doing this, I can continue to be involved with Japanese education at U-M, which has been my passion, even after I am gone.”


Photos by Natalie Condon