TOHOKY UNIVERSITY Intercultural Co-learning Class 国際共修クラス


ICL in the Covid pandemic

Interviewee: Appointed Associate Professor Yuka Sakamoto (abbrev. Prof. Sakamoto)

Interviewer: Misai Shoji (Fourth-year undergraduate at the School of Economics, an ICL supporter)

Translators: Mio Kobayashi (ICL administrative staff), Walt Wyman


Tohoku University offers approx. 60 ICL courses each year. We have interviewed Prof. Sakamoto, who is offering a course entitled “Understanding Miyagi’s Traditional Culture.” Before the pandemic, both international and home students held group workshops to make decorations for tanabata and presented them at the Sendai Tanabata Festival. This year, however, the course took place online. Due to the spread of Covid-19, some international students were concerned that their study in Japan would be cancelled. We asked Prof. Sakamoto about the pros and cons of offering classes online and her hopes for the future of ICL.


Promoting Traditional Culture in Miyagi Worldwide


Shoji: Could you tell us what your course, “Sharing Miyagi’s Traditional Culture” is about?


Prof. Sakamoto: In this class, we focus on the Sendai Tanabata Festival, which is one of our favourite traditions in summer. Our aim is that the students learn about the traditional culture in Miyagi and promote it using their own words.

We have studied roughly two things this year. Firstly, we learnt about Sendai Tanabata and the Sendai Tanabata Festival. Students researched the history of tanabata in Sendai, and then we invited a couple of guests who run the festival to teach us how to run the event. After that, each group picked a theme, and made decorations for tanabata. Secondly, we had group activities to deepen our knowledge on traditions in Miyagi other than tanabata. For this, we collaborated with a company that runs official social media accounts for the city of Sendai. Groups of students researched traditional culture in Miyagi and posted the result on Sendai City’s official social media platforms.


Smaller Scale Post-Pandemic Classes


Shoji: I understand that your classes were half online and half face-to-face this year. Were there any differences in the number of international students and where they came from compared to pre-Covid?

Prof. Sakamoto: Before the pandemic (2019), there were roughly 60 students in total, of which 70% to 80% were international students. They were from everywhere too, Europe, North America, and Oceania to name a few. On the other hand, this semester (2021 spring semester), there were only 12 students of which 40% were international students. Most of our activities took place online, so the number of students was limited. However, compared to pre-Covid, the number of international students and home students was quite well balanced. The international students were from France, China, and Indonesia, quite limited compared to before the pandemic

Deep Understanding Based on Experience


Shoji: I appreciate that you invited guests from outside of school, and I got the impression that your focus is not only on inside but outside academia. Are there any keys to designing and conducting your classes successfully?


Prof. Sakamoto: A vast majority of the students in this course are international students. Most of the students in my class including some of the home students have never been to the Sendai Tanabata Festival. For this reason, I am making sure that the students cannot learn what I teach anywhere else but here in Sendai. In pre-Covid times, we used to hire a tour guide and had a walking tour to the Sendai Castle ruins, in order to learn about Masamune Date, a regional ruler who spread the tradition of tanabata in Sendai. We also visited a museum specialized in tanabata before we created our own decorations. I want to ensure that I teach them something they cannot learn on the Internet or in the library. I invited guests who run the festival to talk about their passion and struggles concerning the management of the festival as well as the financial benefit the festival brings to the community. In this way, the students can join the festival with a deep understanding of traditional culture in Miyagi.


Restructuring of the Course after the Pandemic

Shoji: Did you face any challenges during the pandemic when most international students had no choice but to remain in their countries? Did you have to restructure your course as a result?


Prof. Sakamoto: When I started the course in April this year, there were already a lot of uncertainties regarding the mobility of the international students and the possible cancellation of the Sendai Tanabata Festival. It was not easy to figure out how to conduct classes online whilst retaining the quality of the contents and providing the students with “first-hand experience that leads to knowledge.” I had to plan around the fact that the students’ experience will be limited this year and decided to increase the project-based group activities and broaden the focus, which had been limited to the Sendai Tanabata Festival, to traditions in Miyagi in general. This led to the collaboration with the Sendai City official social media team I mentioned earlier. I was able to introduce a new way to promote the traditional culture of Miyagi worldwide as well as give students more opportunities to work in groups.


Shoji: I understand that having group activities online is not easy. Were most of the students in the course fluent in English?


Prof. Sakamoto: Not necessarily, no. Moreover, there were a lot of first years who had little with online discussions. In order to make sure that they had successful discussions, I tried two new strategies.


Shoji: What were the new strategies specifically?


Prof. Sakamoto: Firstly, I asked the students to set up “Group Contracts,” rules within the group. I was aiming to make an atmosphere in which the students felt free to speak up and ask questions, which was achieved by ensuring that they knew their roles and rules in the group before discussions. Secondly, I decided to ask for ICL Supporters to be involved in running the course. Their main role was to assist the students in having smooth discussions and give students advice before and after the class.


Shoji: As one of the ICL supporters I myself was astonished by how fast the students learn. There were some students who confided in me that they wished they were more confident during discussions. By the end of the term, however, they were able to speak up more often, which made me quite proud, actually.


Communication Across the Sea

Shoji: Were there any rewarding moments in running the course as a teacher?


Prof. Sakamoto: It was nice to see that students found ways to communicate, despite the challenging situation. I know now that asking ICL Supporters to get involved was a good decision. For those who had little experience in ICL classes, it must have been reassuring to have ICL Supporters who gave them opportunities to talk in/outside of class. I am certain that this was the key factor that led to successful relationships between the beginners and advanced learners in the end. I am delighted to see that they can build close relationships even online. This year, I also sent some students “mini tanabata decoration kits” to make sure that the international students who live abroad could make decorations with a good understanding of what each of the seven decorations represents. As a result, the students told me that they felt close to Sendai even though they were miles away from us. Moreover, they introduced this tradition of Miyagi to their friends and family in their home countries.


Shoji: I remember that some of the international students even made the decorations with their family, and others shared the decorations within their community.


Prof. Sakamoto: Yes, you are right. It is an unexpected but very positive effect that not only the students but also those around them had the chance to enjoy the tradition of Miyagi.


Instead of Giving Up, think about What You Can Do.


Shoji: Because of the pandemic, there are a lot of students who are struggling to find opportunities for multicultural interactions. Is there any advice to those who are interested but unable to join such activities?


Prof. Sakamoto: I understand that in a circumstance such as this we cannot help but focus on the negative side of our lives. However, the most important thing is to do the best you can in the situation. Start from something small by joining events online. Think about what you can do in the situation and take action!


ICL in the Community


Shoji: Are there any particular plans for ICL in the future?


Prof. Sakamoto: ICL is a process in which students with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds deepen their mutual understanding through meaningful interactions. In the future, I would also like to provide a place where students and communities in Miyagi interact and understand each other. Although many things are uncertain right now, I would like to be always creative and adaptable in designing my course.


Shoji: I got the impression that the pandemic showed us new ways of learning.


Prof. Sakamoto: I totally agree. It made me feel like we could do anything if we tried! That brings us back to the message, “taking action” I mentioned earlier. I myself have always thought that I need to try and do new things, and this half a year in the pandemic gave me an opportunity to offer new ways of learning.


Shoji: I am very excited for the future of ICL. Thank you so much for your time.


For your reference:

Check out articles on our students’ experience of making tanabata decorations on our official Facebook page! (Posted on 6/Aug/2021)