Once in a lifetime experience – Experience Sendai’s traditional “Suzume Odori (Sparrow Dance)” online
Interview with Teachers
Institute for Excellence in Higher Education, Division of Research in Higher Education at Tohoku University, Global Learning Centre (GLC)
Specially Appointed Assistant Professor: Shota Hayashi
Senior Assistant Professor: Yukiko Shimmi
Interviewer: Saki Sakurai (ICL Supporter)
Translators: Mio Kobayashi (ICL administrative staff), Walt Wyman
Q. Tell us about the passion you have towards this online course
Prof. Shimmi: In this seminar, the students usually participate in the Sendai Aoba Festival as dancers or musicians. I really liked the unique feature of this course and was looking forward to joining the festival this year of course, but unfortunately the pandemic didn’t allow us to do so. Even then, they say that every cloud has a silver lining, don’t they? So, we came up with new ways of teaching the students about traditional Japanese culture without going to the festival by effectively utilising online tools. Because of the pandemic, we had no choice but to do the best we can with the limited resources.
Prof. Hayashi: The biggest selling point of this course was that you were able to attend the festival as performers, and experience the spirit of “頑張り(hard work)”, “道(The Way)”,”集団意識(group consciousness)”. I was terribly disappointed, therefore, that our seminar had to take place online last year, and that the students had very little connection with the locals as a result. This year, therefore, we invited an instructor who taught us how to dance online a couple of times, so the students felt as if they were “attending” the festival virtually.
Q. What was difficult in planning and conducting a course online?
Prof. Shimmi: The biggest hardship, I think, is the fact that we were unable to join the festival as a team. We made sure, therefore, that the students had experience that was close to attending the actual festival in person by practicing the dance, for example. We also had some online sessions where we taught them about various festivals in the Tohoku region and asked them to film themselves dancing the “Suzume Odori” in a small group. By introducing small group activities, we gave them the chance to work together with their classmates.
Prof. Hayashi: I struggled with practicing the dance moves and setting a goal for each class. Last year, we prepared some online study materials available on demand, and asked them to practice dancing at home and film a two-minute video of them dancing. This year, we made sure that they had some group activities by making groups of both home and international students and asking them to film themselves dancing together. We had good feedbacks from our students saying that it was refreshing to work together as a group.
Moreover, I prepared this course this year with the idea of accepting students from abroad in mind. Of course, there were questions whether to have face-to-face seminars and how to make time to practice the dance together, but I am satisfied with our solution of introducing study materials available on demand.
Q. What do you think is the advantage of having classes online?
Prof. Shimmi: Because we didn’t have a big class this year, students seemed to be more willing to contribute to the discussions and group activities than usual. I imagine that having only a small number of students contributed to creating a relaxed atmosphere where students could speak up freely and home students practiced discussion in English without feeling much pressure. By the end of the term, I could see some visible changes in students, which I found quite satisfying.
Prof. Hayashi: We were able to take advantage of the online platform by introducing the official festival website and other online materials to our students. It took us less time to divide a class into groups online compared to doing so in a conventional classroom, which meant that we had more time for discussion.
Q. How did the students react to the online classes?
Prof. Hayashi: Although it is a shame that some international students were unable to come to Japan during the pandemic, I was glad to see both home and international students interact online and have interesting discussions together. Although you don’t have many opportunities to talk about Japan in English when you are in Japan, it happens quite often abroad. I hope that more students who are interested in studying overseas attend the ICL classes as a steppingstone to receiving education abroad in the future.
Q. I understand that TUJP students took this course as well. What did they think of it?
Prof. Shimmi: Yes, we had one joint class with TUJP (Tohoku University Japanese Programme) in the Suzume Odori course. We asked students abroad to dance with us online. Provided with the same fans we use, they seemed to get into the spirit, as if they were going to attend the Suzume Odori festival with us as a team. Their reaction was a very positive one. They even said that they had a once in a lifetime experience in the class, as, even if they could travel to Japan, it is not likely that they could learn Suzume Odori from a professional instructor.
Q. Could you tell us more about your plans for the course in the future?
Prof. Shimmi: As we could not join the festival for two years in a row so far, I am hoping that we are able to have face-to-face classes and perform at the festival from next year onwards. In the first year, we had face-to-face classes with Professor Hayashi, but after that we moved to online classes for two years. I hope to accept participants as soon as possible to form a team, so we have plenty of time to enjoy practicing the dance and music before the festival.
Prof. Hayashi: The experience gave me hope that we can provide our students with interactive seminars even online. Although the ideal situation would be to have face-to-face classes and attend the festival in person, I could also deliver good quality courses online by utilizing the archive of online resources we have built up in these two years. I will keep on advertising the course, so I have as many dancers as possible once conventional classes become the norm again.
Q. Could you give Tohoku Students some advice?
Prof. Hayashi: This course is full of interesting opportunities to think about Japanese culture and talk about your thoughts on it with international students. It is designed as an interactive seminar course with a lot of physical activities. Even if you are not confident enough in your English ability you can still join us, because you will soon learn to communicate with students from abroad through the interactive activities. If you are interested in interacting with the international students, ICL courses are for you!
Prof. Shimmi: I believe this class to be very appealing because you are given an opportunity to team up with international students to participate in the Sendai Aoba Festival. Even if you are not happy with your English proficiency or you don’t know where to start to prepare for studying abroad, this course is relatively easy for you, compared to other ICL courses, because it has interactive activities such as dancing and playing music. If you are interested in working together or talking about Japanese culture in English with international students, this course is for you. Even Japanese citizens have very few opportunities to participate in a renowned, local festival as a performer. A former student once said that they had a “once in a lifetime experience” in this course. This course is conducted in collaboration between Tohoku University and the Aoba Festival Association, which means that professionals visit annually and teach you how to dance and let you dance alongside them in the festival. Thanks to the support the instructors provide, I can guarantee that you will have a “real” Suzume Odori experience.