Spotlight Iowa City: Bringing Japanese culture to Iowa City

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By: Samantha Baehr, The Daily Iowan

In Japan, Yume Hidaka’s baby nephew is awaiting a special omiyag — souvenir — a Hawkeye shirt.

Hidaka, 27, the University of Iowa’s newest Japanese Outreach Initiative coordinator, is experiencing Hawkeye culture for the first time but with a Japanese twist.

She mingled with around 20 UI students on Sept. 21 during ocha no ojika — Japanese tea hour — in which students come together to speak Japanese.

“I love when people talk to me in Japanese, even if they don’t know too much,” the Kagoshima native said as she walked in, pausing her conversation with friends.

Earlier that day, she participated in a Q&A session with UI lecturer Kuriko Mizuno’s fourth-year Japanese students. She interacted with ease and encouragement with some students who appeared nervous and flushed. Her smile was constant, and she often repeated her answers for students’ comprehension.

“I am learning English every day, and I started learning in high school,” she said. “I had a very cool English teacher, and it didn’t take me long to become interested in the language.”

Hidaka will be in residence for two years as the Japanese Outreach Initiative coordinator, a position that has her traveling throughout Iowa to deepen residents’ understanding of Japan and Japanese culture.

The program is a grass-roots exchange created by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the Laurasian Institution. It has been active nationally for the past nine years.

“Many people think of Japanese people as being shy,” said Chiemi Hanzawa, a UI Japanese TA. “But Yume is very easy to talk to and outgoing, which is great for her position.”

Responsibilities of the position include giving free presentations in many different settings, from school groups to senior centers to library groups. The topics Hidaka covers range from traditional Japanese clothing to more serious issues, such as Japan’s aging problem.

“I want to talk to someone who has no experience with Japan and knows nothing about the culture,” she said.

Though enrollment in Japanese language classes has increased at UI over the years, Hidaka will only spend one third of her time at the university.

Hidaka first journeyed outside Japan more than 10 years ago — to Los Angeles on a trip to visit her family.

“The trip inspired me a lot, as well as motivated me to continue to study English,” she said. “It also gave me the dream to work on an international level.”

Hidaka will stay with three different families during her time here. Currently, she is staying with Lynette Marshall, the president of the UI Foundation, who noted Hidaka’s outgoing personality.

“She has been delightful and willing to do all sorts of new things,” Marshall said. “We’ve enjoyed learning about Japan through her.”

This article appeared in The Daily Iowan.
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