Professor Gavin Furukawa is an assistant professor in the Department of English Studies in Sophia University, specializing in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. After leaving college at 18, professor Furukawa worked for nearly 20 years before returning to university to pursue multiple degrees. He earned his B.A. in Humanities at the University of Hawaii at West O’ahu and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
Recently, he sat down with the editors of the student journal Angles, to discuss his career, his work, and his teaching.
Angles Editors: Could you first tell us briefly about your life experience?
Professor Furukawa: I grew up in Hawaii. I’ｍ the 4th generation of Japanese American so all of my great-grandparents were all from Japan originally. I did not do the traditional college run through. I tried college for a little bit and I didn’t like it. So I dropped out at 18 and went to work at a store. I worked there for maybe 20 years, and after working for about 14 years I started thinking, well you know the first time I went to college I was going become a high school teacher and I just figured well that was the only avenue that I saw for myself. The only direction I saw for myself. I couldn’t think of anything that I really wanted to do but when I turned 31 or 32 I started thinking you know I can go back to college. At that time my feet were starting to get tired of working at the store. It’s a lot of work. I don’t want to retire like this. I want to go back to school. So I went back to school and I had to start from the beginning. All the students were way younger than me and I went through and did my AA which is an Associate’s degree. Then I did my BA then I did a Master’s degree. and I wasn’t even going to do a Ph.D. originally. after I did my masters, I decided to go all the way to the Ph.D. And after getting my Ph.D., I came to Japan to teach at Tokyo University. I taught there for 3 years. and then I came over here!
Angles Editors: Why did you decide to become a high school teacher when you were young?
Professor Furukawa: I started to think it was the only thing that made sense to me at the time to become some kind of teacher, and if you had told me at the time, that I would become a college professor I would not have believed you. I didn’t think that I could become a college professor. No one in my immediate family had graduated from university. My father was a construction worker, my mother, I think she took 2 years of university and became a bookkeeper. At the time I had a younger sister but no older siblings, so no one in my family had successfully graduated from university except for a half-uncle, who went to Princeton, but other than that no one else from my family had. I thought the best thing I could probably do is become a high school teacher. I thought I was fairly smart, so I thought I could do something like that and I didn’t want to do bookkeeping like my mother, so I wanted to teach English. I thought that was a good direction.
Angles Editors: So you also majored in English when you went back to college.
Professor Furukawa: Yes, when I went back to college for my AA, there was no real major for the two-year degree because it was general liberal arts and when I did my BA, the four-year degree, that one was a major in Humanities/ Literature, which also included film.
Angles Editors: How did you feel about Japan when you first landed here?
Professor Furukawa: Okay, so the first time I came to Japan, it was before I moved here. I first came to Japan, I think it must have been the year 2000, the first time I came to Japan. I started to study Japanese, well I took classes in High school, two years of Japanese but do you know when you learn a language for two years, all you can say is “これはペンです。/ This is a pen.” or “これで書きます。/ I will write with this.”, ”ペンと鉛筆どちらが良いですか。/ Which do you want, pen or pencil?” nothing useful, right? I took two years in High school, I started taking it in college, but of course I dropped out of college but after that I really wanted to learn Japanese as a Japanese-American, I really felt sad that no one in my family, except for my grandmother could speak English and Japanese, but no one else in my family could speak it. I really wanted to learn it so, I started studying on my own, from TV and then to test myself, in 2000 I traveled to Japan on my own for seven days and I loved it, I absolutely loved it. I went to almost every night to a different izakaya, I would just talk to people who sit there, start talking stories with them and it gave me a good chance to practice my Japanese. I loved it.
Angles Editors: What was the best experience at the time?
Professor Furukawa: The best experience was seeing the depachika/デパ地下 in Isetan.
Angles Editors: Why?
Professor Furukawa: Well because, I heard about the depachika on TV, I don’t know if you know but the biggest depachika is in Shinjuku, so I really wanted to go to a depachika and I figured “oh, Isetan in Shinjuku is pretty good so let’s go and see it”, the first time I went there, I really felt like I can’t even see the far wall, I couldn’t see where it ends, to see it go on forever and I thought “This is so amazing!”, there were different things and everything looks so pretty and it gave me a chance to go up and to talk to the sales people to ask what was in everything, so it was really great and that was the most fun memory.
Angles Editors: What do you think about students at Sophia University?
Professor Furukawa: Well, first I started to work at Tokyo University, and students there are quite different. Number one, the gender division is almost the opposite. At Tokyo University, a lot of times, it’s like 90 percent male. I would have classes that were maybe 18 students and 18 of them would be men or 18 students and one woman with 17 men and whereas Sophia its quite the opposite, you get a lot of women students so that makes me happy, I was really upset by the fact that at Tokyo University there were so few female students so it bothered me, “Why aren’t there more women in this university?” so coming to Sophia was real pleasant change, as far as I’m concerned and interesting enough, I find that Sophia students are really talented with English. So that makes certain things easy, so I’m quite pleased with the Sophia students. They are very sincere, they work very hard and they are pretty smart so it’s a great school.
Angles Editors: Can you tell us how you got started in your field?
Professor Furukawa: That’s an interesting one. Well, so I consider myself as a socio-cultural linguist and I got my Ph.D. in second language studies. I told you I learned a lot my Japanese from TV. I took two years in high school and the rest I got from TV. One of the TV shows that made a really big impact on me, even though I didn’t watch the whole series, but it really made a big impact was, there was an NHK morning drama at the time that filmed in Hawaii called Sakura. It was about a Japanese-American who decides to go teach English in Japan. That started airing right when I decided to go back to school and they were filming on the university campus. So I watched a few episodes and thought this is quite interesting, and I thought that might be kind of fun for me, that would be quite enjoyable. That’s sort of what started me of the idea of teaching in Japan. So once I got my BA in English literature, I thought well if I wanted to I could do the thing with JET, I could teach things high school, but I thought you know I would rather teach in a university. That’s why I decided to go for the graduate degree.
Angles Editors: Interesting. So what was the biggest challenge you have early in your academic life?
Professor Furukawa: Starting college again. When I started college again, I must have been about 32, 33 years old. I was working full time, I had a full-time job 40 hours a week and on top of that I decided to go back to school. The very first semester, we have a lot of distance learning in the United States, so I took two classes from my local college right near my house that offered classes online. I took two classes just to see if I could handle that while working 40 hours a week at the same time. I did that for two semesters, two classes. It was relatively easy. So after about two semesters like that, I decided maybe try to take some real classes. Go in person instead of online. So I went for some real classes and that was also easy. Then I decided to go to work full time and become a full-time student. The most I took was six. Six classes in one semester while working 40 hours a week, that was really hard, managing that and not a part-time job, a full-time job was the biggest challenge to manage my schedule.
Angles Editors: After starting your career, what was the biggest challenge?
Professor Furukawa: After starting my career, you mean after I got my Ph.D.?
Angles Editors: Yes, after you start to teach.
Professor Furukawa: At Tokyo University, there were two kinds of classes that my department was teaching, one was a writing class for humanities and science students and the other was a listening/ speaking class that was a brand new course. After about a year, I was put in charge of the listening and speaking program and that was quite a challenge because particularly in Tokyo University, the students didn’t want to speak so finding ways to do things that made it easier for students to actually use English, which I think except for Sophia, most universities have a real big problem with that in Japan. Sophia is the exception. That was the biggest challenge being in charge of the speaking program and trying to find ways to help all Tokyo University students who hate speaking English in front of other people, even in Japanese many of them don’t like speaking in front of other people, much less than in English. Doing that was a really tough challenge.
Angles Editors: How did you overcome it?
Professor Furukawa: The situation at the time was that the students were assigned randomly into these classes and when you have that, you have these students who have never studied outside of Japan, only gone to a regular Japanese High schools, so their English proficiency is really low, and at the same time you might have one or two Kikokushijyo/帰国子女 and that would be just horrible because regular students would see them talking and think, “I don’t want to say anything in a class with that person because they are going to make me look stupid” so they would never do it. Then we decided to start streaming them so I had to devise, create a testing system for Tokyo University which all Tokyo University students had to take, in fact, they are still taking my test. Every year on the first day of the semester, they take the test that I created and that is quite flattering and really proud of that. I used everything that I studied in graduate school, how to work with second language speakers, to create this testing system to help. Low students can be together speaking together and high students can be talking together because there’s less embarrassment there
Angles Editors: It is a serious problem how the Japanese kids not being able to speak English but also can’t communicate with people, how do you think we could solve that issue or improve that problem in the Japanese education system?
Professor Furukawa: It is a really big problem. I believe it is this thing that some Japanese researchers have called it the “Seiyou-complex/西洋コンプレックス” like a fear or complex of western things, including English. What happens is that some Japanese have this kind of complex about speaking English and westerners in general and then they graduate college and some of them become English teachers that have these complexes and then they pass it on to the students. The students get it from the teachers and the next generation of students get if from their teachers too. The same thing with the parents, parents pass it onto their children. It’s about breaking that cycle. It’s about making one big sudden shift, all at once where we just make these high-level demands of students to use it more and once if we can get one whole generation to start doing that, then we’ll have broken the cycle.
Angles Editors: So back to the academics questions. What new ideas or recent discoveries in your field excites you?
Professor Furukawa: Within sociolinguistics there is this new research called trans-languaging, which calls into question a lot of beliefs that, that all of the applied linguists and English studies people believe, and trans-languaging people started to say maybe some of those old beliefs aren’t true. Because in a lot of the ways people are starting to use different languages all across the world, kind of make it harder to tell where is the boundary between one language and the other languages. For example, in the case of Japan. There are some cases where people start to use English and Japanese in such a way that the boundary between English and Japanese is no longer clear. You cannot always say that this word is Japanese or English, sometimes the word is both. So that is what trans-languaging is about.
Angles Editors: What kind of texts and articles that you would recommend to students who are interested in the field?
Professor Furukawa: If they are interested in discourse analysis which I do there is a book by Deborah Schiffrin called “Approaches to Discourse.” This is a really good book that explains the kind of research that I do.
Angles Editors: What are some of the ideas or experience that you hope students who take your class can come away with?
Professor Furukawa: I hope, particularly if they take my sociolinguistics class, that they can come away with the same interest and passion. I remember taking sociolinguistics for the first time for me as a graduate student. It was the most interesting class. I had the most interesting discussions in that class. I got really excited. That’s when I started to think. Before, if you asked me if I want to become a researcher, I felt that was so boring. But after that class, I started to think if researchers do this, this is a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it, it was really unique. So I hope students kind of come away from sociolinguistics class with the same appreciation of which I got. It is a really exciting and intriguing thing to do research on. In terms of my English classes, I hope that students can be a little less afraid of using English. If they can feel more a bit of confident whether it’s speaking or writing or anything. They can feel that “my English is good and I have things to contribute to English.”
Angles Editors: What is your goal of teaching at Sophia?
Professor Furukawa: I would say my goal is to expand the amount that students can see and understand about English itself. I really want students to think critically about English. I don’t want them to just become English speakers who think that we have to speak English because we have to. I want them to think critically about it. I want them to kind of become citizens who have a voice about their own education. Most Japanese students just do whatever that they are supposed to do and they don’t think about who are the people making these decisions and what are they basing these decisions on. Are these decisions good for us or not? For example, earlier is better, which is not always true. If you studied applied linguistics, there are benefits to study early, but there are benefits that adults have from studying as well. So it is not always earlier is better. I hope that students will start to take possession of their own English education when they become 社会人 and become parents themselves. Not to just go along with the flow because they are supposed to.
Angles Editors: It is really meaningful…
Professor Furukawa: Yes. Because as a Japanese-American, when you are in America, we come from a lot of different countries or ancestors originally. But one thing that is really in common, is that a lot of Americans really love and respect the country of their ancestors. So if you talk to Italian-Americans, they love Italian food and Italian culture. When they are speaking English, they pepper it with a lot of Italian words. Similarly, as a Japanese-American, I love Japan and I want Japan to be the best Japan it can possibly be. I think this is the one area that Japan sort of held back a little bit for all different reasons. That’s part of my goal is to help make Japan a better Japan.
Professor Furukawa teaches courses in English Skills, English Composition, Academic Writing, and Sociolinguistics. To learn more about his ideas, please take his courses or read his numerous publications.