For Kjell Ericson ’03, living and discovering Japan are family traditions.
Both of his grandparents were Lutheran missionaries who came to the country in the early 1950s. His parents – Solveig Grønning Ericson, who completed his medical training at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and Steven Ericson, an associate professor of history specializing in modern transformation of Japan – grew up in Japan and attended an international school together in Kobe. The extended family earned enough advanced degrees to staff a decently sized Japanese studies department.
So it seemed natural that in 2000, Kjell Ericson traveled to Japan as part of Dartmouth’s Advanced Language Study Abroad, or LSA+, program in which students spend time in countries to learn more about the cultures and languages that they study. Today, Ericson is an assistant professor at Kyoto University. In addition to his college classes, he is teaching a course on pre-modern Japanese history to a new generation of LSA+ students from Dartmouth, who have returned after a COVID-19 hiatus.
Ericson’s advice for these 14 students exploring Japan, given his personal LSA+ experience two decades ago?
“It’s absolutely fine to try to practice (Japanese) as much as possible and make embarrassing mistakes,” he said. “Because no one, including yourself, will remember these mistakes in the future.”
Beyond improving their language skills, Ericson wants students to get out and experience the sights and culture of Japan. He has incorporated regular field trips into his course, taking students to archaeological and historical sites in Kyoto and Nara, two former capitals of Japan, as well as the city of Osaka, where the LSA+ program is based.
We try to look at some of the layers and remnants of different parts of Kyoto’s history.
Kjell Ericson ’03, teaching an LSA+ class in Japan
They visited the majestic Osaka Castle, examined materials found during an archaeological dig in Nara and searched for signs of the grid that former imperial rulers tried to impose on Kyoto.
“We’re trying to look at some of the layers and remnants from different parts of Kyoto’s history and then relate them to processes that are perhaps happening beyond Kyoto as well,” Ericson said.
Ericson grew up in Hanover and the Boston area, but due to his family ties, he had visited Japan before his LSA+ program. He returned after college to teach English and interpret for a few years, then again for a postdoctoral fellowship, which he interrupted to take up a position at Kyoto University.
Ericson generally focuses on modern history rather than ancient history, and due to his scientific background he covers many academic fields.
One of his upcoming projects, conducted jointly with environmental historian Matthew Booker of North Carolina State University and the National Humanities Center, will examine the trade in live baby “seed” oysters from the northeast of Japan to the northwest of the North American Pacific.
“It’s a trans-Pacific story that also closely follows regional stories in Japan and the United States,” he said.
History teacher Steven Ericson, age 2, with his parents and older brother and sister outside their home in Mihara City circa 1955. His parents were Lutheran missionaries in Japan, and their three children got a doctorate in Japanese studies. . (Photo courtesy of Steven Ericson)
While Ericson enjoys taking students out into the field, he uses class time to prepare students for the sites and museums they will visit.
“I really want to think about the significance of these places and how they relate to what we’ve seen in other sites before,” Ericson said.
Allen Hockley, chair of Dartmouth’s Asian Societies, Cultures and Languages program, calls the LSA+ program “life-changing for students.”
Students will occupy a different and more connected world than the one he grew up in, Hockley said, and programs like this provide a rare opportunity to learn about different cultures and ways of life, as well as how to settle in new places.
Japan’s LSA+ program, which was led this term by senior lecturer Ikuko Watanabe Washburn, has changed during the pandemic. The site has moved from Tokyo to Osaka and students no longer live with host families. Instead, they share apartments and dorms with Japanese students, which Hockley says further integrates them into the culture.
“It’s just huge to have them with Japanese students their age,” he said.
And while normally students would go to Japan after just one year of language study, the COVID backlog means students with one, two or three years of Japanese are there together.
One of these students is Michael Bond ’25, who had never been to Japan before. Bond enjoys food and he enjoys visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines more than he expected. He thinks the Japanese instruction he received at Dartmouth has been essential to his survival so far, even if he gets stuck at times.
“It’s really hard to communicate, especially with some random technical terms,” he said in an email. “But I picked up on some, like how to ask to pay separately at a restaurant.”
Kai Zhou ’24 found the Japanese people warm and welcoming. Zhou, of Chinese descent, has been to Japan several times thanks to his family’s love for Japanese culture.
Zhou says that in Japan he can blend in until he starts talking, which is both weird and heartwarming. While growing up in Asia in a predominantly white community had some challenges, “being in Japan makes me feel more comfortable about my appearance…and my existence as a whole,” Zhou said in an email.
Bond and Zhou highly recommend Dartmouth’s LSA+ programs for students interested in languages or studying abroad. Zhou says it’s easy to develop idealized or simplified notions of cultures by studying them from afar.
“You have to visit these countries to even have the chance to understand them,” he said.
The Ericson clan would surely agree. As Steven Ericson said in an email, “It is gratifying that our son Kjell is carrying on the family’s dual tradition of engagement with Japan.”