The reminiscences of Takeshi Koike: encounters with the Welsh language







By Dr Takeshi Koike

It was August 1992 when I first set my foot on the soil of Cymru. That’s when I was sent as an exchange student from Obirin University, Tokyo, to Saint David’s University College, as it was called at that time. I didn’t choose to go to Wales myself. It was my university that chose Wales for me. I remember that at the interview, to the question “What would you like to do when you go abroad, apart from studying English?”, I said “I would like to sing songs!”. I wonder what my interviewing professors thought of me, but anyhow they chose Wales for me, maybe because Wales is indeed famous for the people’s love of singing. I went to Wales anyway, and it was Lampeter, and that was the beginning of a big change in my life.

The contract between Obirin University and Saint David’s College even specified what courses I should take. Apart from the English language course for international students, I could only take courses from the Department of Religious Studies (because it was a staff member of this department who started the contract), and courses from the Welsh Department. That was because they deemed the level of English of Obirin students to be too low for them to take courses from other subjects such as literature or philosophy. But in the Welsh language course Japanese students would study Welsh together with other British or European students who were absolute beginners, so a high level of English wouldn’t be required. Therefore I had to take Welsh lessons whether I wanted to or not. However, I fell in love with the language. Why? Probably it was because I was in Lampeter, studying Welsh in a town where people actually spoke it as their everyday language.

I remember learning phrases such as “Ga i fara, os gwelwch yn dda” in a Welsh lesson at the college, and in the afternoon I would go shopping at a small bakery called Mark Lane, and say that phrase to the ladies behind the counter. They looked at me with surprise, and then smiled back at me and talked to me in Welsh. I would feel so welcome in the little shop.

I was also a member of a choir at Saint Peter’s Church. On the one hand I loved singing so much, and on the other hand, I was interested in Christianity. At that time, the vicar there was Timothy Morgan, a Welsh speaking priest. Services were given both in Welsh and in English. So the sermons would be in both languages, and the Welsh and English hymns were sung. The experience trained my ears and tongue to be fit for understanding and speaking Welsh.

Quite amazingly, the wife of the vicar, was my Welsh teacher at the college. And the vicar and the wife/teacher often invited me for Sunday lunch after the Sunday service. There I met their family; their (now late) mother Mam-gu, and their two sons. Spending time with this family I was immersed in a Welsh speaking environment. At first they used English with me, but later on they started to treat me as a Welsh speaking person. I remember Gwen shouting in the house whenever she heard the boys speaking to me in English, ‘Siaradwch gydag e yn Gymraeg!”

For Christmas they gave me a present, a cassette tape. That was a tape of harp music by a harpist Delyth Medi, who is now a choir leader of Côr Merched Canna. I listened to the harp and her singing. The sound of the strings felt very mysterious; it was like a quiet invitation to an unknown world, maybe an experience of Pwyll in the Mabinogi who lost himself in the wood during hunting, to meet the king of Annwfn (“The Other World”). One tune that was extremely thrilling was one called “Tangnefeddwyr” (Peacemakers). At that time, with my understanding of Welsh there was no way I could understand what the singer was about. I took the tape to a certain school teacher I had met before (now I can’t remember when or how nor even his name). Somehow I felt they could explain the lyric. I knocked on the door and showed him the tape and told him I would like to know what the song was about. He let me in and took me to the living room. They played the tape. I remember, as soon as the song started, his and his wife’s faces turned into a state of bliss and awe. After the song the man immediately stood up and took me to his school by car. That was quite late at night. But it didn’t matter. He took me to his office, opened his locker and took one book, opened one page, took a photocopy of it and gave it to me. It was a poem, entitled “Tangnefeddwyr”. The teacher explained, “this poem is written by a Welsh poet Waldo Williams. He was a pacifist. He wrote about his parents who were also pacifists. During the war when Swansea was bombed, he would watch from the hill the rosy burning sky above the town and remembered how his parents used to teach him Christian values such as brotherhood and forgiveness, which he thought were being forgotten”.

I went home and literally devoured the lyric by looking up every word in it in my Welsh-English dictionary. I could understand certain simple sentences like “Mae gwirionedd gyda ‘nhad, mae maddeuant gyda ‘mam” (my father knew the truth, my mother knew forgiveness) without much difficulty. But most lines needed more knowledge of Welsh grammar than I had at that time. However, there were lines I could just manage to get the gist of, and they thrilled me to the bones; “Cenedl dda a chenedl ddrwg, dysgent hwy mai rhith yw hyn; ond goleuni Crist a ddwg ryddid i bob dyn a’i myn” (a good nation and bad nation, they taught me that that was only a myth; but the light of Christ will bring freedom to everyone who believes in Him). Of course this line was to be understood in the context of that age when many people would talk about “Axis Powers” as “bad nations”. But the message is still relevant. At that time I was a little fed up with some narrow-minded Welsh nationalistic view praising Wales above others (I don’t know whether such views are real or only imaginary in my head). The mere knowledge of a poet in Wales who would regard such discrimination, separating “good nations” from “bad nations” as “a myth” gave me comfort and deepened my love for Wales. Wales is not just beautiful or full of wonderful songs. This country is, I felt and is, I still believe, based on values which can be shared by anyone of good will in the world; peace, truth, forgiveness, and brotherhood. With this poem I really felt Wales is an inclusive, never exclusive, country.

As my one year’s stay in Lampeter was about to end, the Morgan family gave me wonderful presents; the Bible in Welsh, the Liturgy Books, the book of Welsh folk tales, and Waldo Williams’ poetry book called Dail Pren. Thanks to this, when I went back to Obirin, I managed to write a graduation thesis on Waldo Williams, esecially about his idea of brotherhood.

Now I am a university lecturer at Daito Bunka University, Tokyo, Japan. Apart from courses on English Linguistics and History of English, I teach a course named “Wales: The Culture And The Language”. In the lectures during the first half (45 minutes) I talk about various aspects of Welsh culture (the red dragon, the flag, Dewi Sant, food culture (how to make bara brith!), sport, especially rugby, just to name a few), and the other half is spent on the language, using a textbook (Ue-ruzu go no Kihon “Basics of Welsh”) which I wrote myself with my colleague called Nagata Yoshifumi. This year I have some 80 students. It’s quite amazing to hear 80 students pronouncing in chorus “p’nawn da, shwdych chi?” in the middle of Tokyo. They always say it’s a difficult language compared with English. Nevertheless they seem to enjoy learning it.

Students sometime ask me why I study Welsh. My answer is always this. “I study Welsh in order to find out, through the medium of this language, something wonderful, interesting, amazing about Wales which I do not know yet. And I would like to share it with people in Japan.”

In Japan, there are a handful of people (I would say one hundred?) who study academically about Wales (history, literature, and language, etc). Of them, older or middle-aged people tend to be people who encountered Wales almost by accident, like me. For example someone went to the UK to study English and the language school happened to be in Cardiff or in Bangor. But nowadays, the knowledge of Wales as a distinctive nation in the UK is getting more and more widespread in Japan, and accordingly more and more people go to Wales intentionally. I would like to contribute to our further and deeper knowledge of Wales. It is a good thing to be able to learn about Wales and to study Welsh in Japan. But I want people to actually visit Wales, because they cannot experience the feeling of “being invited to the unknown world (Annwfn) ” unless they are in the country themselves.

Takeshi Koike is an associate-professor in English Linguistics at Daito Bunka University, Tokyo, Japan. As well as English, he teaches Welsh and Welsh culture at the university and a language school. He’s also a chair of Cymdeithas Astudiaethau Cymreig Siapan (Japan Society of Welsh Studies).

Categories: Culture / Diwylliant

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