Hiromi Yoshida, the Japanese who decided to study Euskera without coming to the Basque Country

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.

2017-04-12

Born in Japan, Hiromi decided to study the Basque language without ever having been to the Basque Country. Since then, she comes here every year. She studies and teaches Euskara, and wrote a doctoral thesis on the Euskara spoken in Azpeitia. She has translated a number of books into Japanese, including the first book written in the Basque language Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (Bernart Etxepare), and teaches Euskara at Japanese universities. She has just published a new method for learning Euskera in Japan. To talk about that and much more, we invited her to our office. Let us introduce you to... Hiromi Yoshida.

Born in Japan, Hiromi decided to study the Basque language without ever having been to the Basque Country. Since then, she comes here every year. She studies and teaches Euskara, and wrote a doctoral thesis on the Euskara spoken in Azpeitia. She has translated a number of books into Japanese, including the first book written in the Basque language Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (Bernart Etxepare), and teaches Euskara at Japanese universities. She has just published a new method for learning Euskera in Japan. To talk about that and much more, we invited her to our office. Let us introduce you to... Hiromi Yoshida.


You have been in the Basque Country for about a month but soon you´re getting back to Japan ....

Yes, I usually come here in February and September. In Japan we have a peculiar academic calendar: the course begins in April and breaks for summer holiday. We start again in October, and the university entrance exam is usually in February. Therefore, I take advantage of the free months to come here.

You just published a new method for the Japanese people to learn Basque. How did the idea come about?

The publisher Hakusui-sha, which already has a collection of about 60 books for learning different languages (“New Express Series”), wanted to include Euskara, and asked me to develop the method. I have been working on it for about a year, and although it has been difficult, thanks to my publisher I was able to finish it by December.

To whom is this methodology directed?

To the Japanese people interested in studying Euskara. All explanations are in Japanese. It is meant to be a self-taught method, although it can also be used in a classroom. A CD to learn pronunciation comes with the book.

It sounds strange that a person from Japan can be interested in studying a language so geographically far away. Are there similarities between the two languages?

Yes, definitely. Euskara is an isolated language, with no relatives, and is Japanese too. The Basque language is very different from other European languages, and has more similarities with Japanese; for example, the word order. However, we shouldn’t compare them too much, because they also several have differences. The structure of negative sentences in Euskara, for example, is much more complicated than in Japanese.

Your relationship with Euskara started a long time ago. Among others, you have translated works like Linguae Vasconum Primitiae by Bernart Etxepare, and currently you are a Basque language and culture reader of the Etxepare Basque Institute in Tokyo. What kind of students do you have in the class?

I teach at two universities in Tokyo. The readership of the Etxepare Institute is located in a faculty dedicated to foreign languages and cultures. The faculty has departments dedicated to more than 10 languages, and most of the students who study Euskara come from the department of Hispanic Studies. I also have students of Turkish, Arabic and German studies.

Most of the Euskara students have been to the Basque Country to study; Euskara is very attractive for students of linguistics.

I should also mention that my university class is open to the general public, and this year we had four students from outside the university. One of them is flutist who was attracted by the music of Xuberoa. Another is a photographer, and a fan of the soccer team Athletic Club de Bilbao. I have also had fans of musicians such as Fermin Muguruza.

Curiously enough, there are four main reasons why the Japanese come to learn Euskara: football, gastronomy, music; and of course, linguistics.

How do you begin to teach Euskara to Japanese students?

We start from scratch. In the first class I give general information about the Basque Country (number of inhabitants, different regions, history ...). In the second class we begin with pronunciation, and in the third class we begin to study simple structures.

We have an hour and a half a week, and even though it’s not much time, the students show great progress.

You have a lot of experience learning and teaching Euskara, but one day you started from scratch. What made you study Basque?

I studied English Philology, but I wanted to study a language that was out of the ordinary. I had the opportunity to study Ainu, a language of northern Japan in danger of extinction, but several of my colleagues were already studying it, and I wanted to learn something different.

Coincidentally, professor Suzuko Tamura suggested creating a volunteer group to learn Euskara; he had been learning it for seven months and wanted to keep practicing. We formed a group of five students and that was my first contact with Euskara.

That was my last year of university, and then I started working. After five years I decided to visit the Basque Country and I came to the barnetegi (Basque language school) Maizpide, located in Zestoa. I spent a month learning Euskara and on my return I decided to do a Master’s programme with my final project on Euskara. But not just Euskara. I wanted to concentrate on a specific dialect, Euskalki, and since I did not have the resources to come back to the Basque Country, I got in touch with a nun in Zestoa, who introduced me to a boy from Azpeitia. Thanks to him, I was able to write my thesis on the Euskara of Azpeitia.

Since then my relationship with Basque studies has not ceased, and I visit the Basque Country every year.

You do not live here, but you´ve been watching the Basque language for decades. What evolution have you seen in Euskara?

It has changed a lot. The number of speakers has increased notably, in my opinion thanks to the Ikastolas (primary and secondary schools taught in Basque) and education. Thirty years ago, if you ordered a glass of wine in Euskara in the Old Town of Donostia they might not understand you; nowadays that does not happen. If you go to a Barnetegi, you will also see that there are fewer young students.

In my opinion, it is very important for the number of speakers to increase. But as experts point out, the use and quality of the language are lower than some years ago.

What future projects do you have related to Euskara?

At the moment, I am translating two works; a book of poems by a Japanese author and a short novel. For both, I have help from Basque writers.

I also translate Rakugos. Rakugos are traditional Japanese tales, short and humorous, and after translating them into Euskara, three friends and I recite them. For example, we offer performances in Euskaltegis (schools for learning Basque), to encourage new students. You are all invited!

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