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Sharing Pitt Memories

The Class That Changed My Life


Eric Johnston (A&S ’87):

In the autumn of 1985, about six months after I'd transferred to Pitt, I found myself starting a class I never imagined I'd be in. When my advisor told me that I needed two years of a foreign language to satisfy graduation requirements, I knew there were many choices. Acting on instinct, I signed up for Japanese, recalling the words of my father, who had been stationed in Japan during the Korean War, and had learned some Japanese. “It's easy,” he said.

He must have been kidding. On the first day of Japanese class, I found myself surrounded by about 15 other students. Most were East Asian languages and literatures students. One or two were studying politics or anthropology. All were wondering how difficult the class would be. Some had heard stories that Japanese, along with Chinese, Arabic, and one or two others, was one of the world's most linguistically challenging languages, and Japan was not a country most of us knew much about. With one or two exceptions, none of us had ever been to Japan or knew any Japanese.

What made the class even more interesting is that one of the students was none other than WTAE-TV anchorwoman Sally Wiggin. Despite her busy schedule, Sally was a dedicated, hard-working student who asked for, and received, no special treatment. She had many of the same problems we did with the complex grammar, and we all struggled together with a language that was clearly far more challenging than French or Spanish. Sally and I hit it off and helped each other with homework assignments.

Japanese 101 proved to be a watershed moment in my life. The program, led by David O. Mills, was small enough to allow for almost private instruction. The small department also created a sense of camaraderie between teachers and students. Our Japanese instructors got to know the students as individuals, and we got to know them as not only language teachers but also cultural ambassadors. They went out of their way to ensure we had ample opportunity to practice the language outside the classroom—not an easy task in a city like Pittsburgh at a time before anybody had heard of the Internet. Thanks to their efforts, I met others at Pitt with an interest in Japan and East Asian Studies, and ended up becoming involved in various volunteer projects at Pitt, and in Pittsburgh, connected with Japan.

By the time I graduated in December 1987, I had several friends living in Japan, and had not only completed the foreign language requirement with two years of Japanese but also the first semester of third-year Japanese. In early 1988, determined to build upon the Japanese language foundation Pitt had given me, I left for Kyoto, Japan, where two other Pitt grads were living. They helped me find a job teaching English. I soon found myself in journalism, partly because of my friendship with Sally and my memories of studying with her at Pitt.

Today, after 23 years in Japan, and a journalism career that has taken me all over Japan, allowing me to interview Japanese Prime Ministers in their native language; appear on Japanese television to talk, in Japanese, about the news of the day; and travel to 40 countries on assignment, I look back with fondness on Japanese 101 and everyone at Pitt who got me started and helped me move forward. One of my Japanese teachers later became the wife of one of my friends, another Pitt grad who now serves in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. At my newspaper, The Japan Times, the country’s oldest and largest English-language daily newspaper, a former Japanese exchange student at Pitt covers football for us and is one of only half a dozen Japanese sportswriters who also serve as color commentators when NFL games, including many Steelers games, are broadcast here in Japan. Pitt changed his life, too.