Over the course of three months, a study abroad student from Japan has found a way to share his culture at Webster University. The student, Devin Spencer, teaches martial arts, works as a teacher’s assistant for Japanese school students and helps coordinate a Japanese language table at Webster.
“I want to share my idea to all Webster students, if possible all America,” Spencer said. “I can make my good friends and also teach my culture.”
Before coming to Webster, Spencer spent his senior year attending high school in California. While there, he said he did not know enough about Japan to share his culture with other students.
Spencer said he got embarrassed when people asked him questions about Japan that he couldn’t answer. One of his teachers noticed Spencer’s desire to learn more about his home, and she gave him the book “Why Japan is So Popular.” Spencer said he studied the book, along with other materials about Japan, before coming to Webster.
“I studied a lot of Japan in the United States to be a good Japanese person and know about my history,” Spencer said.
Spencer said the second opportunity to study abroad has given him the chance to build upon the experience he had in California. He said he now feels like he is able to answer questions about Japanese culture that he couldn’t before. He compared his last experience to a message on one of his martial arts headbands.
The headband, which depicts two Japanese characters surrounding a red circle, means “always win” in English.
“It is always win in yourself,” Spencer said. “If you make a goal, you have to do it.”
Spencer likes to wear the headband when he practices his martial arts because it reminds him that he can continue to fight, even when he gets tired.
Leading by example
Aori Inoue, Japanese language table coordinator, said Spencer helps her during the language table every Tuesday by facilitating games and projects, starting conversation and sharing his positive energy. She said there is a small Japanese community at Webster, but that when she met Spencer, she knew he would be a leader.
“He helps (the language table) a lot,” Inoue said. “He has very good leadership. He wants to be a teacher someday in his country.”
The language table is an in-person forum held on campus that allows students who take Japanese language classes or those interested in Japan to learn about the culture and speak Japanese.
Spencer also teaches a form of martial arts called Shorinji Kempo on the Quad every Tuesday evening. Inoue brought members of the language table to take Spencer’s martial arts class. She said they enjoyed being able to exercise and have a good time.
Having a good time and building self-confidence is the main idea behind martial arts, Spencer said.
“Martial arts has the power to develop yourself, and it’s so fun,” Spencer said. “So I just want to share, not just only to beat up people. I just want to share and be healthy and have fun with martial arts.”
Spencer has been practicing martial arts for nine months, and he has been practicing Shorinji Kempo specifically for seven months. He has a green belt in martial arts, but he left the belt in Japan because it is special to him. For now, he wears a white belt that matches the rest of his martial arts uniform, which is called a “dogi” in Japanese.
The colors of the belt symbolize different levels of experience in martial arts. White is for beginners, followed by the green belt, then the brown belt and finally the black belt for advanced martial artists.
Spencer said his uniform is one of his “world treasures,” and that he wears it almost every time he practices martial arts. He said his favorite headband is one that translates as “fighting spirit.”
While wearing the headband, Spencer said he’s able to fight for his own “honesty of Japan,” since he can now teach others about his passion for martial arts and Japanese history.
A process of sharing and learning
Spencer’s teaching extends beyond martial arts. He helps teach Japanese third graders math and “Kanji,” which are the characters in the Japanese language, during the Japanese school held at Webster on Saturdays.
Inoue said that teaching the Japanese language can be difficult because it involves learning vocabulary for three or four different levels of respect.
“If you talk to a friend, you use different words, different expressions,” Inoue said. “But if you want to say the same thing to the teacher, you have to change how you say it.”
Regardless of the difficulty, Spencer said he enjoys being a teacher’s assistant because he loves working with kids and teaching.
He will lead a martial arts workshop on Nov. 26 as part of the Culture Festival event hosted by the International Student Association, of which he is also a member. He invites people of all levels to participate.
Spencer said it is unusual for foreigners in Japan to be respected for their passion or different way of thinking. But he said when he came to the United States with a passion for English and martial arts, he received nothing but respect from those he met. He wishes Japan could be more like the United States in that aspect.
Spencer said through his involvement at Webster, his main goal is to help others learn about his culture while gaining knowledge about American culture that he can bring back to Japan.
“I can share what they want to learn, and I can also learn what they learn,” Spencer said. “I can improve myself and they can improve myself.”