Hawk's Eye View: Yoko Kano


Multiple awards, multiple trips abroad and multiple publications. All part of an outstanding career for Yoko Kano, UNCW senior lecturer in the Department of World Languages and Cultures and coordinator of the Japanese Studies minor.

UNCW senior lecturer Yoko Kano

Kano has led more than 200 students and more than 100 K-12 educators and administrators to Japan as part of study abroad programs. Kano also is the director of the UNCW World Language Resource Center, director of the North Carolina Teaching Asia Network and director of Japan Center-Coastal Chapter. In October, Kano received the American Association of Teachers of Japanese 2021 Teacher Award for the college level.

In this Hawk's Eye View, Kano shares about learning from students, the importance of traveling abroad, the growth fostered by speaking another language and more.

What made you get into teaching?

I like learning new things. Teaching is also a learning process. I share my knowledge and experiences with students, but they give me very new outlooks or aspects in return. I learn so much, especially about American society, from my students.

Tell us about your family.

My Japanese family is all back in Japan. I have one sister who lives in Kobe, which is a big town with more than a million people living there. She’s a clothing designer.

My hometown is a small fishing village. There are octopi in our village, so we’re very well known for a food that is an egg ball with octopus meat in it. My mom is from a small fishing village and my father worked for the national railroad as a chief engineer.

They’re there and I go and visit them every summer. I have to go eat some Japanese food. I miss it so much!

I have an American husband whom I met right here in Wilmington. We have a son in high school. He has traveled to Japan with me many times, and to Taiwan. He has a real sense of East Asian culture and life.

What brought you to UNCW?

I got a teaching fellowship and went through a master’s program in New York. Once I finished my degree in education, I started teaching in North Carolina.

I actually began teaching in New Hanover County at Hoggard High School. I got the full-time job at Hoggard and was teaching televised lessons to New Hanover High School and Laney High School. I was teaching from Hoggard with students in front of me and at a distance as well. That was the start of my teaching career in this country.

When I was teaching at the high school, UNCW’s department chair at that time, Jim McNab, asked me to start teaching one course at UNCW at night. I started with one course, then it became four courses in a few years.

At that point I thought maybe I could become part time at UNCW. It’s so difficult to find a Japanese teacher in this area. If I left the full-time job with New Hanover County Schools, they could hire another full-time person and add another teacher in the area. I left New Hanover to start as a part-time faculty member at UNCW. Since then, I have obtained many grants, totaling more than $100,000 of outside funding, for UNCW to offer workshops for educators on East Asia and instructors on Japanese language.

It’s not just me teaching those students or talking to colleagues. We all make some difference in some small way that you may not even notice. It’s just by doing what you can do every single day.

— Yoko Kano

What has made UNCW the place you’ve wanted to stay for so long?

I feel like I started teaching a few years ago. Then I think back and realize it has been almost 30 years!

I like my department and colleagues so much, and my students. My colleagues are so diverse. We have a lot of people from different countries. You don’t just interact with Americans. We’re interacting with Spanish, Portuguese, Latin Americans, Africans and Europeans. We have such a diverse department. It has made me so interested in the people and faculty. And they are such good people and colleagues. They gave me good support.

What does it mean to you to have received the American Association of Teachers of Japanese 2021 Teacher Award?

It’s such a nice award. It really sums up what I have been doing. It’s a very nice souvenir for my teaching career.

I had a ceremony with a video that was from colleagues, former students and former students’ parents with messages of thanks. It was really nice.

It’s sometimes surprising to think I have made a difference or impact on some people. But I think we do, every day.

It’s not just me teaching those students or talking to colleagues. We all make some difference in some small way that you may not even notice. It’s just by doing what you can do every single day.

How have you seen UNCW evolve during your almost 30 years on campus?

UNCW has evolved with the city. I see more diverse students now. When I came to UNCW 30 years ago, I did not see many Asian students. Now, there are so many Asian students and such diversity. The student population as a whole has grown so much.

How has UNCW’s Japanese Studies program changed during your time on campus?

It started with just one course. That became four courses. Then we started the program called Global Virtual University in 1998. I got to talk to Dr. [James] Leutze, the UNCW chancellor at the time, and he started the project with me as a part of it.

Because of that program, my students started corresponding to Japanese students in Japan using older technology. There was no Zoom, but we used the technology we had and a satellite. My students were able to talk to Japanese students while taking culture and language courses.

From that Global Virtual University program, the Japanese program has just grown. Once students realized their Japanese was understandable to students in Japan, they gained such confidence. They feel like, ‘I can maybe do a study abroad.’

Students wanted to go to Japan. Interaction with Japanese peers got them interested in Japan and study abroad. Once students completed the study abroad, they got so many credits within Japanese language.

They felt like they wanted to have a minor, or something, to indicate how many Japanese language credits they had. The students started asking about creating a minor. So we started making a minor. It’s an interdisciplinary minor with religion courses, history courses, international studies and film studies. It has grown — all from student interest.

Why has studying abroad been such a focus of yours?

I was an exchange student myself. I went to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The funny thing is, when I landed in Fayetteville, Arkansas, my luggage had ended up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Maybe it was a sign! I did get my suitcase a few days later.

If I hadn’t done a study abroad, I would not be here. It really changed my life. It gave me a whole new outlook on life.

As it has changed my life, it has changed students’ lives, too, by studying abroad in Japan. Some of my students still live there. Some of them have found spouses in Japan.

Study abroad lets students find a place they can fit in. Some American students, they may not fit into the U.S. Maybe I didn’t fit into Japan, so that’s how I ended up here?

It gives students a chance to explore and, for some of them, find a place they feel more comfortable.

What are some of your favorite memories from study abroad trips?

There are so many. You cannot single out one. But I really like to see the students’ faces when something hits their mind and they say, ‘Aha!’ Their faces light up. They become more open-minded. I think that’s what I like to see.

People need to have experience stepping out of their comfort zones and into something outrageous in their life, at least once. Study abroad can do that. When students do that, they gain so much confidence in themselves. They understand so much about themselves through that process. They can find themselves and their talent.

Of course, you will fail a lot, too. But it’s OK to make mistakes.

Why is learning another language so important?

It cultivates a different part of yourself. You change a little bit and shift your personality a little bit, depending on the language you speak. It’s fun to be the Japanese-speaking Yoko and the English-speaking Yoko.

It activates different parts of your brain. You become a little more creative, flexible, adaptable and understanding. You become more open-minded. It’s really good for your personal growth. If you talk to different people about what’s going on in their countries, you’ll find differences and similarities. It’s interesting to learn the different approaches people take to trying to solve an issue.

There was a saying by Nelson Mandela that went: 'If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.'

I really like that saying.

What’s one thing you wish all incoming freshmen knew upon arriving at UNCW?

Make lifelong friends, nationally or internationally. It’s about discovering yourself. Successful people are those who keep trying until they succeed. Just do what you can do, every day. But also have a little bit of a long-term life goal. You have to dream a little bit, too.

Yoko Kano with students
Bonus question: Tell us the story of this photo.

The photo shows us celebrating after planting a second-generation tree that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945. We actually visited its mother tree in Hiroshima in 2018 as a part of our summer study abroad program. We planted the second-generation tree near our department building (Leutze Hall). It is our symbol of hope for world peace. Of the students in this photo, at least six did study abroad in Japan.