Her Perfect Advice

January 10, 2019

Carly Schuna ’06

Native Grinnellian becomes fluent in Japanese, makes her home in Japan

“From the minute I was first introduced to Japanese in elementary school, my life changed,” says Anneke Walker Nagao ’87. “My whole life revolves around that moment.”

Nagao grew up in the town of Grinnell, and her mother encouraged her to attend the College. “My family has always taken advantage of what Grinnell has to offer for town people,” she says. “My mother took a position in the Office of Development, and we hosted several Japanese students during College breaks.”

When Nagao was 13, she went to Japan to stay with a local family for the summer. In preparation for that trip, her mother searched for someone at Grinnell to teach her a few Japanese phrases. The College was not formally offering any Japanese language classes at that time, so Nagao took a private class with Donna Solis Yount, then the spouse of a music professor at the College. 

After returning from her first trip abroad, Nagao looked for every opportunity to learn more Japanese. While she was in high school, Nagao took Yount’s private, beginning Japanese class “over and over again,” and “I started going to the Japan table [at the College] and having dinner with the students,” she says. 

When Nagao enrolled at Grinnell in 1983, Japanese was not yet part of the regular curriculum but it was available as an Alternative Language Study Option class. “It was very easy for me, but I was always eager for any Japan connection,” she says.

In the summer before her third year, Nagao, an anthropology major, went to Japan again. As graduation neared, Nagao says, “I was wondering what the heck to do with the rest of my life, like so many recent grads do. I went in to talk with my adviser, Kathy Kamp, [professor of anthropology]. I knew I wanted to travel and not live in the U.S. Her perfect advice was to continue down the road I’d started and specialize instead of dabbling in other things.” Immediately following graduation, Nagao moved back to Japan, where she’s been living ever since.

For the past 30 years, Nagao has been using Japanese almost exclusively. She began with teaching jobs and then worked for several years as a translator with an interior design company, where she met her husband Masanori Nagao. He is Japanese and does not speak much English. She now works as a kindergarten teacher in Yokohama. “Technically, I teach English, but they are four years old, so obviously most of the communication is done in Japanese,” she says. “I think in Japanese often and dream in Japanese sometimes.”

Yet, when she and her husband are out together, store clerks often address only her husband. And several times a day Nagao is asked if she can speak Japanese. “It can be used to one’s advantage, too, though,” she says. “A singer I like came to Japan and I went to his autograph session. They were announcing ‘No pictures,’ so I pretended not to understand and asked him for a picture. I was the only person in the group to get a picture!”

Nagao credits the College for nurturing her interest in travel and her sense of adventure. “The time spent with the Japanese people I met through the College created a strong interest in traveling and learning about other cultures for me,” she says. “Grinnell shaped me and my future in every way possible. There is no better education than travel.”