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Mount Union College Professor Never Forgets Her Japanese Roots

February 20, 2006

Dr. Naoko Oyabu-Mathis '80, professor of sociology at Mount Union, has found a home in Ohio, but never forgets her Japanese roots.

 

Born in Tokyo, Japan, Oyabu-Mathis says she has always had an interest in the United States. Before she knew she wanted to teach, Oyabu-Mathis, whose first name, Naoko, means honest child, wanted to become a pianist. In the seventh grade, when all Japanese students begin to learn English, that all changed. She says her love of learning English first sparked her interest in coming to the United States.

Oyabu-Mathis had her first opportunity to come to the U.S. when she was 17 years old. "I wasn't scared at all," she said when she came alone to study abroad in the state of Colorado.

Oyabu-Mathis enjoyed her time in Colorado, and wanted to return for her college education. She came to Mount Union College on the Yoshino Murakami Scholarship, which is offered to one student from her Hiroshima girls' high school every four years.

"The Yoshino Murakami Scholarship began in honor of Yoshino Murakami," said Oyabu-Mathis. Murakami attended the Hiroshima girls' school known as Jogakuin. It was founded in the 1800s by the American Missionary in the center of Hiroshima. It is not only a high school, but a university as well. During the bombing of Hiroshima, the school was completely destroyed, and many lives were lost. The building had to be completely reconstructed.

"Murakami was the daughter of a scholar who knew someone at Mount Union College," added Oyabu-Mathis. "She came to Mount Union to study abroad. After graduating from Mount Union she married an American man. Murakami was a baby at the time of the bombing, and being exposed to the bomb resulted in her early death in her mid 30s."

To honor her, Mount Union created a scholarship in her name. Oyabu-Mathis was the third recipient of the scholarship. Keiko Miyahara, a sophomore physics and astronomy major from Nakano, Akiku, Hiroshima city, is the current recipient of the Yoshino Murakami Scholarship at Mount Union.

Oyabu-Mathis graduated from Mount Union in 1980 and went on to get her master's and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Akron. It was at the University of Akron that she met her husband, James Mathis.

Before becoming interested in sociology and anthropology, James Mathis was involved in the media. "He was working for the Akron Public Schools, operating its own radio and television station. While working there, he produced a video which introduced school life in the United States to facilitate a pen-pal program which was arranged between Litchfield Middle School in Akron, and Diaju-Chugakko in Tokyo," says Oyabu-Mathis.

"With the language barrier, he needed someone to do a voiceover in Japanese so the students at the Tokyo school could understand what the Litchfield students were saying," said Oyabu-Mathis. "He had a friend at Akron he thought could help, which eventually led up to him asking me to help on the project."

With her interest in trying new things, Oyabu-Mathis says she was quick to jump on board with the project. After meeting James Mathis, the rest is history.

Twice a year she makes a trip back to Japan. Before her thirteen year-old son Connor became a teenager, they would travel as a family for about three months out of the year. Connor would go to school for the summer in Japan, and has many friends over there. Now that Connor is not able to be gone as long, she says she often travels alone and stays for a shorter amount of time.

Dr. Naoko Oyabu-Mathis was named the Mount Union College Great Teacher in April of 2002. She first joined the faculty in 1988. She is a member of the American Sociological Association as well as a member of the Mid-West Sociological Association.

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