Integrating Interdisciplinary
Scientific Research
into the Humanities

Graduate School/Faculty of Arts and Letters
Tohoku University, Associate Professor

KIYAMA Sachiko

Experimentation to Clarify the Socio-Emotional Roles of Sentence-Final Particles in East Asian Languages

In today’s complex Japanese society, an increasing number of people may experience difficulty understanding language, causing several problems in their lives. In search of a solution, I am conducting experimental research on linguistic communication using electroencephalography (EEG; i.e., brain waves), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and other techniques. This necessitates collaboration with researchers from a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, physiology, and psychiatry, to mention a few. My current research focus is on a wide range of sentence-final expressions found in East and Southeast Asian languages, including Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. For example, we native Japanese speakers often use the particles -ne and -yo at the end of sentences in conversation, like “Tanoshii-ne.” (meaning “It’s fun, isn’t it?”), “Wakatteru-yo.” (meaning “I understand, right?”), and so on, although the particles have no exact English equivalents. Despite the fact that these sentence-final particles have no substantive meaning because they are function words, they can elicit a variety of emotions in the listener, both pleasant and unpleasant, depending on context. In order to better understand what kinds of emotions listeners feel and how their brains react to such particles, my collaborators and I began a project to measure indices like fMRI, EEG, brain waves, and pupil dilation to examine the neural substrates for the socio-emotional functions performed by these sentence-final expressions.

In light of recent communication problems in Japanese society, I believe this project is urgent because it has long been assumed that Japanese people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior, rarely use sentence-final particles, especially -ne, or use them unnaturally. However, it is unclear how such developmental disorders influence the atypical usage of -ne as a linguistic modifier of interpersonal relationships. The empirical findings on the psychological and neural bases for processing sentence-final particles by people with developmental disorders versus typically developed people will provide new insights into how we can use words to understand each other and accept inter-individual differences in communication styles within a society. While pursuing this objective, I am grateful for the admirable support of many researchers who have helped perform neuroscientific experiments.

Beyond and Across Disciplines:
Gaining New Perspectives and Learning Opportunities

I have been researching sentence-final particles for more than ten years. This was the point at which I decided to pursue a research topic to extend my career as a researcher of language use after receiving my doctoral degree. I started this research with only a few collaborators, but after a little while, an increasing number of researchers expressed interest in assisting with the research. When the findings of our project’s first experiment were published in an international journal, I was overjoyed. This interdisciplinary initiative is ongoing, with new methodologies and a larger target population.

I was honored to be invited to join the International Graduate Program in Japanese Studies (GPJS) a few years after being appointed to my current position at Tohoku University in 2017. Acting as a faculty member of GPJS, in addition to one at the Department of Linguistics, the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, is a great learning opportunity for me, not only as an educator at an early stage, but also as an experimental linguistics researcher to identify the rich socio-emotional functions of the Japanese language. I can learn a lot from many experienced professors of GPJS, who generously share their profound knowledge of human nature, including literature, history, philosophy, and education, to name a few. I consider my role at GPJS as providing insights from our experimental research project of language, as well as encouraging young students to be brave and patient in developing their careers. I would like to share my earlier experience with them, both good and bad, in the hopes of helping them gain new perspectives and build relationships with other students and researchers in an international and interdisciplinary arena.

There is an international student from China enrolled in both the GPJS program and the Department of Linguistics, where I work. Her ambition is to work as a researcher in experimental linguistics specializing in bilingual language processing, with the purpose of incorporating the expected scientific insights into the development of language teaching methodologies for bilingual children living in a foreign country. She is particularly keen to help those living in Japan who wish to learn Japanese as a second language at school while speaking Chinese at home. She believes this research is especially relevant for those children who have difficulty acquiring and maintaining their first and second languages during their formative years. I considered that, although she was receiving experimental linguistics training in our lab, she also needed to gain more knowledge about the history and current state of Japanese educational systems, especially with regard to elementary education. Therefore, she applied for interdisciplinary training at the GPJS. As a GPJS student, she has a professor from the Graduate School of Education as her advisor who provides vital advice for her research from the perspective of the Japanese education system for international students. I appreciate that the entire GPJS faculty is contributing significantly to her learning not just in linguistics, but also in many disciplines such as literature, anthropology, history, and philosophy.

Within and Outside the University: Cultural Exchanges Through Haiku Poetry

About three years ago, I began another interdisciplinary experimental project of haiku poetry, the Japanese verse form that is the shortest fixed verse in world literature. Haiku has another type of sentence-final particle, that is, kireji (meaning “letter for a break”), which has no substantive meaning on its own but can elicit emotions. The following is an example from the most famous haiku by Basho Matsuo (English translation by Shirane, 1998).

an old pond… furuike ya
a frog leaps in, kawazu tobikomu
the sound of water mizu no oto

In this piece, the kireji, -ya at the end of the first line induces a break, making it more rhythmic and emotive. Poetry appreciation is a universal act of human beings all over the world. I am intrigued by the poetic effect whereby a word can express more than what is said, and can arouse pleasant emotions in readers who are unfamiliar with the poet. To help us understand this, our haiku project attempts to integrate the results of the experimental approach with knowledge in the humanities. We held a meeting to compose haiku at the Tohoku University Botanical Garden, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, where students and citizens of Sendai shared the joy of creative activity. We gathered and evaluated fantastic novel haiku pieces with which we are conducting neurolinguistic experiments utilizing fMRI and eye-tracking.

The long-term goal of such activity is to establish a platform for cultural exchanges through literary works, where people from within and outside the university can meet and discuss our experimental findings on the neural basis of poetry appreciation. I need people’s opinions and knowledge about how to merge empirical findings with actual sentiments about the findings to better comprehend the role of poetry in human life.

Dedication of GPJS Faculty Members to Help Each Student Find the Best Place to Study Abroad

Currently, GPJS seems to have a considerable number of international students, the majority of them from China, whereas the number of Japanese students may be small in comparison. This might relate to the recent alleged tendency of younger Japanese to show introverted thinking to some degree. I have noticed a difference in mentalities between Japanese and international students on occasion. Chinese students in my lab are often keen to compete internationally. I hope they inspire more Japanese students to explore the possibility of studying overseas.

The GPJS provides significant financial assistance to graduate students. At Tohoku University, many exceptional undergraduate students do their best to conduct their own study to complete their theses. However, very few students continue on to graduate school, although it is common for Japanese undergraduate students in the humanities to do so. I wonder whether some of them are interested in graduate education but have financial concerns. I would like to introduce them to the GPJS system, which may be able to assist them with their financial issues.

The GPJS is remarkable not only for its financial assistance. More importantly, GPJS has gained many distinguished, knowledgeable professors committed to educating students across disciplines. They work hard to find the best fit for each student among the GPJS’s partner universities in Europe, the US, and other countries and regions. I am always amazed by the founding professors’ continuous dedication, from which I have learned much about how to develop my own role as a faculty member. The importance of these scholars’ contributions to GPJS cannot be overemphasized.

  • Sachiko Kiyama is a psycho/neurolinguistics researcher who specializes in experimental pragmatics. She is an associate professor at the Department of Linguistics, Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University. She graduated from the School of Literature, Waseda University in 2002, and then earned her MA from the Graduate School of Area and Cultural Studies, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 2005 and her Ph.D from the Graduate School of Language Education, Reitaku University in 2011. She worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Nagoya University and the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology, as well as a specially appointed lecturer at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mie University, before being appointed to her current position at Tohoku University in 2017.
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