Coming to know what you don’t know: Knowledge is a tool for expanding your world


After graduating from the Department of French Literature, Tomoka Futami decided to enter a vocational school to become a certified speech and language therapist. At first glance, it is hard to see a connection between her major and her choice of career, but that is where her life trajectory led her. She spoke with us about her beliefs and experiences to date.

Tomoka Futami Department of French Literature (fourth-year seminar: Prof. Keiko Sugimoto)
Faculty of Letters
Ms. Futami was active in the sign language club “Pokke,” and she obtained her Level 3 Sign Language Proficiency Certification in March 2022. She currently works part-time at a drugstore. Her interests include talking with people and experiencing nature.

I want to talk more! My first encounter with French literature

Since I started elementary school, my family has been active in an international exchange group called Hippo Family Club. The group’s activities are designed to promote natural and enjoyable learning through continuous exposure to multiple languages. My mother graduated college with a degree in English literature, so I guess she was interested in the rhythms of the English language and wanted me to learn how to enjoy it as well.

As a part of those activities, from around the time I was in fourth grade, we accepted short-term homestay students, about twenty people from various countries and regions, including Bhutan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Taiwan, and the United States.

One of them, a French high school student I met when I was studying for college entrance exams, was directly responsible for my decision to enter the Department of French Literature.

When we’d hosted exchange students before, I’d tried to learn something about the country they were coming from, but at that time, I was so busy preparing for entrance exams that I wasn’t able to. She came to Japan wanting to study Japanese culture. Since I had studied in Australia for about eleven months, we communicated with each other mainly in English, which neither of us spoke as a native. She stayed with us only for a short time, but we became such good friends that we both cried when she returned home. Even so, I was sure we could have grown even closer if I’d been able to speak her language and if I’d known more about her country. When we communicated, she would sometimes use Japanese words and I would use French words. I thought that if I knew more about France, and if I could speak French, we might have become best friends! My interactions with her were my first experience with French culture and led me to enter the Department of French Literature.

We’ve hosted another homestay student from France since I joined the Department, and we were able to have conversations in French, which allowed me to realize that I’ve gained some language proficiency. In the Department of French Literature, we do not study only literature. As expected, I have learned about the culture of France, its history, and the problems it is currently facing, but I have also gained perspectives I had previously lacked, such as learning what the self is through the literature of Descartes and Spinoza in my “Contemporary Thought” class, and about the current state of Japan’s multicultural society in “Intercultural Understanding.”

When we gain knowledge, we learn to see things we hadn’t noticed

Back when I was in elementary school, a guide dog user came to my elementary school and talked to us about what that was like. When it was time for questions, several of us raised our hands and shouted “Me!”, upon which the presenter said whoever raised their hand first should ask the first question.

That’s when I realized a blind person couldn’t see who had their hands raised. When we raised our hands in class, my usual teacher could just look across the room and call out someone’s name, but that doesn’t work if you cannot see. Of course, that’s obvious if you think about it, but the realization really surprised me at the time.

After that experience, I started noticing things like the braille blocks embedded in the road on my way to school. I had never noticed them before; they had just been part of the scenery, something that I saw without really noticing because I wasn’t sure what they were for. But as soon as I learned about the existence of such people and their world, I began to notice them, and it felt as if my world had expanded.

I experienced something similar in my university studies. In “Aspects of French Society,” I learned about problems related to France’s immigration policy, which opened my eyes to various issues arising from differences in religion and culture. For example, in Japan we don’t talk much about wearing a hijab, but that is a significant issue in France.

France strictly observes the principle of separation of church and state, so wearing religious outfits is forbidden in public schools. From an Islamic perspective, however, being forbidden from wearing that clothing in public can mean not being able to go outside at all. Policies for separating politics from religion in the name of individual religious freedom can thus hinder women’s lives. Learning about such dilemmas regarding how we should respect human rights has increased my interest in society.

As part of “Theories of Multiculturalism,” a common course at Meiji Gakuin, I got to visit “Wataboshi Kyoshitsu” in Yokohama, a program that provides learning support, including that for Japanese language skills, to students from elementary to high school who are nonnative speakers.

I believe that only through the process of learning, expanding our world, and taking action can we acquire living knowledge, so I feel that study methods that allow for such practical applications were very useful in my seminars and other subjects.

The sign language I learned actually helped!

I was interested in signed songs since even before entering college, and I often watched them on TikTok. I wanted to learn more about sign language and signed songs, so I used starting college as an opportunity, joining the sign language club “Pokke” and presenting sign language songs at the Totsuka Ward festival and other events.

Some of my friends from the club are hearing impaired, and when they sign with each other, their hand movements are very fast. There’s no way I can keep up with them unless I give it all of my attention.

I am still learning sign language, but I only use it in club activities with my club friends, so I was worried whether I would be able to use it if I needed to actually communicate in sign language.

I started working part-time at a local drugstore in September of my second year, a year and a half after joining the club. Having learned a little sign language, interacting with customers showed me that there are many more people with hearing disabilities than I had imagined. I had been stopping by the place since I was small, but I realized that the world looks different according to whether you have such knowledge and experience.

One time, a customer held up a smartphone and signed to me, “I am deaf. Do you have this product?” I had only just started working there, so I wasn’t able to help him and had to call the store manager, but I was able to interpret for them. The customer, who wasn’t expecting anyone on staff to know sign language, kept looking at the manager, but when I managed to get into view and show that I could sign, the customer was pleased. I was pleased to see that I could actually communicate using the sign language I had learned in my club and to confirm that my signing skills had improved.

However, I must judge whether to use sign language when dealing with a customer based on what I can read from them. Some people prefer to shop normally because they do not want other people to notice that they have a hearing impairment, so I try to be respectful of how they want to be addressed.

Aiming to become a speech–language pathologist

I am not good at face-to-face interviews and the like, and several times I’ve ended up crying because I couldn’t put into words what I wanted to say while practicing self-introductions at the career center. Struggling to determine why I cry so easily, I learned that there is a personality type called being a highly sensitive person (HSP).

As I looked more into this, I found many factors that applied to me, such as sensitivity to details and the atmosphere around me, and I realized that I, too, am an HSP. I had a hard time accepting that at first, but I realized that because that’s the kind of person I am, I can help others who similarly find themselves at a loss for words, such as when a friend asks for advice, so I now accept that crying is not necessarily a bad thing, that it is part of my nature.

I also realized that by making good use of my ability to read others, I might be better at receiving signals from those in need.

From what I learned in classes like “Theories of Multiculturalism” about the problems facing the socially vulnerable, I increasingly felt a desire to directly help people who are in need, and considering my signing ability on top of my HSP traits, I decided to pursue a career as a speech–language pathologist. Therefore, I feel that the “learning, expanding my world, and taking action” aspects of my life have been consistent both in my studies in the Department and in the path I have planned for my future.

Meetings with colleagues who share the same goals

I wasn’t sure how people who, like me, are considering licensure as a speech-language pathologist after graduation are striving toward that goal, and not knowing that was worrying. Just then, through an Instagram posting of this “Why Meiji Gakuin?” series by another Pokke member, I happened to see mention of another Meiji Gakuin student who was studying the same thing, and for the first time found someone who shared my ambition.

I was very happy, having finally found someone I could talk to about this. I was also very surprised to have discovered not someone who is currently working as a speech–language pathologist, or someone who helps others become one, but someone who not only was currently pursuing that goal, she was even at the same university as me! Through a friend’s introduction, I got the opportunity to speak with her via Zoom, which strengthened my resolve to pursue this path.

In the future, I hope to provide support for the hearing impaired, which is one of the most understaffed areas of speech–language pathology. Alongside language training, I will help people select the most appropriate hearing aid or cochlear implant and evaluate their hearing ability. I chose a vocational school with a full range of equipment for such hearing support.

Speech–language pathologists must cooperate with various medical professionals. I will use the knowledge I gained during my time in college to earnestly deal with each of my patients as a supporter of an inclusive society.