SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Hagio Prize 2nd Year Winner: Sarah King

As 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of this unique and generous award, we have asked past winners to reminisce about their time spent in Japan, as well as how the experience has affected their lives. Here is Sarah's report.



I started learning Japanese on a whim; I was 19 years old and had been working in a job which I hated since leaving college. It was only temporary, so when I finished up at that company and was trying to find a new job, I thought it would be a good idea to learn a new skill. 

I thought that learning a language would look good on my CV, and decided that I wanted to learn something completely from scratch so I decided to go with Japanese. When I was at college I had studied performing arts, doing music and music technology, and was very interested in finding a job with a big company such as Sony or Panasonic, and thought the Japanese connection might be a help somehow. I didn’t realise that with this casual and impulse decision, I would get so drawn in to such a fascinating and different way of thinking. I decided after joining an evening class and getting totally sucked in that I wanted to learn the language intensively - I’d never felt such a desperate thirst for knowledge.

I came across the Full time Diploma in Japanese at SOAS, which was the only intensive full-time course in London at the time, focussing purely on Japanese language. I started on the course in September 2000. Like the rest of my class, I was planning to take the optional work experience programme in September 2001 after we had finished our studies, and when we were told about the Hagio Prize fund, I submitted an essay, not for a moment expecting the final outcome. We found out who would win the Hagio Prize one afternoon after our lesson. Everybody was given an envelope thanking them for their entry, but one of those envelopes was larger than the rest and contained a congratulatory letter. I just couldn’t believe it when that particular envelope was passed to me and I saw it had my name written on it. I remember phoning my mum and dad to tell them the excellent news.

Receiving the Hagio Prize changed my Japan trip plans drastically; having £5000 meant that I could extend my stay in Japan and do some travelling across the country and hopefully consolidate my language skills that I had learnt on the Diploma course. I had never been to Japan before, and couldn’t imagine what it would really be like until our plane touched down in Hokkaido, at Hakodate Airport. I travelled to Japan with my Singaporean classmate I-ruh, who had also never been to Japan before that. I remember my excitement when looking around the airport and just seeing a sea of Japanese faces. From there, we navigated our way to a Youth Hostel where we were to stay overnight, before meeting our first of two host families. They all lived in Ainosato, where the university, Hokkaido Kyoiku Daigaku was based. We were to attend lessons there before starting our 1 month work placement with our selected companies. 

I had chosen Sapporo TV to do my work placement, which is where my second home stay family lived. Both home stay families made me feel incredibly welcome, and did their best to accommodate me. They would organise days out to local sightseeing spots and friends’ houses. I was even taken to the primary school where the children of the second family attended, and met the headmistress and the class of the daughter of the family, where I did a Q and A session with the class. Standing up in front of the twenty or so 8 year olds and being grilled about my marital status, weight and age…. I’ve never been so petrified! But it was all part of the experience that made my trip so special. 

My work colleagues at Sapporo TV were equally welcoming and thoughtful; taking me on hour-long drives to their favourite restaurants, nights out to izakayas and sunakku bars, a football match, and even a karaoke session with a J-Pop star. A lot of my work experience consisted of observing; in both the news department and the radio department where I was placed, nearly all of the broadcasts were live so there was only so much I could do without being a risk, seeing as I had no previous experience of live TV and radio. I did however get interviewed on the radio. I had to give my top 3 ranking of the most famous Japanese in the UK. I talked about Yoko Ono, Akira Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano. It was a difficult one – as most people who are not interested in Japanese films in this country probably wouldn’t know who Kurosawa and Kitano are, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t really know who else to say who could be classed as ‘famous in Britain’. I also mentioned the footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who played for Roma at the time, and his name was often mentioned in the British media. On one of the outside radio broadcasts I also had to comment on the radio on how cold that morning was! On another occasion a camera man took me under his wing and showed me how to use a video camera, although I’m pretty sure that my dodgy footage with my shaky hands wouldn’t have been shown in the final cut of the filming. I also got the chance to do a bit of subtitling and help to edit a programme about salmon jumping up a waterfall.


I was in Hokkaido for 5 weeks, before embarking on a 3 week tour through Japan. I-ruh and I travelled together, and made the mistake of going to Tokyo by train, which all in all, took about 14 hours on smoky carriages packed to the rafters. Our first stop was Tokyo, where we based ourselves for about 10 days, and this is where I had the honour of meeting Mrs. Hagio. Mrs. Hagio took me, along with two of the staff from the Reuters’ Tokyo office to a beautiful Japanese restaurant, where we chatted and shared stories. I told her about my experience in Japan so far and my Japanese language learning. I felt very privileged to have been able to meet Mrs. Hagio, who really is an incredibly generous, wise and insightful woman.

After leaving Tokyo, I-ruh and I travelled to Osaka and stayed in a ryokan (a Japanese guest house) where we based ourselves while visiting Kyoto and Nara. I remember our ryokan was in a tiny back street, and neighboured a sentou (a bathhouse), which was attended by a group of men that we believed to have been yakuza. Although it was a bath house, the large open window which offered a view from the street wasn’t very discreet and I glanced upon (unintentionally!!) a few men with traditional yakuza-style tattoos, relaxing in a bath.

Kyoto was stunning. We visited all the main temples, my favourite by far being kiyomizu-dera. I think September and October is a great time to be in Japanese – purely because the kouyou (autumn leaves) are so beautiful. We also visited Kobe where we stayed with a friend’s parents, and I experienced the tastiest ever tempura and freshest sushi, as the prawns still convulsed in my mouth after meeting their demise moments before (I wouldn’t say this was a particularly positive experience). Our trip ended in Hiroshima, where we met my penpal Toru wth whom I had been in contact from the beginning of my language learning, and who I am still in contact with now. 

Some of my best memories are of my 2 months in Japan. For the first time, I became confident using my Japanese and stopped worrying so much when I made mistakes. Although I liked everywhere we visited in Japan, Sapporo remains my favourite place in the world and I’d love to visit there again one day. Japan is an incredibly visual place, but what I distinctly remember is the smell – not just of the food, but there’s something in the air outside, and the way peoples’ houses smell (probably a mixture of smells including that of tatami mats). I really miss that smell!

It is now 11 years since I first started learning Japanese and I doubt whether my life would have been so enriched if I had not made that impulsive choice 11 years before. Language learning definitely changes you and expands your way of thinking about things. I have tried to keep up my language studies over the years. I took JLPT Level 2 in 2002 and had evening classes at SOAS. I currently have 1-1 lessons at a language school near to my work place, studying JLPT Level 1 material with the view of taking the exam some day… not too soon! I have gone back to university where I am studying English Language (Linguistics) and International Business, and work part time for a Japanese company where I have the opportunity to translate documents into and from Japanese. In my linguistics lectures I get to apply my Japanese knowledge to my degree. I am hoping to have a career using Japanese language in the future, hopefully as a qualified translator. 

I now have a 3 year old daughter, and have managed to find some Japanese mums with children of a similar age near where I’m based on the East London / Essex borders. My daughter, Maya, has just learnt to count to 10 in Japanese and is regularly surrounded by Japanese speakers; a lot of the Japanese mums speak to her in Japanese. She watches a lot of the Miyazaki films. I'm hoping with this slight immersion into Japanese things, that she will one day want to learn the language herself. As a family, our long term plan is to one day move to Japan. Steve, my fiance, who trains in jujutsu and ninpo is very interested in Japan, and ideally would like to train for a long period of time with the grandmaster over there. At the moment our life in Japan is very much pie in the sky, with Maya's schooling being the main issue as well as getting a visa for the three of us... but it's definitely good to have dreams.