Getting Personal: UI Japan House director Kimiko Gunji

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Getting Personal: UI Japan House director Kimiko Gunji

Explain in one sentence what it is you do.

I am a professor of Japanese arts and culture and director of Japan House at the University of Illinois.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

Around 6:30 a.m. Every other day, I exercise, and on the other days, I check my e-mail.

What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?

I had a banana and yogurt at Japan House.

Best high school memory:

During high school, I remember studying all the time so that I could get into the university of my choice. I would say that my best high school memory was the day I received the acceptance letter from the college I wanted to attend.

Tell us about your favorite pair of shoes:

I have too many favorite shoes to choose from. I do like my Paul Green pairs very much.

What's a perfect Sunday afternoon include for you?

Reading books and arranging flowers without time-pressure for the coming week.

Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

"Taketori Monogatari" ("The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter"), also known as "Kaguya Hime no Monogatari" ("The Tale of Princess Kaguya"). It is a 10th century Japanese folk tale. It details the life of a mysterious girl called Kaguya-hime, who was discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant. It had gorgeous kimono pictures in it and I remembered wishing to have those kinds of kimonos.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I'd love to go back to Naoshima, which is a small island in Japan's Inland Sea that is home to local fishermen and is known for the development of contemporary art. During the 1990s, the Benesse Corporation, a Japanese textbook publisher, partnered with architect Tadao Ando to create Benesse Art Site Naoshima, a series of contemporary art museums designed around the theme of nature and art. If I could afford it, I would love to be there for a week or more staying at the oval-shaped hotel Annex, which was designed by Ando. It is situated higher up the hill above the museum and is accessed by a cable car.

Tell us about your favorite pet.

We had a dog named Satch who was with us for 18 years. He started as our daughters' pet but ended up as my husband's and my dog. At the end of his life, we cooked food according to what he wanted and I fed him with a pair of chopsticks because he had lost most of his teeth.

Have you discovered as you matured that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

Yes. I am becoming just like my mother. I am constantly keeping myself busy just as she did.

What would you order for your last meal?

Ochazuke. It is a traditional Japanese snack of rice with Japanese seasonings with tea poured over it.

What can you NOT live without?

My family. They are my supporters and joy of my life.

Whom do you have on your iPod?

I don't own an iPod.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Our first family trip back to Japan in 1975. We took our two daughters to my parents' home. They were the only grandchildren for them at that time. Both of my parents were so happy to have us back home, and especially to have their granddaughters with them. My two sisters and my brother were there also to enjoy their nieces.

If you could host a dinner party with anyone in the world, what three people would you invite?

My two sisters from Japan and, if my brother were alive, I would invite him, too.

What the best advice you've ever been given?

My father, who was a Buddhist priest, told me that the Buddha has given all of us the same amount of happiness when we were born. Thus, it is all up to us to either use up our happiness at one time, or to use it up little by little. This statement kept me going when I had encountered difficult times, especially when I first came to this country and could not speak English well and did not understand Western customs. Whenever I encountered hardships, I was able to cope with them by thinking I am leaving my happiness for a later time.

What's your best piece of advice for others?

Be alive. It is up to you to make opportunities alive or to vivify them. If you don't make them come alive, then you are allowing them to die. Even when seeds bloom, some people don't notice. This means that they are not taking full advantage of them. We should see them, smell them and enjoy them. We should always be alive and be alert. We must make good use of all five senses. We must enjoy life as much as we can. When you are fully alive, not only can you enjoy your life but you can also be more compassionate towards others.

What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?

I did tutoring for high school students when I was a college student and I made $5 per hour.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

During my early teaching career at the university, I had a difficult time conveying my thoughts in English to my students, which made me wonder whether I should continue to teach or not. However, I put forward my best efforts and whole heart into teaching all of the subjects that we covered in class and I later learned that my students were able to grasp what was most important. Moreover, their interest and seriousness have increased year by year, which humbled me as well as encouraged me to continue teaching. Thus, I am still teaching and continue to enjoy sharing my heritage with students as well as the community at the university and at Japan House.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

I have a tendency to over-commit. I don't know how to say NO.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I try to recite some of the Zen statements, which help me see things in a different perspective. They are: "White cloud embraces a lonely rock." "Clouds come and go, the temple bell at the sun set." "Turn your mind around."

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