A close-up of a man with glasses in front of a bookshelf.

Professor Shigeru Miyagawa.

In Japan, one of the biggest cultural events of the year is called Tanabata, or the Star Festival. According to the legend, two young lovers are reunited by crossing a bridge made from the wings of flying birds. Selecting the Star Festival as backdrop for his award-winning multimedia project was a fitting choice for MIT Professor of Linguistics, Shigeru Miyagawa. His own academic career has bridged many different worlds: Japan and America, linguistics and culture, education and technology.

Miyagawa grew up in the coastal town of Hiratsuka, between Tokyo and Mount Fuji, until the age of ten. When his father, a professor of physics, accepted a teaching position in the United States, the family relocated to Duke University, then permanently resettled at the University of Alabama. Miyagawa remembers those years in late-sixties Alabama as especially challenging. “I often felt lonely and isolated. This was a state with few foreigners, and racial tensions were already high. There were no Japanese other than my family, there was no Japanese food. The only other Japanese person I ever encountered was Mr. Sulu on Star Trek.”

Miyagawa nonetheless adapted to his new life in the United States. By middle school, he spoke fluent English, and he excelled in math and science throughout high school. “I spent a lot of time in my father’s lab making models and airplanes as a kid,” he remembers, “I made a transistor radio, and an electric generator that won the school science fair.” Yet when it came to choosing a university, Miyagawa decided to return to his native Japan. Once there, however, he quickly discovered that he was “neither Japanese nor American. I was neither and I was both.”

Straddling two worlds has remained a recurring theme for Miyagawa. For example, early in his undergraduate career he made the decision to focus on the humanities. “Although I was very good in math, physics and chemistry, I decided that I did not want to pursue the same path as my father,” he confesses, “So one day I simply walked across campus and began taking humanities classes.” While he greatly enjoyed the creative writing program that he initially entered, it was the discovery of linguistics that truly captured his imagination. “For me, it was the perfect combination of language and science. You could take sentences apart and lay all their parts on a table, like clockwork. It’s the most fascinating thing in the world—I honestly don’t understand why everyone doesn’t study it,” he says, and one senses that he’s only half-joking. Read more.

OCW Courses taught by Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa: