Find Your Passion: Total Immersion

Student discovers fascination with Japanese culture... in Tuscaloosa

Gustave Hahn-Powell

By Richard LeComte

Gustave Hahn-Powell entered The University of Alabama looking for exotic topics that a large research university could offer. What he found was a strong interest in the language, music and philosophy of Japan, some 7,000 miles from Tuscaloosa.

“I always wanted to study a foreign language … something really different,” says Hahn-Powell, who studied in New College, an interdisciplinary arm of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences. “So, when I got to the University, I said, ‘Well this is a huge University. There are all these opportunities.’ I said, ‘well, now I can take Japanese, so why not?’”

Hahn-Powell took advantage both of the extensive programs in Japanese language and culture at UA as well as the freedom to pursue an independent course of study at New College. Along the way, he studied for a year at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, a program of UA’s Capstone International study-abroad programs. For his senior project in New College, he analyzed and compared haiku written by master Japanese poet Matsuo Basho and the contemporary American poet Gary Snyder.

“I’m examining the role of language in Zen writing, specifically its poetry,” said Hahn-Powell, who worked with Dr. Marysia Galbraith prior to his May 2008 graduation. “So, I’m looking at Matsuo Basho, the innovator of haiku. He didn’t invent haiku, but he made it its own poetic style. I’m looking at three of his haiku specifically. I’m reading a bunch of linguistic texts and Zen writing to get a sense of how language functions in the poems to convey the Zen aesthetic.”

But Hahn-Powell’s interests stretch far beyond linguistics. He enjoys playing the shamisen, a three-string instrument that’s been called a “Japanese banjo.” His first encounter with the shamisen was at a meeting for Nozomi Daiko, UA’s taiko, or drum, ensemble. Hahn-Powell says he had no aptitude for the rhythm required of taiko, but the shamisen was another instrument entirely. He enjoys performing with two of his mentors in Japanese language, Dr. Koji Arizumi on flute and Laurie Arizumi on drum.

“Even though I dabble in music, I wouldn’t consider myself a musician,” he says. “I try to learn as much as I can.”

While in the UA program in Japan, Hahn-Powell discovered yet another facet of his interest in Japan – the philosophy and meditational style of Zen. In Kyoto, a city filled with ancient temples, he found a teacher through the recommendation of a neighbor in Kyoto. On his first visit, he was sore from a recent skiing trip, but the Zen priest showed him a video and put him through the ropes, and soon he was deeply involved, following the disciplines of posture, meditation and breath that characterize the philosophy.

Zen priest Taigaku Ogura
While in Kyoto, Japan with a UA program, Hahn-Powell studied under Zen priest Taigaku Ogura.

“When I first read about it, I thought, wow, this is wild,” he says. “This is so different from anything I’ve read before or thought about. So, it kind of stuck out in my mind. But, when I actually did that in Japan, the Zen priest there said Zen isn’t something you read about – it’s something you do. So I threw all that aside.”

Hahn-Powell describes Zen as a great reason to get up in the morning – he says he feels a lot better going about the day after his 7 a.m. meditation. He participates in a meditation group in Tuscaloosa.

“I get up at like 6, 6:30 a.m., and... I really don’t want to get up,” he says. “I don’t have class today; what am I doing? But then I go to meditation, and after I think, I’m thankful for the experience. I feel great, and the rest of the day seems somehow more valuable.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that. It’s experiencing life in the moment, which is something we all have trouble doing most of the time.

“I guess Zen is sort of a living in the real world or experiencing the world as much as one possibly can,” he says. “Essentially, you have to be in the present moment, and it’s an exercise in cultivating mindfulness. The person who practices Zen maybe would grow more aware of their life and the world around them.”

Gustave Hahn-Powell
Besides learning to play a shamisen - sometimes called a "Japanese banjo" - Hahn-Powell also studied Zen and Japanese haiku while a UA undergraduate. (Bryan Hester)

Originally from Iowa and Illinois, Hahn-Powell is a graduate of Bob Jones High School in Madison, outside Huntsville. After considering other options, he picked UA because of its rich offerings for undergrads, including the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, a six-course liberal arts curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This is a huge university,” he says. “There are so many resources. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I had so many interests. So, I thought, you know, why am I going to spend all kinds of money somewhere else when I could come here? I came down, and I really liked it. I found out about the Blount program, and that was really attractive. It was one of the decisive factors.”

Once at the University, Hahn-Powell tried different directions until he hit New College, which allowed him to follow his expanding universe of interests.

“It took me a year to find it, but the search was worth it,” he said. “I had a friend in New College. I came over and talked to some people one day, and I realized that this is the perfect place for me. I can consolidate all of my interests. I can find a way to bring these things together.”

Hahn-Powell is following his passions as a graduate student at UA in applied linguistics in the English department.

“After that, I could go work in Japan or China, wherever I wanted to go and work,” he says. “Or, if I find I’m really interested in linguistics, maybe I’ll try to go to a Ph.D. program, maybe in Hawaii where I could integrate East Asian studies and linguistics.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.