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Alfonso, Antonio (1922–2007)

by Shun Ikeda

Alberto Alfonso, 1885, by Mike Finn [detail]

Alberto Alfonso, 1885, by Mike Finn [detail]

ANU Archives, 1885/226255

Professor Antonio Alfonso, an authority on the Japanese language, passed away on 11 May 2007 from pneumonia in Calvary Hospital, Canberra, Australia. He was 85.

Born in Aldan near Pontevedra in Spain in 1922, he entered the Society of Jesus. As part of his training he received his first degree in Spain, then, after he had gone to Japan as a missionary, he also studied Linguistics at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University (where he obtained a PhD in Applied Linguistics) in the United States. Prior to doing his doctoral studies, he had also spent some time in his Jesuit training at Pymble in New South Wales. After he returned to Japan from Georgetown University in 1959, he held teaching and research appointments at Sophia University (Joochi Daigaku) in Tokyo and the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa/Hilo, before he took up an invitation from The Australian National University to consolidate and strengthen the Japanese program in the (then) Faculty of Oriental Studies in 1966.

From April 1959, immediately after his return from overseas, Professor Alfonso began work, with the assistance of five experienced Japanese teachers, on a comprehensive grammar of the Japanese language, the first draft of which took three years. The result, Professor Alfonso’s now classic work on the Japanese language, Japanese Language Patterns: A Structural Approach, 2 vols (Sophia University, 1966), has been the authoritative Japanese reference grammar book in the field. Indeed, a renowned linguist at Harvard University, Professor Susumu Kuno, described this monumental work as ‘the best reference grammar, if not the best textbook in existence, for any language of the world’.

Another of Professor Alfonso’s achievements was a series of Japanese textbooks for secondary school students, in collaboration with a few dedicated assistants in Canberra, in the mid to late 1970s, when the subject of Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language was still embryonic and methods of teaching Japanese had yet to be established. Speaking to those who strove to follow in his footsteps, he often asserted with vigour and enthusiasm that Japanese will be an extremely important language not only in Australia but also the rest of the world, in view of Japan’s position on the international scene in the foreseeable future. He firmly believed that in Australia it was important to introduce Japanese at a primary school level as a cultural subject, and at a secondary school level as a more structured language and culture course. He urged that Japanese should be widely taught as a tool to make students realise there are societies with different ways of thinking and diversified cultural backgrounds, and not simply as a language to learn. To that end, he compiled a textbook series for secondary school students, Japanese (in 3 volumes), that was virtually the only authoritative textbook available in the late 1970s. The series was widely used not only in Australia but also in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, until swarms of other Japanese textbooks came onto the market in the 1980s.

Professor Alfonso was first and foremost an educator and teacher who inspired an enormous number of students and young instructors. Many of his disciples are scattered everywhere in Australia and in many parts of Europe, the United States and, needless to say, Japan, and they are keen to carry on his legacy. He received in 1985 a decoration from the Japanese Government, the Third Order of Merit with the Middle Cordon of the Rising Sun, for his contributions and dedication to the field of Japanese.

After retiring from The Australian National University, Professor Alfonso took up another challenging endeavour. He initiated the inaugural Japanese language course for international students in Japan as a Visiting Professor with the newly established Hoosoo Daigaku (University of the Air). He went on to compile another Japanese textbook with two Japanese colleagues for the television broadcast program of this innovative university, which was unique in Japan. He was also teaching Japanese and Japanese methodology courses as a Visiting Professor at Meikai University in Chiba and later at Tokiwa University in Ibaraki, before finally retiring from official positions to his beloved home in Canberra.

An avid gardener, Professor Alfonso created an immaculate yet harmonious blend of a Japanese and an Australian garden at his home. This was much admired by visitors who enjoyed his cheerful and lively conversation, perfectly complemented by the late Mrs Kayoko Alfonso’s impeccable Japanese cuisine. He often said that he always cherished Supein no tamashii, Nihon no kokoro (‘The soul of Spain and the heart of Japan’) and indeed he lived up to his words to the end.

Professor Alfonso is survived by his two sons, Kaoru and Hose, Kaoru’s wife, Pernilla, and his treasured granddaughter, Sofia, all residents of Canberra.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Shun Ikeda, 'Alfonso, Antonio (1922–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/alfonso-antonio-32473/text40276, accessed 5 July 2022.

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