My thanks to my friend Victor, who just posted a link to an article on Tofugu, entitled “5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Major in Japanese (and 2 You Might Consider It).” There are plenty of very similar blog posts and articles online, and I clearly have not commented on any/all of them. But, I thought I would share my kneejerk responses to the five reasons given here, present some snarky counter-arguments, problematize the reasoning, and maybe debunk some myths.
1. You Might be Better Off Studying on Your Own
It’s true. You might be. If you have the right materials, and the drive, dedication, and discipline to actually study on your own rather than dabbling. The article points out, completely correctly, that simply taking Japanese classes at the undergraduate level, even for four years, will not get you to true fluency. I took those classes for four years, and while at the end I certainly knew a lot more than I did at the beginning (a lot more than zero), I was still very much at an intermediate level, without the ability to carry on a conversation with any real fluency, nor to read whole articles, books, or even manga (mainly because manga includes so much slang and such that we are not taught in formal classes). Had I not then gone to an intensive 10-month language program in Yokohama, I am sure that my language skills would still be stuck on that intermediate plateau. And, even after having done such a program, I’d say I’m still not fluent.
Being in Japan will not, in itself, get you to fluency. Having a Japanese boy/girlfriend, or group of friends, will not get you to fluency. It might get you to have a greater fluency in casual, slang, friend-level conversation, but it won’t help you read the newspaper, write formal reports, or handle business meetings. I did not, myself, learn from the “study on your own method,” so I cannot speak with true authority as to its effectiveness, but I wager that it requires a phenomenal degree of dedication and discipline, as this article points out.
2. Other Languages are More Useful, for Business Anyway
I was largely in agreement on that first point, but on this second one, I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit. I’m offended by the idea that whether or not a language is useful for business should be among the top criteria of whether or not it’s a worthwhile language to study.
Yes, it’s true that Japanese is not the top language for business purposes, I can’t argue with that, but if you’re really going to devote yourself for years to the study of a language purely out of practical motives as to what will help you get ahead in the business world, then… well… good luck. Have fun studying Mandarin and trying to get by in a society where you have no interest in the culture or the food, but are only there to make money.
If you’re really interested in being a corporate drone, and will study whatever language will serve you in that pursuit, then go for it. More power to you. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be studying the languages we are actually interested in speaking, as part of personal growth, as part of our identity, as part of who we want to be, where we want to travel or live, which cultures we want to interact with. Relevance to business success is not why I study Japanese, nor is it the reason that most of my friends would cite. We study Japanese so that we can enjoy traveling or living in Japan, so that we can read manga or video games, so that we can understand anime, movies, TV dramas, or kabuki. We study Japanese so that we can communicate with people who have similar interests, e.g. in Japanese history or culture. And, I know it may be hard to believe, but some of us study Japanese because it’s fun.
3. Limited or No Jobs
That all depends on what kinds of jobs you’re looking for, and on what exactly we’re talking about in terms of the benefits of studying Japanese or majoring in Japanese. Firstly, I remain quite unclear on what the hell it means to “major in Japanese.” There’s Japanese Language & Literature, which is really just Literature. There’s Japanese Studies, i.e. culture, history, society, etc. There’s Linguistics. Most of these, admittedly, prepare you chiefly for careers in academia, in cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, Japan Societies, and the like.
But then, there’s Japanese translation and interpretation – if such a major exists, that includes a specific focus on training up people to be professional translators (of texts) and interpreters (of the spoken word), then, yeah, your job opportunities might be more limited than in certain other fields, but you’ve got a definite, actual, defined career field right there. Real job skills.
If “majoring in Japanese” means none of these, then, quite frankly, I don’t know what it means to “major in Japanese.”
Anyway, what’s this whole thing about jobs, anyway? Are we supposed to just go and pursue whatever field has the most job opportunities, regardless of our interests, passions, and talents? Outside of “corporate drone,” what job field actually has jobs? If you go to your parents and say “I want to be a doctor,” or “I want to be a lawyer,” or chemist, or teacher, or engineer, or whatever, won’t your parents just say about any or all of those fields that there’s “limited or no jobs”? Aren’t we all essentially in the same boat? And, if we’re not, do you really want to just drop everything and go pursue whatever’s easiest, whatever’s most lucrative, regardless of whether it’s something you actually enjoy? They say “do what you like,” and “write what you know.” Or is that just out the window?
Yes, it’s true that focusing on jobs in which you can put your Japanese language ability to use is limiting. But so is focusing on any other specific set of skills. And, there’s actually a very wide range of types of jobs one can do that involves either using Japanese, or living in Japan (and therefore using Japanese). Basically, any job you can think of, there is a version of it, or a related job, that requires Japanese. Studying to be a doctor? You can be a Japanese-speaking doctor in your home country, possessing a skill that helps you serve the Japanese-speaking community, or, you can use your Japanese language skills to be an English-speaking doctor in Japan, serving (in part) the English-speaking community. The same goes for lawyers, psychiatrists, countless other sorts of private profession sort of jobs. In business, in just about any field of business from finance to book publishing to food import/export, there will be those companies that need someone to be their liaison to the Japan office, or something of that sort. In video games, publishing, and other media, there’s not only translation work, but also localization, which means translating not only the actual words of the content, but also cultural translation, making the product attractive, accessible, understandable, within the cultural context of Japan (or, in the reverse direction, making Japanese media more understandable/accessible for a Western audience).
All in all, studying Japanese is no more limiting than studying French, or Russian, or Spanish. Any language, along with the associated familiarity with culture, etc., is going to couple up with your other skills or talents in pretty much the same ways.
Debt? Seriously? What the hell does this have to do with Japanese? Like #3, but even more so, this is a point that’s relevant for everyone, regardless of your major, and has nothing to do with Japanese. Also, you know who really have a ton of debt? Law school grads.
Besides, not to boast or anything, but I have no student loans debt, and I majored in History & East Asian Studies, and then went on to earn two MA degrees. I won’t deny that I was quite fortunate, in terms of scholarships/fellowships, and a fair bit of help from my family, but, my family is not fabulously wealthy or anything, and I am not in any exceptionally special or exceptionally privileged situation. It absolutely can be done, and I am sure there are plenty of other students out there who, likewise, have no student loans debt. Regardless, even if student loan debt is truly as big of a deal as so many Internet articles seem to make it out to be, it’s not in any way specifically relevant to the question of whether or not to major in Japanese. If you’re going to have debt, you’re going to have debt, regardless of whether you major in Japanese, History, Economics, Psychology, Art…
5. It’s Hard
I’m tired of hearing this one. Tofugu does link to several other articles previously posted on that site, arguing that Japanese is easier than you might think (or easier than you might have heard), and so I absolutely give him credit for that.
And, it’s true, Japanese is really hard in some respects. The writing system is a considerable obstacle, for one – though, I think less “difficult” than it is “intimidating.” And levels of honorifics and familiarity can be really difficult too.
But you know what else is hard? Pronouncing French is hard. Learning to deal with tones in Chinese (or Vietnamese, Thai, or any of the many other languages that use tones) is hard. Reading Hebrew or Arabic without any vowels written in is hard. Dealing with the countless irregular verbs in French, Spanish, or Italian is hard (Japanese has two, and they’re not even that irregular). Dealing with different conjugations for each subject (I, you, he/she, they, we) is hard (what in Spanish is voy, vas, va, vamos, van, in Japanese is simply iku, iku, iku, iku, iku). Remembering which nouns are which gender is hard (is it la agua or el agua?).
So, enough of this argument that Japanese is hard.
In conclusion, I don’t know what the hell it means to “major in Japanese,” but if you want to study Japanese, and you want to pursue a career in which your Japanese language ability will come into play, or, if you want to pursue a life in which you are a person who speaks another language, and that language is Japanese – if you want to live in Japan, or travel there, or engage in Japanese culture and media, or whatever, go for it!
Keep in mind, also, that in the vast majority of career paths, your BA major, whether it’s in History, or Economics, Creative Writing or Sociology, doesn’t really matter. Come out of college with good writing skills, good critical thinking skills, good teamwork, organization, logistics, skills, a good work ethic, and all of those things, and that’s what’s most important. That’s what will get you a job. And, if you speak a foreign language (especially if you spend a summer, or a year, or something during or after college doing some really intensive language program to boost up your language skills beyond merely “4th year Japanese”), it’s only ever a plus.
Best of luck!!