Now that English-medium education has become a “mainstream” strategy for attracting international students to Japanese universities, less attention seems to be paid to Japanese language education. But the question of what and how to teach students of the Japanese language remains crucial to the overall task of internationalising Japanese higher education. The simple answer to the question, of course, is “it depends on the individual”; but this answer doesn’t really help universities plan their Japanese language education curricula.
In the case of Japanese language education offered by universities within Japan, the primary goals seem to be (a) to prepare for higher education in a Japanese language medium, or (b) to get a job with a Japanese-speaking employer, or (c) to carry out everyday activities in Japanese. But these are “gateway” goals – focused on entry points to further education (nyuushi) or employment (shuushoku), or daily life (seikatsu). How can Japanese language education help international students better prepare for the long-term engagement with Japan that lies beyond these gateways?
For Japanese language learners outside Japan, the challenges are even more complex. I recently participated in a workshop overseas on Japanese language education for professional purposes. Our discussion focused on the question: what should students majoring in Japanese language know by the time they graduate? To put it another way: what’s the point of studying Japanese at university?
One approach suggested at the workshop was to focus more on so-called “business Japanese”: the language of the Japanese corporate world and the sociocultural knowledge required to make sense of it. It was also suggested that we could teach students more “labor market skills” such as resume-writing and interview techniques.
Considering how many Japanese companies are now actively hiring non-Japanese outside Japan, it a focus on business-oriented Japanese proficiency may well be worthwhile. But, how many graduates of Japanese language programs actually go on to work in Japanese language-speaking environments? The answer given by most participants in the workshop I attended was, “not many”. Most graduates do use their Japanese to some extent at work, but often not in Japan, not all the time, and not necessarily in ways envisaged by educators. More research in this area is needed to inform curricular planning for Japanese language education both within Japan and overseas.
At the same time as understanding their students and graduates better, universities need to articulate their own aims regarding Japanese language education more clearly. They need to build compelling reasons for learning Japanese beyond the “gateways” mentioned above, and connect them with their overall rationales for internationalising.
Some fascinating perspectives on the experiences of Japanese major graduates in North America can be found in the blog: What Can I Do with a BA in Japanese Studies?