October 19, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Japanese culture

Language teachers work hard to build soft power in US

HIROYUKI KOTAKE, Nikkei Washington bureau chief

Shoko Hamano, a professor at George Washington University, teaches Japanese to a group of 12 students in Washington on Sept. 30.

WASHINGTON -- Japan is used to grappling with China and South Korea in the business arena, but competition among the countries is heating up in a less-likely field: foreign language studies in the U.S.

     In recent years, China has been opening language institutes around the world to extend its sphere of influence. 

     As the two countries build up their soft power, two Japanese women working at a U.S. university are doing their best to do the same for their country by nurturing Japanese-speaking students capable of one day acting as cultural bridges.

Let's talk

On the evening of Sept. 30, professor Shoko Hamano was talking to a group of 12 graduate and other students in her Japanese language class at George Washington University, in the U.S. capital. The students were advanced, having been studying the language for two to three years.

     Hamano was explaining to them a major difference between male and female speech patterns in spoken Japanese. "In general, men tend to speak in a more casual tone, whereas women speak with a more polite tone," she said. On her cue, male and female students paired up and began practicing a dialogue from their textbook.

Woman: Oh, I'm hungry.

Man: Yeah, I'm starving. There's a really good pork cutlet restaurant near here. Do you wanna go? My treat.

Woman: Well, I'd better not. Pork cutlet is high in calories.

Man: I'll go by myself then.

Woman: Wait. That restaurant is very good, isn't it? I've changed my mind. I'm in.

Man: Alright then. Let's get moving.

     Hamano's class emphasized the practical, focusing more on speaking exercises than reading and writing. Everything was conducted in Japanese, and English was rarely used. 

     When asked why they were studying Japanese and what they want to do with it, Irene Mutwiri, a Kenyan student, said she would like to work at the Japanese Embassy in Nairobi. Juliana Kogan, from Ukraine, said she is interested in Eurasian history and culture and is considering working in Japan.

     While some students said they hope to travel to Japan, others said they wanted to speak more with Japanese students staying with American host families. "I hope more students will understand how interesting the Japanese language is and learn to appreciate the good aspects of Japan," Hamano said.

     George Washington University is one of the biggest centers of Japanese language studies in the D.C. area, with some 240 students are enrolled in classes. It is not just the idea of future employment that is drawing these people to study the language; many are attracted to various aspects of Japanese culture, from tea ceremony to calligraphy to anime.

Stiffer competition

In recent years, however, the school's Japanese language program has faced new challenges. Ikuko Turner, director of GW Language Center at the university, said, "Recently, a growing number of students have switched to learning Chinese because it is now a must for doing business." The inherent complexity of Japanese has caused more than a few students to stop studying the language.

     According to data from the Modern Language Association of America, about 66,700 people studied Japanese at universities and graduate schools in the U.S. in 2013. That makes the language the fifth-most popular after Spanish (790,800), French (197,800), German (86,700), and Italian (71,300). Meanwhile, about 61,100 studied Chinese and about 12,200 studied Korean.

     But the numbers have been falling for the top group since 2009. The 2013 data showed that the number of people studying Japanese, for example, had fallen by 8%. By contrast, the number for Chinese rose 2%, while that for Korean jumped 45%. University students have become more diverse in their choice of language studies, said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA.

     As part of its soft-power strategy, China has been opening up Chinese language and culture centers, called Confucius Institutes, around the world. But it has met with some resistance in recent years.

     In 2013, the Confucius Institute at Canada's McMaster University, in Ontario, reportedly dismissed a Chinese language instructor over the teacher's connections with Falun Gong, a Qigong-based spiritual movement under intense pressure and scrutiny from the Chinese government. The university responded by closing the institute. Several U.S. universities have announced plans to close their Confucius Institutes, as well.

     Despite the backlash, the institutes continue to help expand the ranks of people well-versed in Chinese culture around the globe.

     The Japanese government has for years played a large role in promoting Japanese language education worldwide. Even so, its contributions are dwarfed by the public-private efforts by China and South Korea.

A tool for soft power

Determined to do their part in raising the international profile of their native language, Hamano and Turner will hold a Japanese speech contest on Nov. 8 in which the top three contestants will get a chance to study in Japan and learn Japanese in the U.S. while receiving financial support. They said Japanese speech contests are rare at U.S. universities, and that Japan lags behind China on this front.

     Many of those who have studied Japanese at George Washington University have gone on to work at the U.S. State Department, the United Nations or Japanese companies. As such, expanding the opportunities for language studies will only help nurture more Japan experts and promote a better understanding of Japan globally.

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