Job potential draws Midwest students to classes in Japanese

by Tsukasa Arita

Kyodo

More college students in the U.S. Midwest are taking Japanese classes because of the potential for future employment.

While the pace of growth in Japanese studies slowed across the U.S. after the 1990s, Michigan has seen a remarkable increase over the past couple of years, apparently because of promotional activities being undertaken by the government, academia and industry.

One of the main architects of the trend is Kuninori Matsuda, Japan’s consul general in Detroit.

In his bid to motivate American students to learn Japanese, Matsuda tried to break away from today’s typical presentations of Japanese culture, such as anime and manga.

“The study of Japanese can open doors to many interesting career opportunities,” Matsuda told about 100 students in a lecture at Oakland Community College near Detroit. “It is important to note that in recent years, Japanese companies have been hiring an increasing number of local candidates.”

Matsuda explained that Japanese companies are willing to hire newly minted American graduates who speak Japanese and have “a genuine interest in Japan.” He also produced figures showing that between 2010 and 2011, Japanese companies doubled their number of local hires.

Michigan is home to about 480 Japanese corporate facilities that employ more than 35,000 people.

Justen Bowser, 22, who attended the lecture, said his original goal was to become a teacher of Japanese in the United States.

“This is what I still plan to do, but now I know I have some other options, like working for one of the many ‘nihon no kaisha’ (Japanese firms) in the area,” Bowser said.

He said the lecture “reignited my desire to learn the language.”

A senior official at a Japanese manpower agency based in Michigan said, “Japanese companies here more highly rate new graduates’ readiness to accept and understand a different culture than their language skill itself.”

People involved in Japanese studies said they have difficulties talking young Americans into learning Japanese due to a decline in general interest in Japan in light of its protracted economic downturn and reduced budgets for foreign language programs at many academic institutions.

They also mentioned a boom in Chinese. In the past 10 years, the Chinese government has opened nearly 100 Confucius Institute language schools across the United States to promote the appeal of Chinese.

In Michigan, however, the number of college students studying Japanese rose by some 300 to around 2,300 over the three years through 2012.

A separate tally shows that the number of pupils studying Japanese at elementary, junior high and high schools rose by 600 between 2011 and 2012, bringing the total to nearly 4,400.

Western Michigan University introduced a Japanese major last fall. Rika Saito, assistant professor of Japanese, said the institution saw an increase in students with a mid- and high-level command of Japanese last semester.

“We must increase one by one the number of Americans who know Japanese and understand Japan” to expand the presence of Japan in U.S. communities, where Chinese and Koreans have more influence over public opinion and policymaking processes than before, said Matsuda, who has lectured in 18 colleges in Michigan and Chicago.

Teachers of Japanese in the region said there were some students recently who chose Japanese companies over other options, including U.S. companies that offered higher pay.

They also heard of a college that had planned to scrap its Japanese major because of funding difficulties, but later reconsidered.