Susan Schmidt: Honored U.S. beacon for Japan

Susan Schmidt is a driving force behind Japanese-language learning in her homeland


Susan Schmidt is a former editor at the University of Tokyo Press who spent 20 years living and raising a family in Japan up until the mid-1990s. She is now executive director of the U.S.-based, 1,500-member Alliance of Associations of Teachers of Japanese — a role in which she has not only helped explain Japan, its people and language to the rest of the world, but also fostered interest among Americans about this country and its cultures.

Recently in Japan to receive the Japan Foundation Award 2009 on behalf of the AATJ in recognition of its work, the Illinois native and mother of two daughters made an impassioned speech at the ceremony — in Japanese — on the history, present situation and future of Japanese-language education in the United States.

As Schmidt, 63, stated on that occasion, there is a long history of Japanese- language education in the U.S., with huge numbers of Japanese migrating there at the turn of the 20th century and thousands of Americans trained “to understand the enemy” during World War II.

Yet, according to Japan Foundation data from 2006, the U.S., with its 117,969 learners, had slipped to sixth place in the worldwide learners’ league outside Japan, overtaken by countries such as Taiwan and Indonesia, where interest in recent years has soared.

Does this mean Americans have lost interest in Japan? Not quite, says Schmidt, who insists the level of interest in Japanese in the U.S. remains high and the fall was due to the eight-year Bush-era education policy which prioritized the study of math and English.

Now based in Colorado, Schmidt divides her work between the 900-member Association of Teachers of Japanese and the AATJ — an umbrella organization comprising the ATJ and the National Council of Japanese Language Teachers, whose combined membership includes about half of all Japanese- language teachers in the U.S.

Of the 1,500 members of the AATJ, how many are native speakers?

About half. And that’s true of other teachers who aren’t members of our association. In general in the U.S., maybe 60 percent are native speakers of Japanese and the others are not.

Are AATJ members mostly U.S. based?

Most of them are, but there are also members in Canada, Europe and quite a few in Japan. In Japan, maybe about 100.

What kind of experience and qualifications do Japanese-language teachers in the U.S. have in general?

That’s a very interesting issue in the U.S. In order to teach anything in a public school — in a primary or middle school or high school — it is necessary to have a qualification or license. That requires attending special training, at graduate school, for usually one to two years. And then that license is not for the whole country; it’s state by state. Every state has its own special procedure and their own license and their own qualifications.

Aren’t they transferable?

Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. This is one of the big weaknesses, I would say, of the U.S. education system.

In order to get the license to teach Japanese, in every state the procedure is a little bit different. In California, for example, there is a language test that you have to pass and do well on in order to be able to teach Japanese — as well as having the training just to be a teacher in a classroom. You need to have both.

Universities don’t have that kind of license system, but most require you to have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in linguistics or education.

What is the typical age, gender and background of U.S. Japanese-language teachers?

There are many more women than men. Ages are varied. There are some young teachers, and some who have been teaching quite a long time — for 20 years or more. Among the non-native-speaking teachers, one of the largest groups is made up of people who have worked in Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). Many of the teachers in high schools, for example, are JET alumni, so they worked in Japan in schools for two or three years or sometimes longer. These days a lot of the people who apply for the JET program have already studied Japanese. But in the beginning, that was not the case — and in fact the Japanese government would rather have people who haven’t studied Japanese and (aren’t) fluent in Japanese. But many of the JET people who came here discovered that they really liked teaching, and Japanese, and they learned some Japanese. Then when they finished their time as JETs, they went back to the U.S., studied for the license exam and became Japanese teachers.

How large is that group of former JET teachers — like 30 or 40 percent?

Of the high school teachers, yes probably.

Could you explain something of the history of Japanese-language education over the years? How did people come to study the language in the U.S.?

Well, the very first people who studied Japanese were in the late 1800s. But (they were) rather few. Then during the 1920s and ’30s, most of the people who studied Japanese were in Hawaii or in California. There were language schools for the children of immigrants, and there were other forms of Japanese study. But it was quite small. In addition, even up to World War II just a handful of people studied Japanese and Chinese at places like Harvard and Columbia universities. Then the U.S. Army and Navy both started language schools to train people to interpret and speak Japanese and understand (captured) soldiers and so on. Those schools trained several thousand people during the war to a very high level of Japanese. It was very intensive and they learned a lot in rather a short time.

Is it the case that (noted Japanese literature scholar) Donald Keene was one of them?

Yes. Many of the people who became senpai (senior scholars) in Japanese studies after the war were students in those language schools.

What about after the war?

Well, as Japanese and Americans started working together and knowing more about each other and traveling back and forth, more people became interested in studying. The ATJ was founded in 1963, and there were 120 teachers at that time, who probably all joined. They were all in universities. And there were maybe 600 or 700 students in the whole country. Then in the 1960s and ’70s, when Japan’s economy started growing, there was a lot more interest in studying Japanese, and the number started going up — first in universities. Then in the early ’80s, quite a few high schools began teaching Japanese.

But then came the economic bubble of the mid- to late-’80s, which of course burst in the early ’90s.

But the study-Japanese boom did not burst. (laughs)


The number of students studying Japanese has continued to grow, especially in universities. It’s still growing quite rapidly, and in another 2006 survey, just of universities and not by the Japan Foundation, 66,000 students were found to be studying Japanese. The Japan Foundation’s number is actually lower, because the 66,000 figure covers every college and university in the U.S. In K-12 (kindergarten through pre-college years), according to a Japan Foundation survey — which is the only source for that level — the number peaked in 2003, and in 2006 it had decreased.

Why did numbers fall at the K-12 level?

Well, it’s political. (laughs) It’s because, at K-12 schools, foreign languages and some other subjects were not emphasized and not valued. I hope that would be changing, but during the years of the (President George W.) Bush administration (2001-09), all of the emphasis was on making sure that students would score well on tests of English and mathematics. Those were the two things that teachers were supposed to put all of their energy into. Other subjects such as history, music, art and foreign languages were not as important. So many teachers in many high schools cut back on their foreign-language programs — even though students wanted to study foreign languages. There were budget cuts, and courses that were eliminated included foreign languages.

Is Japanese an elective at U.S. schools?

Yes, foreign languages are almost always an elective. So the number of students who study them in American schools is quite low. In Japan, everyone has to study (at least one). That’s not true in the U.S.

How can the increase in the number of Japanese-language students at universities be explained?

I think young people continue to be interested in Japan. Some of them are interested in manga and anime, some of them are interested in history or religion or other aspects of Japanese culture. In the ’80s, many of them were interested in Japanese because the economy was so strong and they felt that this would be a good way to find a job. They wanted to come here and work. And for some people that is still the reason. But there are many different reasons. And I think some young people enjoy studying a language that is difficult — the way Japanese is difficult. It’s a challenge. They like that.

What are other reasons people have nowadays for studying?

Literature. A lot of Japanese novels are translated into English. Haruki Murakami is a major author in English. His books sell very well, so there are people who are interested in that aspect of Japanese culture or art, or in calligraphy, for example. And I think many people just find Japan a very interesting place, the way it’s changing.

It is often said that for non-native speakers Japanese is a difficult language in which to feel comfortable expressing yourself, partly because you have to memorize thousands of kanji. And I hear that many people study it for years and can still only read children’s books. How do teachers keep students motivated?

What happens to many students is that they study for one year or maybe two years, then quit because it’s difficult and it takes a lot of time and they feel they are not getting anywhere. I think that is also true for other foreign languages, but with Japanese there is certainly a big drop after one year and then two years.

But according to the survey of college students from 2006, the percentage continuing to study for three or four years is increasing — so more are choosing to continue. Some of this may be because they are interested; some of it may be because the teaching has got better. I think good teachers are able to keep students motivated. Teachers who teach younger students don’t teach kanji at the beginning. They will make it interesting and they will concentrate on communicating. Even at universities, the mainstream way of teaching is to emphasize communication — more than reading — at the start, to try and help the students to be able to communicate as early as possible. So, even if students are not able to read the newspapers yet, they can maybe talk to students at a school in Tokyo via the Internet. That’s a big reward, to be able to do that.

What are some of the new, effective methods of learning Japanese?

Part of it is emphasizing communicating first before anything else. Another method that is new that seems to work well for some teachers is called Total Physical Response Storytelling. In this method, a teacher would tell a story using only Japanese to a group of students who don’t know any Japanese, and use body language a lot. That’s because some young students learn that way faster than by just listening. So this method is trying to use all the different ways people learn. Everyone has the way they learn the best. For me, hearing is the best way. If I hear something, I’ll remember it. Some people have to see it. And for some people, it’s connected somehow to movement with their body — and they learn best when somehow they can use their hands or have a total physical kind of experience. There is new research about that.

One of the problems teachers had was that older textbooks were written for adults and for universities. And when teachers started teaching Japanese to primary schools, or middle schools, these textbooks were not really useful.

In fact, one of the great sources of textbooks is now Australia. Australia is the complete opposite of the U.S. Rather than universities being the first to teach Japanese, in Australia the government decided they were going to make Japanese an important language and have it taught at all the schools, so many people started teaching and learning it in primary schools. There are some very good textbooks developed in Australia, and in the U.S. many teachers use them.


What about the situation in other countries?

I don’t really know. I think in Europe and maybe in Canada, it’s still (largely) at universities that students study Japanese, not at lower-level schools. I’m sure there are some, but it’s not so common, especially in Europe. So Australia was really a pioneer, and the U.S. also, in teaching Japanese to younger students. Apparently, manga and anime are now among the biggest draws to Japan, although Japanese-language teachers are often students’ first window on the country. Maybe because of the shortage of teaching materials, some teachers might feel they have little choice but to rely on manga and anime to get learners interested in Japan. Yet Japan is much more than just these things.

Actually I think the sequences are a little different. I think that today, Japanese teachers are not the first window. The first window is often the Internet, movies or manga or whatever students find on their own. Then, because they like that so much, they decide to study Japanese. So the Japanese teachers at that point are the second window. (laughs) And a lot of teachers, especially the older teachers from Japan in their 40s or 50s, they don’t themselves like manga or anime very much, and they don’t like the fact that that’s what the students are so interested in. So some of them will try to use the interest in manga and anime to keep students interested; others won’t. (laughs) And there are some new textbooks that use manga as a teaching method. There is a new one about Doraemon that seems to be very good — it’s quite new, published in Japan. But what the teachers will all try to do is, they will start with manga and anime because it’s what students are interested in, but they will try to expand beyond that, and it’s the students who become interested in more things about Japan who will continue studying after one year or two.

That’s interesting.

It’s almost the case now that manga and anime, to young Americans, are not considered Japanese. It’s like makudonarudo (the way “McDonald’s” is written and pronounced in Japanese). They don’t think McDonald’s is a U.S. company, it’s just Makku (a nickname for the fast-food chain)! Now it’s getting to a point, for Americans, that they don’t think of manga and anime as Japanese. They just think it’s manga and anime.

That seems really surprising.

To many Americans, anime is English. Once they get more interested, they want to see what it’s like in Japanese.

Certain media, including anime and movies, have played a very big role in building images of Japan. For example, a while back “Lost in Translation” was a big hit and people talked about it all the time. But it’s all about the neon lights of Tokyo and is a very fragmentary image of Japan.

A lot of my old friends who live in Japan, (like) Americans — who are translators and writers, whose careers are kind of explaining Japan to the rest of the world — they hated “Lost in Translation.” But I liked it.

I lived here for 20 years and I saw that part of Japan, too. It’s part of it. I thought it was a good film. So is “Okuribito (Departures).” What a great film. I don’t think it’s our role as teachers or translators or interpreters or whatever we might be to only show the pure, good side. Maybe we hope everyone will find Japan wonderful and perfect — but it isn’t. Nowhere is perfect. To kids, to students, it’s interesting to see all of that. Not just the good part and arts and the beautiful parts, and there’s lots of that — but the other parts are interesting, too. Like what happens to immigrants when they come here. It makes Japan real and more interesting.

With fewer people studying Japanese for business purposes, do you think the focus of Japanese-language learning will inevitably change to interpersonal and intercultural exchanges?

I think so — though including business. The ATJ has some special-interest groups within it for people who are interested in certain things. So, for example, there is one on bungo (teaching classical Japanese), one for keisho nihongo (Japanese-heritage learning for descendants of Japanese immigrants). There are quite a few teachers who are interested in that, because they teach students maybe whose family speak Japanese at home, so they can understand, but they don’t speak so well and can’t read and write.

Another special-interest group includes people who teach what they call “Japanese for specific purposes,” and that means business. This is for people who are learning Japanese because they work with offices in Japan. Even when the economy is down, look around in Tokyo! There are so many people from other countries working in Tokyo and speaking Japanese.

In the old days when I first came here, you could be uchi no gaijin (the foreigner in the company), and you didn’t have to speak Japanese. English was valued. But not any more. To be hired now, to work here for a Japanese company, you really have to have the language skills.

What do you think the Japanese government or agencies can do to help Japanese-language teachers overseas?

I think probably the best thing is to keep supporting the Japan Foundation. Their resources keep getting smaller and smaller. (laughs) For example, in the U.S., the Japan Foundation has an office in Los Angeles and their mission is to promote Japanese-language education, and they do a wonderful job. They have resources that they send out to teachers, they sponsor workshops and they lend movies and books to teachers who want those. The Japan Foundation actually publishes very good textbooks, called “Erin ga chosen Nihongo Dekimasu (Erin’s challenge — She can speak Japanese).” It’s a three-volume textbook with videos, and I think it’s aimed at high school students. It tells the story of a young Western student who is in Japan and learning to get along in schools and talk to people. It’s very good. Then the other thing the Japan Foundation has done in the U.S. is to try to advocate for Japanese-language programs in schools, because as statistics show, many K-12 schools were eliminating Japanese programs. The way to fight that — because students still want to study — is to give parents and teachers in schools a lot of information about how they can start a program, or keep the program going, and how important it is. So Japanese government support for that has been very important.

The British Council, for example, has a program in which they link British schools with ones in Japan to promote cultural exchanges. Do you have ideas or suggestions for the Japan Foundation?

A lot of teachers these days are making those connections on their own. Also, in the U.S., there are a lot of sister-state, sister-city kinds of relationships. A lot of teachers are able to make connections with schools in Japan so their students can write letters to each other or communicate on the Internet through these connections.

Is learning Japanese, though, the focus of the sister-city exchanges?

From the point of view of the city government, learning languages is not the main point. But it can be part of it, or a byproduct of it. It’s something that can happen underneath that umbrella. And it’s sometimes easier to make contacts through a local government than it is through the national government at the level of school exchanges, arranging visits and things like that. Another thing that can be important is not so easy to do, but that’s to take groups of teachers or school principals — not the Japanese- language teachers — and bring them to visit Japan so they can see what Japan is like and get them more interested. And that’s another way of encouraging Japanese-language education.

What future endeavors do you have in mind at your organization?

The main projects we are putting a lot of our energy into right now are training for teachers — helping teachers to improve their own teaching skills and get information. We actually have a program of online courses that just started a year or so ago. Through that, instead of having workshops that teachers have to come to, which costs a lot of money, we are trying to do the courses online, and they have been very successful so far. That’s because they use not just people reading something on their own and sending and getting something back in an old-style correspondence course, but teachers actually working together and having discussions through video-conferencing. So it’s almost like having the classroom. So they’ve read something and thought about it and then they actually have a discussion, where they can share ideas and they work together to create new materials to use in their classes. That’s one of the things we are trying to develop.

With the rise of China, do you think more people in the U.S. who would have been interested in studying Japanese are now choosing to study Chinese instead?

Chinese study has definitely been increasing in the U.S., but in fact I don’t think people who would have been interested in Japanese are switching to or choosing Chinese instead.

I think there is a lot of room for growth in the study of all Asian languages — indeed, of all foreign languages — in the U.S. An increase in interest in Chinese does not automatically mean a decrease in interest in Japanese — or other languages, for that matter. I see a rising interest in all Asian languages, including Korean, south Asian languages like Hindi and Urdu, and others. It is a sign of increased awareness on the part of Americans toward other parts of the world, including Asia.

There is a saying that “a rising tide lifts all the boats,” and I think in the same way an increased interest in Chinese or any other foreign language cannot help but be a benefit for our “Japanese boat” as well.

Some people say Japan should adopt English as an official language. What do you think of that?

I do not think that English should be an official language of Japan. It is already used very widely, and expanding its use further would undermine the very important role of the Japanese language as a central pillar of Japanese culture.

Japanese will probably never become the world’s No. 1 language. How would you respond if you were asked, “Why bother studying it?”

Japan has the second-largest economy in the world. Japanese is a gateway to other Asian languages and cultures. Japanese cultural exports are exploding. Japanese speakers are the Internet’s third-largest language group. Knowing Japanese will set you apart from the crowd. And lastly, Japanese is such a fascinating, challenging and playful language.