English is a hot topic these days, thanks to the announcement by Rakuten Inc., Japan’s biggest Internet shopping mall operator, that it was making English its official company language.

But what about Japanese?

It may not be well-known, but its profile has also been on the rise, with more people than ever trying to learn it. But the number of Japanese who teach nonnative speakers isn’t growing, partly due to lack of interest among academic circles and the low pay at private language schools that derives in part from restrictions on management.

Some advocates stress the need to get the numbers up, as Japan is aging rapidly and reliance on an immigrant workforce is going to grow, thus it is important that newcomers be conversant in the language.

According to the education ministry, foreigners in the country studying Japanese increased to 170,858 in fiscal 2009 from 135,146 in fiscal 2003.

The number of Japanese-language teachers, excluding volunteers, dropped from 14,047 to 13,437 over the same period.

The trend is particularly noticeable at the nation’s universities. Foreign students studying Japanese at such institutions rose to 53,546 in fiscal 2009 from 34,880 four years earlier. Despite the jump, the number of teachers stayed almost unchanged, 4,250 last year versus 4,240 in fiscal 2003.

Kazuhiro Imamura, an associate professor of Japanese-language education at Hitotsubashi University, said that because it is considered a minor discipline, universities prioritize other subjects.

Satoshi Miyazaki, a professor at the graduate school of Japanese applied linguistics at Waseda University, said it is unfortunate teacher ranks are not growing. They should be boosted and put in positions of responsibility to enable a long-term commitment, otherwise, for example, universities would have a hard time improving their programs for international students.

The slow growth in Japanese teachers is shared by private language academies. Such commercial entities had 5,947 teachers and 50,479 students in fiscal 2003, compared with 5,959 teachers and 53,047 students in fiscal 2009.

“One reason for the lack of Japanese teachers is because it’s not a well-paid job,” said Nobuo Suzuki, who manages Arc Academy, a Japanese-language school with several branches in the Tokyo and Kansai areas.

Suzuki explained that about 80 percent of his teachers work part time and most are women.

The hourly wage is about ¥1,700 to ¥1,800 for new part-time teachers, who can only teach around three hours a week when they start out. Their hours can go up every three months and the part-time wage can rise to about ¥2,500.

An experienced teacher makes on average ¥7,000 to ¥8,000 a day.

Suzuki said full-time teachers with 10 years of experience earn about ¥4 million a year.

The meager pay means few young people, especially men, want to become Japanese-language teachers, people in the field say.

Yumiko Furukawa, a full-time teacher at Arc Academy who has been in the game for four years, said the high turnover rate — teachers last an average of only two years — is mainly because of wages.

“It is quite difficult to support an entire household by teaching Japanese, but there are many who love teaching Japanese, and I think Japanese-language teaching is supported by their passion,” said Furukawa, 41, whose husband also works so she doesn’t have to rely on just her wages.

Although it doesn’t pay well, Furukawa said she enjoys the work because she gets to learn much, including about different cultures, through interactions with her students.

People in the industry also say Japanese-language academies face tricky business conditions, and their fate can be easily swayed by outside factors.

Yoshiharu Sekiguchi, an employee of Saitama-based language academy Tokyo Nichigo Gakuin, pointed out that how many students the Immigration Bureau decides to let in has a direct impact on potential enrollment numbers.

“It would be good if the management efforts of the school could be directly reflected in financial performance, but it’s not necessarily like that,” Sekiguchi said.

For instance, schools have a tough time expanding because they have to get approval from the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, which oversees Japanese-language schools. The process takes at least nine months if a school wants to increase capacity, said Suzuki of Arc Academy.

“Since there are various regulations, we can’t easily expand our business . . . we have to report to the Immigration Bureau how many students we have within what capacity and how many students we are planning to accept. It’s quite strict,” Suzuki said.

The number of classrooms has to correspond to enrollment, so boosting student numbers means increasing classrooms, which can be costly.

Makoto Murakami, head of the editorial department at the monthly magazine Gekkan Nihongo (Monthly Japanese), said that because most students come from other parts of Asia with much lower living costs than Japan, schools don’t have the luxury of being able to raise their tuitions at the drop of a hat.

Two-year courses generally run about ¥1.2 million to ¥1.4 million.

Murakami likened Japanese-language teachers to nurses and caregivers.

“The number of people who will need caregivers will increase sharply, but the number of caregivers doesn’t grow because the job conditions aren’t very good,” and if the situation doesn’t change there won’t be enough Japanese teachers, even though the number of foreigners is likely to keep increasing, Murakami said.

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