Japan needs to make bigger efforts to promote its culture and gain public support for the promotion of Japanese-language education overseas, according to a linguistics scholar who has taught the language for more than 40 years in the United States.
Princeton University professor emeritus Seiichi Makino, a recipient of the annual spring decorations awarded by the Japanese government this April, has taught Japanese since the mid-1960s to students in America.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Makino said he feels “something is lacking” in Japan’s policies for promoting language education which, he said, is attracting fewer numbers of Japanese-language students at U.S. colleges.
“At Princeton University, the number of students who learn Chinese is nearly three times (that of students of Japanese), while the Japanese language attracted twice as many learners as Chinese back in the 1980s,” the 79-year-old scholar said.
Though Japan might have lost the enviable economic clout it used to have, which arguably also served as an incentive for learners of Japanese, the country still has room to attract people to learn the language.
“I think Japan has cultural power,” Makino said. “But (Japan) is not aggressive enough . . . compared to other countries. All in all, (Japan) should boast about it (to the world).”
Makino was born in Tokyo and retired from the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University in 2012 after serving as a professor of Japanese and linguistics for about 20 years. He received The Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for “his outstanding contributions in the mutual academic exchanges between Japan and the United States and the development of Japanese language education,” according to the government.
Makino went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 1964 to study linguistics at Indiana University and earned his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Illinois in 1968.
During the interview, Makino said the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will serve as a catalyst to rekindle people’s interest in the Japanese language and urged relevant parties to come up with measures to promote language education overseas.
“Many people will visit Japan for the first time, which would make the sporting event important” in terms of spreading Japanese culture and language, Makino said.
Meanwhile, he noted it is vital to gain the public’s understanding to encourage Japanese-language education overseas and called for cooperation from among Japanese citizens to invite learners of their language for interaction.
“It is necessary to increase the number of people who can call on local governments to accept exchange students who learn Japanese,” he said. “Connecting students from various countries with people in local communities would be important” to promote exchanges.
One of the programs Makino launched for students of Japanese was Princeton in Ishikawa, an eight-week-long summer Japanese-language course, which brings U.S. college students to Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, to learn the language and culture firsthand while living with host families.
“We wanted to create a program featuring home-stays, which would enable students to learn the culture,” Makino explained about the annual program that started in 1993.
Hosted by Ishikawa Prefecture, the program had drawn about 900 students in total as of last year.
“We have been striving on how to provide good Japanese education on students and hopefully taking them to Japan and letting them learn authentic language and diverse culture,” Makino said. “We hope they will return home with positive impression toward Japan.”
Among his many other contributions to Japanese-language education Makino established a summer Master’s program of Japanese Pedagogy at Columbia University in New York in 1996 after serving as director of the renowned Japanese school at Middlebury College in Vermont between 1978 and 1988.
Makino, who was president of the Association of the Teachers of Japanese from 2003 to 2005, also helped introduce Japanese to the Oral Proficiency Interview, an assessment of functional speaking ability administered by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Reflecting on his overseas experiences, Makino advised young Japanese to study abroad, as it will help them develop multiple perspectives. “The more you know the culture and language, the more your perspective will be diversified. Just traveling abroad would make much difference,” he said.
Even as he approaches his eighth decade, Makino is still filled with a can-do spirit as he searches for more ways to contribute to the further development of Japanese-language education.
“My notebook has a list of various things I’d like to pursue,” Makino said. “I will study issues surrounding the Japanese language so that teachers in the classroom can utilize the results.”