Language Society

Why Study Japanese? An American expat’s perspective (Part 1)

In my last article, I gave an outline of why I think studying a foreign language can be a worthwhile investment for students and professionals. In order to gain a better understanding of how this is possible, I asked my friend Benjamin Boas for an interview. I met Ben when he was doing some work for The Japan Economic Foundation, and was impressed with the life he had made for himself in Japan. As he had pursued the study of Japanese, among other interests, to further his career, I thought Ben would be a great source of information on how learning a foreign language – like Japanese – can open up doors of opportunity for your career.

I was able to secure a time to meet with Ben in Kamakura, a historical and traditional town with many tasty eateries and a laid-back vibe, where its not uncommon to see people sipping beer before noon as they meander among the food stalls. Being a true Seattleite, I was lucky for Ben to pick a coffee shop for us to meet and talk at. With coffee and chocolate in hand, I broke in with the questions.

So, Ben, I think you told me a bit about this before, but how did you become interested in Japan?

Ben: When I was 4 years old, I went with my mom to buy a Father’s Day present for my dad. For some reason, we got him a Nintendo Entertainment System. He didn’t really play it, and once I figured out what it was-

It was yours, right?

Ben: Ha, yeah! I did Mario Brothers, Zelda, and this game series called Final Fantasy. I became super interested in video games, and remained that way all throughout elementary school – really, I’ve just been playing tons of videogames my whole life. At first it wasn’t about Japan; I just liked the games. But as I got older, I started to recognize that the characters and tropes in these games were Japanese. Sometimes I could recognize monsters I’d see in books about Japan, like Yokai for example, and think ‘Oh, I saw that in a videogame.’ As the stories in Japanese manga and anime are similar to those in Japanese videogames, I became interested in them as well. In high school, I started to become aware that the media I was consuming was English translations of the real stuff.

We have such similar stories!

Ben: I knew that in order to play ALL the Final Fantasy games, I would have to play them in Japanese. I was able to start studying Japanese in during high school with a local tutor, after requesting permission to count that study for credit.

You went to Brown University, right? I know you said you majored in a liberal arts field, but what was it exactly?

Ben: Everyone at Brown has to study the liberal arts in some form actually, but my degree was a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian studies. The system is very flexible at Brown, so you could basically take whatever classes you wanted to. I picked East Asian studies not primarily because I wanted to study Japanese, but so that I only had to take a minimum number of classes I wasn’t interested in. My main academic interest was and still is anthropology, but I didn’t want to take the other required classes I would have had to take to major in anthropology. I did have to take a couple of classes on the history of Japan and China that didn’t interest me too much, but I think they were valuable since I wanted to live in Japan at some point, and China is a rising economy.

Yeah. I’ve thought before that if I were able to just shift my interests from Japan to China, a study of Chinese would be much more lucrative than Japanese. I love Japan, but I think China is the language of tomorrow, or the economy of tomorrow.

Ben: You know, they were saying the same thing when I was an undergraduate student. I had a friend who was studying Chinese and I used to joke that when we graduated he would have a job, and I’d be living in a cardboard box. (laughs) But just because on average, picking a more lucrative field of study leads to a more lucrative career, that doesn’t mean that it works that way on an individual level. I find that students do best when they study what they’re interested in. If you happen to be interested in economic theory, and retain that information, you may have a lucrative career as a result. But I don’t think that’s because you decided to major in economics, but because you were interested in it in the first place. If you become a specialist in something, you will generally have a path to monetize that specialty. On the other hand, if you pick a major field of study that you’re not interested in, it will be more difficult to retain the knowledge, and to become a specialist in that field. And if you choose to make that your career for life, then you’ll spend decades engaged in a field that, well, you’re not really engaged in.

In considering different factors that have contributed to success like yours, do you think that the reputation of your alma mater has played a major role in that?

Ben: It would be naïve to say that reputation was insignificant. It certainly helped to put me into contact with people I’d not have otherwise been in contact with. The quality of the education is also quite high, and their flexible style allowed me to do my Senior Honors thesis on the anthropology of gambling. That thesis helped me to earn a Fulbright scholarship to come to Japan, which is how I first started living here.

This article is split into three parts, so be sure to check out part 2 & part 3 & part 4 as well!

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