Language Society

Why Study Japanese? An American expat’s perspective (Part 3)

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.

I was very interested in Japan and Japanese studies too, but before I came to Japan I used to think there was no way I could monetize this interest. I thought, “Well, I’ll just be able to read manga.” But I was surprised at how even my intermediate level of Japanese has helped my career opportunities in Japan. Even for English tutoring, people have been willing to pay me more money because the other people they worked with didn’t know any Japanese so when they hit a wall in conversation practice, they couldn’t help them to understand or explain anything. What do you think people stand to gain – externally, with just conversational Japanese?

Ben: Conversational Japanese is probably useless in a rural area of America. On the other hand, if you live in Japan, it’s indispensable. It’s just a matter of supply and demand. There’s a lot of demand for Japanese skill AND native English skill in this country.

A lot of people I’ve met in my university classes really want to come to Japan, and really want to keep studying Japanese, but feel afraid that there is no way they can make money with it. But I think that if you have Japanese, and another marketable skill – even if that skill is just speaking English -

That’s a very marketable skill here. I would say my career has more to do with that than with my Japanese language skill. Actually, many Westerners that spend their careers in Japan really don’t have a very high level of Japanese ability. While Japan is not a particularly diverse country, Tokyo is actually a very international city. And it is possible to live in Tokyo for a long time without speaking a word of Japanese.

I came here with some Japanese from studying at university, so I’ve never actually went to a gas station and tried speaking English with the guy behind the counter, for example. I wonder how that would work?

Ben: It would probably work fine. It’s not like you could have a lengthy conversation about politics with him, but if it’s just paying for gas, then there isn’t really much communication needed in that context.

I actually think that’s something that could be encouraging for people that are in the mid-way point. I think that for people like me who are at an intermediate level, they still have a lot to gain from even that level of Japanese.

Ben: Very much so. I think that the biggest hurdle to living and working in Japan isn’t the language. I think the biggest challenge is getting used to living in a different society and culture. If you can get used to Japanese culture, you’ll find this country is a wonderful place to live. I certainly do.

What really matters is whether you want to be here or not. For example, if someone is absolutely desperate to get to Japan, then they’ll find a way to make it work when they get here– especially as a native English speaker. On the other hand, if you come here thinking “This is going to be so lucrative for my career – any English speaker can make money here,” then you’ll probably find it more difficult than you anticipated.

This article is split into three parts, so be sure to check out part 1 & part 2 & part 4 as well!

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