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In-depth Studying Japanese
“Studying Japanese”: Introduction

Kawashima Shin [Profile]


In recent years, the number of people studying Japanese as a foreign language has been on the rise. In this in-depth series, takes a look at what prompts people to start studying Japanese around the world.

More People Studying Japanese

The number of people studying Japanese as a foreign language is increasing. According to a 2009 survey on Japanese language instruction overseas, approximately 3.65 million people are studying Japanese around the world, taught by around 49,000 Japanese language instructors. This marks a considerable increase from 2006, when there were roughly 2.97 million students and 44,000 teachers. According to the Japan Foundation, some 610,000 people took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in Japan and other countries in 2011.

Students of Japanese are often people with an interest in Japan—or at least people who will come into contact with the country through its language, out of personal choice or otherwise. In that sense, the increase in the number of students should probably be welcomed. But we should remember that it is not necessarily impossible to understand Japan without knowing Japanese. And in some cases, the language can actually serve as a barrier to entry into Japanese society—as many trainee nurses from Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries have discovered.

But there is surely no doubt that students of Japanese who become interested in Japan and come to understand the country through its language are an important “medium” through which to introduce Japan and Japanese culture abroad. is an internationally minded site that aims to reach readers in six languages, including Japanese. The content on this site is precisely the kind of thing that ought to be of interest to people studying Japanese in this country and around the world. One assumes that such people are one of the site’s most important groups of readers.

Why Study Japanese?

In this series of essays, we turn our focus on foreign students of Japanese. What is it that makes increasing numbers of people around the world want to study the language? What are they hoping to gain, and do they actually achieve their aims? What issues do they face during the learning process? And what difficulties, if any, do they encounter when they attempt to use their Japanese ability to interact with and understand Japanese society? Japanese native speakers are often surprisingly unaware of these issues.

In the past, the main motivation for most people studying Japanese was the economy: there was a widespread expectation that knowing Japanese would be an asset in the job market. In recent years, the situation has changed, and popular culture is now a more important attraction for many. Knowing this from newspaper reports and hearsay is one thing. But it is much more difficult to imagine how people who study Japanese out of an interest in computer games or manga will make use of that knowledge later in life. Do they simply go on playing more games and reading more manga, or will they become interested in other aspects of Japan?

Seeing Japan Through New Eyes

This special report will try to answer these questions about foreign-language students of Japanese. The essays are divided into two sections. In Part 1, we hear from Japanese-speaking foreigners working in Japan and overseas. Our contributors look back on their early encounters with Japanese and the role that their relationship with Japan has played in their lives to date. For this section, we were fortunate to secure the assistance of four people at the top of their chosen fields: Shen Caibin (China), a well-known economic analyst; Marei Mentlein (Germany), presenter of a German language television program on NHK; Shirin Nezammafi (Iran), a novelist who writes in Japanese; and Angus Lockyer (Britain), who teaches at SOAS in London.

Part 2 looks at the current state of Japanese language studies in various parts of the world. The survey is organized into several sections: overview, problem areas, purposes of study, student career paths, and education and research issues.

I hope you enjoy reading the articles. If the series can make a small contribution in terms of encouraging people to take a fresh look at the language and culture of Japan, I’ll be very happy.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

  • [2013.05.28]

Editorial Planning Committee chair of and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.

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Other articles in this report
  • How I Learned Japanese: The Series of Coincidences that Brought Me to JapanChinese economist Shen Caibin started down the road that brought him to Japan as the result of an English teacher with a strong Russian accent. After his arrival in Japan, his colleagues at work turned out to be the ideal teachers.
  • How I Learned Japanese: The Freedom of the Non-Native SpeakerAs a presenter of NHK’s German language programs on television and radio, Marei Mentlein is a familiar figure to students of German in Japan. She also writes a regular column introducing European mystery novels to Japanese readers. Here she talks about the path that took her from an early childhood fascination with Chinese characters to discovering the pleasures of writing in Japanese as a student in Tokyo.
  • How I Learned Japanese: Television and “Manga”Iranian-born Shirin Nezammafi arrived in Japan in 1999 and won her first award for Japanese fiction seven years later. In this essay she acknowledges her debt to two important teachers—television and manga.
  • How I Learned Japanese: Putting the Language to Actual UseAngus Lockyer first went to Japan after he visited his university careers’ office and happened to see a pamphlet saying “teach English in Japan.” Over two decades later, Lockyer is now an expert on Japanese history. In the following he tells his story and discusses his Japanese learning experiences.

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