Should I Major in Japanese in College?

The Japanese college major: an area of so much confusion and questioning of its real benefits.  Depending on your age, you may have pondered following this path.  What could be better?  You achieve systematic fluency in Japanese after four years and you can use the degree to get a job as a translator, interpreter, or some other job where Japanese is required.  Dive right in, earn your grades, and become a master of Japanese.

Unfortunately, majoring in Japanese often results in the exact opposite of what you would expect.

Opposite Effect #1:  You learn Japanese at a much slower/worse pace than if you weren’t a Japanese major

You rely on the image that being a Japanese major will get you fluent in 4 years of work.  Why shouldn’t it?  4 years is a long time.  According to my timeline, 4 years is enough to achieve fluency in most areas of Japanese.  So you follow all the classes, do all the assigned homework, take quizzes and tests, do presentations, even study a semester abroad in Japan maybe.  You just graduated with an A.  You should be awesome . . . but you’re not.  What happened?

You’ve relied too much on an old-fashioned educational system that is lacking in efficiency.  4 years of studying Japanese in college may only be the equivalent of a little over 1 year studying using Japanese Level Up and similar methods.  I know this sounds harsh, but I’ve met too many Japanese majors who can’t hold up a conversation, can’t understand natural Japanese media, and are very illiterate.

Opposite Effect # 2:  You make yourself less employable for a job that requires Japanese.

When you major in Japanese, you usually don’t major in anything else (unless you count double majors, which I don’t feel like getting into).  A degree in Japanese should be the perfect tool in getting a job using Japanese.  But it isn’t.  The best way to get a job using Japanese is to be fluent in Japanese and have another skill/proficiency.  Majoring in Japanese would at best maybe make you fluent.  However, most jobs ads don’t list:  “Required fluency in Japanese.  Don’t worry, you don’t need any other skills.”

To Japanese Majors out there:

If you are or were a Japanese major, either you will agree with this article, or it will anger you. To fend off your wrath, let me add four rays of light which I can see in the Japanese major.

1.  Some people really are classroom learners.  They thrive best in this setting, and would never have the motivation or discipline to study alone.
2.  Some people will combine the Japanese Level Up method and other similar methods with a Japanese major, enabling them to succeed in college with top grades and come out with awesome Japanese.
3.  Employment-wise, there are still some ignorant employers out there that don’t understand anything at all about how studying Japanese actually works.  They assume that if you weren’t a Japanese major in college, you can’t possibly be fluent, and won’t consider you for the job.
4.  Sometimes you just have to go with what’s best for you.  If you think being a Japanese major will give you the most fun out of your college experience, then go for it.

Distinguish “Becoming a Japanese Major” versus “Taking Japanese Classes”

Majoring in Japanese should not be confused with taking Japanese classes.  These are two different beasts.  Deciding on whether you should take a Japanese class relies on a different line of reasoning and contains its own pros and cons.  If you are in this process, please consult the linked post.

And for your knowledge, I was an English major in college, which I’m sure plenty of people could argue is equally lackluster.  But I believe this enables me to write in smooth and flowing English, and this is a skill that translators absolutely must have.



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

Should I Major in Japanese in College? — 24 Comments

  1. I’m majoring in Web Development/Design, ha.

    Thing is, there’s a reasonably good possibility I may be studying abroad over in Japan. Thing is, I have to take Japanese language classes. I myself believe it is worth it, though; especially if I’m there for a year.

    What’s your opinion on this?

    • Classes have their pros and cons and the benefit varies greatly depending on the person. So you really need to figure out if it will be right for you.

  2. In some ways I wish I never took Japanese classes. If I had spent as much time and devotion as I did towards the class using methods like Japanese Level Up and taking full advantage of the many amazing resources on the internet (such as Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese), I would definitely be further along than I today. Now I am working to reform my system and make it more efficient.

    However, if you think you simply won’t have the motivation to get yourself started, I’d suggest taking Japanese 1 and then thinking hard about whether or not you should just self-study.

  3. Good thing (4 point part) you did not hop on a high horse and say that classes suck/totally worthless.

  4. I studied Russian in college for three years, 4.0 GPA, generally the top of my class or at least in the top two. After all that time, I still couldn’t *communicate* with Russians. I could translate the encyclopedia, but couldn’t function verbally once off a grammatically perfect textbook script.

    In contrast, I learned more German in less than a year in high school by constantly hanging out at the house of a good friend whose whole family immigrated to the U.S. from Germany.

    Suffice to say, if my experience is any guide, I wouldn’t recommend a collegiate approach to learning any language if they teach it “the old-fashioned way” of classroom repetition, memorizing vocab lists out of context, and picking apart grammar rules.

  5. I think it also depends on what your goals are. My school doesn’t offer the major, but I am minoring in Japanese, while majoring in Asian Studies. Not many job opportunities for that kind of major. I considered majoring in anthropology, but realized to get a career I would actually need a PhD, which I don’t have time or money for! So, I may just minor in it to enhance my ability to analyze cultures.

    I don’t really want to do some high up job in Japan. I just want to work at a daycare or translate for companies. Language is my passion, and I love working with kids too. I wish I could major in Japanese, not for the language component, but just for the focused study on the country. I love the courses on Japanese traditional lit., cinema and so on at my school as part of my Asian Studies major.

  6. There are sanctioned proficiency tests for most major languages, including Japanese, that you can use to show employers your language ability. Having a language major has no connection whatsoever.

    On the other hand, most jobs related to math, science, technology etc. require a degree. You can always study language on the side. You’ll never become fluent if it isn’t your passion anyway, and if language is your passion you’ll have no problem pursuing it independently.

    I wish somebody had told me this earlier, or that I had been smart enough to figure it out before graduating with an East Asian Studies/Japanese major. Had to go to law school to make myself marketable. I hate law :(

    • Very interesting! So you’re speaking as someone who has experience with what Adshap is talking about.

      Couldn’t make yourself marketable by getting some other kind of degree? Had to be law? I would consider that distracting from language study (<_<).

      • Hi,

        Interesting post. It all depends though. Asian Studies itself has ALOT of area concentrations. Colleges in Califonria, like New York, offer many concentrations such as economics, international relations, and etc. I earned my BA in Asian Studies (economics concentration) and another BA in business.

        Many people “assume” that Asian Studies is an enrichment degree, which I beg to differ. It is a challenging degree to earn because of the advanced language requirement, economics, and research methods aspects of the degree. And most government t related jobs do in fact higher Asian Studies major, especially the embassy.

        A good friend of mined earned a BA in Chinese and minored in finance. Upon graduation , he got hired to work in the finance section in Wallstreet.

        Asian Studies has many branches and it all depends on other factors, and it isn’t an enrichment degree.

  7. I initially thought the same thing. However, once I realized I could accel at Japanese on my own, having a Japanese major made even more sense to me. Because I study Japanese on my own, all my Japanese classes have become a cake walk. Therefore, I don’t have to put any extra time into those classes. Which means I have more time for Japanese. Getting a Japanese major for me just means less work. It’s more or less like being one of those people who go for a really easy degree just so they can sit back and wait to get on with their lives.

  8. I do agree with most of your points. Japanese Studies in itself probably won’t get you a job where you can actually use that degree (apart from pursuing an academic career or translation if you’re really good). However, I do find that employers (in the Netherlands at least) are very impressed to see that I’m majoring in Japanese. When I worked at the foreign incidents department of an insurance company as a temp (not exactly my dream job, mind you :|) they actually really wanted to give me one of their Germany accounts because they were confident I’d be able to pick up the language and related insurance law in no time. There’s often this (probably misguided) mindset of “If you can learn Japanese, you can learn anything,” which you can use to your advantage.

  9. I am fascinated with Japanese language and culture, and it is what I want to be involved with as a career. My goal is to live in Japan, and possibly go to college there. But there is a problem. I have no clue what jobs are out there that would be perfect for me and a goal as big as this. I have been pondering about this for quite some time, and I have to admit, I’m going to need some help with this. Can anyone tell me there ideas or what to head towards, because I’m a bit stuck. Anything would be helpful. Thank you.

      • This is where it gets tough. There are so little things I am interested in and enjoy doing that I would want to pursue. I like cooking, I’m good at cleaning, I’m interested in other cultures and languages, and I love reading and books. There is also anime/manga, but there are so little jobs that have anything to do with that. I guess you could say I just have a passion for Japan. Period. And that might be what is holding me back from widening my view of other things.

  10. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I am a senior in high school, about to graduate in a few months. I was wondering how plausible it would be for this to work out. There’s a university that I’m planning on going to that offers a Masters in both English and Japanese (they even have a PhD in Japanese studies). I plan on getting a Masters in both (English and Japanese) and my teaching certification. I also plan to study abroad in Japan afterwards at a Japanese language school (advanced courses) that focuses on speaking conversationally.

    The thing is, I want to be a teacher in Japan. I plan to go through the JET program (be an English teacher assistant) at first, but I want a more permanent employment. That’s why I want to fluently know Japanese, so I can be a fulltime English teacher. I know a lot of JETs usually have limited Japanese, not saying all of them do, but I want to communicate with students so I can properly teach them. And I’ve always wanted to live in Japan, I love the culture. Of course there are boundaries because of me being born in the US, but realistically, is any of this possible?

    • Wow Phylicia, are you my twin?

      Yeah, we actually share the same name, and I majored in Japanese and I’m currently a JET in Japan. (Crazy.)

      Japanese isn’t essentially necessary for the job… Japanese Teachers of English may actually want you to only speak English (it depends though) – because the JTE’s role is often to explain things, while the ALT can serve as an example of a native speaker/add a fun atmosphere to class (via games or introducing from one’s culture) – this is usually done speaking English for the students’ sake (you’re giving them listening/speaking practice)… if you want something more permanent, then there are things like eikaiwas (English schools) or Interac (ALTing that is similar to JET but with less benefits), though these don’t require Japanese (and you may be discouraged from using it with students). Not to mention, I’m not sure how satisfying these jobs are to do for a number of years. If you want to teach university level, you need an MA/PHD probably (I heard tenured positions require JLPT N1-level Japanese fluency).

      But really, there are plenty of qualified Japanese people here to teach – so natives are usually desired for the “immersion”-style teaching in English, so I hope you don’t go into learning Japanese with the wrong idea.

      Good luck, name twin!

  11. I’m currently attending a community college here within my city. I’m getting my general ed out the way so I can transfer to a 4-year Uni. My community college has Japanese classes that go from Japanese 1 – 4. I’m currently taking Japanese 1 and I’m loving it. Now I’ve always been interested in Japanese language and lifestyle since I was little. I’m not going to major in Japanese because I feel that getting any sort of job that I would like to do and that pays well is very rare to come across. I’ve also been passionate about computer technology as well, and have taking a few years of variant computer programming classes, web design classes, etc I have decided to major is Computer Science, and I was going to minor in Japanese. I want to study abroad within the next year around summer, so I can really hon-in my japanese. If I plan to find work in Japan with a masters in CS and a minor in Japanese, do you guys think I could find work without having to worry if I made the right decision in college?

    Sincerely,

    Arley

    • “I’m not going to major in Japanese because I feel that getting any sort of job that I would like to do and that pays well is very rare to come across.”

      It really pisses me off when I read things like the above. Colleges take a huge amount of money from kids and don’t really help them understand what will await them after graduation.

      The dirty little secret about college these days is that majoring in anything doesn’t guarantee, or even particularly help you to get, a job. Of course, YMMV, but I’ve had a lot of friends who have had trouble with their CS degrees. I have a dual major degree in CS and Math and have struggled immensely..

      So thinking of avoiding a Japanese major because you think a CS one will give you more opportunity is, in my humble opinion, a step in the wrong direction. But I’m not saying that a Japanese major is any better. The point is, either way, your degree and all those toils in classes are mostly wasted.

      A Japanese major is actually the perfect example. The best you can hope for in relevant language course work is 1 course each for 6 semesters and then a full-year study abroad load of 30 credits(half of which aren’t language courses). That’s 54 credits. But the school forces you to take 128 credits for your degree. So what are the other courses? Well, some of them are your Japanese culture classes. Japanese culture professors can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept that if you take language classes instead of culture classes, you’ll be more likely to move to, and thrive in, Japan, where you’ll be able to enjoy the culture first-hand instead of in a dusty tome. The rest of your credits go to gened reqs and other assorted crap. What does a Japanese major need with Calculus? Or, hilariously…I took Spanish I & II to satisfy my language requirement. I think almost everyone on this site can relate to how pointless it is to force students to take language 101 and 102. College…I swear.

      But it gets worse. I did have the (probably ill-advised) opportunity to study abroad in Japan. The vast majority of the Anglophone students at the school(myself included) spent the vast majority of their time in the English Bubble(like most foreigners in Japan?). It was a wonderful multicultural experience, but not so much with the Japanese. I have a lot of beautiful memories of the time, but it wasn’t so helpful for learning the language. Most of the people in the study abroad program, and in the English Bubble, were upperclassmen…and none were fluent(the very strong, and very few, near-fluent students were all with host families and took the native language classes with the Japanese students, and so rarely interacted with the English Bubble)

      I just want to touch a bit on CS now. If you do nothing but fill the requirements, and get a 4.0, you’re probably screwed(unless your 4.0 is from an Ivy school, in which case you probably still did something else). Let’s touch lightly on what one can expect to learn as a CS undergraduate…Basic programming, object oriented concepts, common data structures and algorithms, some basic database stuff, getting comfortable with linux, qualitative coursework about the general components of computer software systems(operating systems, compilers, drivers, etc.), basic networking coursework, software development concepts, and some (hopefully team) projects.

      What’s wrong with the above? It isn’t specific enough to get you a job. There is no such thing as an entry level job. At the very least, you -must- have an internship under your belt. Ideally, you’d additionally do a ton of networking(the real purpose of college), try to get some freelancing(e.g. elance) done, have a nice github portfolio and strong open source bonafides. And, very important, you must already have the job skills. Again, there is no such thing as an entry level job. You have to be able to start a job with minimal training. The classes needed for a CS major aren’t specialized enough…what you’d really have to do is start looking at job postings for a specific kind of job and start learning ALL of the desired technologies for those jobs years before graduation. Even then, expect to work more than 40 hours a week for a year in your first job.

      I’m not trying to dissuade people from a career making software. I just want to impress in the strongest possible terms that your education is terribly incomplete and needs to be supplemented on your own time. The unfortunate part about that is that if you have a family/friends or a time consuming hobby(like learning Japanese), it gets difficult to put in the vast amounts of time necessary to get all the above done.

      I just want to say in conclusion, don’t make assumptions(yes, I know I just made a bunch of assumptions) about what you can or cannot do with one degree or another, or what future will come if you make this choice or that choice. If there are 1,000,000 expected job openings, and it’s said that if someone does A, B, and C then can get a job…but then 5,000,000 do A, B, and C, you can see that a lot of people will not get the futures they thought they would get. Do what you love in college…hopefully that thing will be productive. That’s what I absolutely adore about Japanese…Maybe it’ll be of use vocationally, maybe it won’t, but it’s something that nobody can ever take away or render irrelevant. It’s not like A, B, and C…it has a value outside of a vocational context. But unlike other avocational pursuits, you have progress to show for what you’ve put into it. If you play WoW or waste a few months on a completely forgettable relationship, then a year on you have nothing to show for it. Err, but I’m ranting again…So I stop now ^^

      Again, this is largely based on my own experiences and those of my friends in college, so YMMV.

  12. I am going to be majoring in Japanese as of the second semester of next year as part of a Bachelor of Asian studies. As my background is in the Defence Force, all of the international relations, economic analysis and diplomacy stuff should work in well with my dream of working in a Japanese Embassy translating and interpreting things for politicians and generals. :)

  13. I’m thinking of just majoring in spanish, and getting a minors/ associates degree in Japanese, and after bachelors degree getting the TESOL/TEFL certificate to teach english abroad, but it is difficult to see if should double major in Japanese and Spanish, Since I’m a native speaker of both Spanish and English, I only have those two in mind plus the Tefl/tesol. For those going to college, really think about what you want to major in, id recommend taking general education classes in Community/Junior College, and then transfer to a four year, because school sure is tough and difficult these days.

  14. I write better than a lot of other students I know that are English majors. The problem is that my old institute (I’m a transfer student) had a much better English program. The classes offered regarding English where I am aren’t that interesting/good. On the other hand, the Japanese classes (culture, language, literature) are a lot more interesting. Furthermore, majoring in any language will require a lot of analytical writing in English. So it seems to me, you get the same benefits of being an English major, but also get extensive cultural and literary knowledge of a culture that isn’t yours. I’m not saying one is better than the other. But towards the end you seemed to be implying that majoring in English is better, whereas to me it doesn’t seem to be better or worse.

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