Japanese is incredibly useful outside of Japan.
There are four specific reasons I believe learning Japanese and even demonstrating it with a degree is still valuable and worthwhile. And I think it will be even more valuable in the future.
First, I think some context is important so you know where I'm coming from.
People thought I was nuts to learn Japanese
Back in 1991 when I first decided to study Japanese (Yeah, the year of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch), Japan’s bubble economy was bursting in slow motion, and almost everyone I knew thought I was nuts to study Japanese.
I remember people pointing out that the Japanese population was less than 2% of the world’s population at the time. It’s probably about 1% of the world population now. My grandfather told me it studying Japanese was as useless as studying Yiddish. He told me my four years of Latin would be more useful.
I didn’t care. And I was lucky that I had some unexpected support from my father, a classical guitarist his whole life. He said lead with what you love, work hard at it, and it will somehow make sense in the long run.
Getting a degree in Japanese isn’t necessarily the goal here, but if you are lucky enough to study something you’re interested in, go for it. I did that, and I earned a B.A. in Japanese Language and Literature from University of California, Irvine. Nothing magical happened when I graduated. The jobs related to the degree were not interesting, and I went in a different direction and worked in technology (I still do).
Four (4) reasons you may want to study Japanese
Over the years though, some wonderful things happened and the degree in Japanese became extremely valuable. And I think it’s going to be even more valuable in the future. Here are the four reasons why, and not necessarily in any order. Maybe one applies to you, maybe more, or maybe all four:
- Happiness & personal satisfaction: (per your question, skip this and go to #2 if you don’t care, but your question doesn’t address one really big point: Happiness) Japan is an amazing place. It’s on almost everyone’s bucket list to visit. Almost everyone who’s been to Japan comes back just amazed and usually enamored by the people, the food, the culture and so many things that make Japan really interesting and curious. I became mesmerized by Japanese culture and language, and after my first trip to Japan I was hooked. It was like nothing I every imagined. I wanted to learn more, and I decided to study Japanese. I didn’t care if it was practical. Learning and using Japanese made me happy because it opened up a new world to me, a world that was amazing to me, one with so many layers to it I felt the exploration of its culture was endlessly satisfying. Yale’s most popular class ever is on improving one’s personal happiness. That says a lot. I had found a topic and interest that brought me a lot of satisfaction, and a lot of my friends couldn’t say the same at the time.
- Business value. If you want to look at it from a purely practical perspective, consider that Japan is important to the world. For starters, there’s the fact that we live in a global economy of which Japan is still the third largest part after the United States and China. Japan’s economy is roughly the same size as Brazil, Russia and India combined- the three other BRIC countries other than China. Japan has over a $1 trillion US dollars in foreign investments, and over $400 billion US dollars directly invested in the US supporting over 850,000 high paying US jobs, and this is only increasing. Just-in-time delivery, continuous improvement, lean, efficient manufacturing originated in Japan. These are the concepts that serve as a foundation for a global supply chain (that thing that makes it possible for Apple to make and sell over 25 million iPhones per month… ) The modern world economy is largely the result of these concepts that countries like the US and Germany emulated and adapted. Pundits will say Japan’s faltering. And there are problems, big problems to be dealt with at the macro and micro levels. But in the near term, Japan is a beast of an business machine and an amazing one to learn from to become more competitive.
- Manners, social values and personal relationships. There’s a general deep respect demonstrated by Japanese to each other and to visitors. The first four years of elementary school are largely about teaching children how to behave, and less about digesting information. I just wrote a blog post on this at Japaneur. My son is in first grade and together with his classmates they clean their school daily, including the bathrooms. You’d be right if you guessed that he treats our own bathroom with greater care as a result. Just yesterday I saw two extremely busy, hardworking trash collectors working to throw about 50 bags of trash into the back of their trash truck that was idling on a bridge we had just approached with our car. We couldn’t pass though, it was too narrow. What did they do? They acknowledge us, bowed, and one guy got back in the truck and drove it forward, adjusting it so we could pass. They didn’t have to do that- it would only have taken an extra 20–30 seconds of two guys throwing bags to finish. They both bowed as we drove by, and we bowed back and I turned on my hazard lights for two pulses right after we passed them- a thing people do in Japan to say “arigato” (thank you) with their car. This is normal in Japan. One of the reasons I moved with my family to Japan from Southern California so my children could experience this and grow up with it as the norm.
- It may just change your entire life for the better. My wife is the love of my life and my best friend, and she happens to be Japanese. Our kids speak both languages, and as I mentioned before, they are learning both cultures. If the first three reasons to learn Japanese weren’t enough, consider that maybe the love of your life will be from Japan, and maybe even your kids someday.
Man, am I happy I pursued and finished that Japanese degree.
I should also add one clarification: I don’t think it necessarily matters that you get a degree in Japanese. My father told me he didn’t care about that, all he cared about back then was that I just completed a degree in anything. Graduation was the goal. A degree in Japanese does have a lot of wow factor though. Consider this: When I applied to the MBA program at the Paul Merage Business School at the University of California at Irvine, one of the factors that helped me was the “uniqueness” of my undergraduate degree. While everyone else had degrees in political science, liberal arts or other general degrees, while mine said a lot about me before anyone ever even interviewed me.
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