Careers for Japanese Language Students
Melissa Van Wyk
One of my favorite Japanese phrases I learned while studying Japanese at Calvin is ichigo ichie, which means something like “every meeting is a precious opportunity”. Since graduating in 2008, my experience in Asian studies, specifically Japanese studies, has led me to meet a number of fascinating people and build significant lifelong relationships. I participated in Calvin’s summer internship in Hikone, Japan after just two years of Japanese, and what impacted me even more than the buildings, beautiful nature, or Japan’s rich history, were the welcoming and warm people I met during my six week stay. The students in my English conversation classes, my coworkers at the public library, and especially my two host families made my first experience in Japan one I will never forget, and I still make a trip back to Hikone to stay with my host families every time I return to Japan (and they’re planning to visit me soon!). Returning to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program the next year, I discovered the challenges and joys of teaching 670 middle school students English, and although I only stayed for one year, I was able to build strong relationships with my students and with the other wonderful teachers at my school. I even joined a local yosakoi dance group that I traveled and performed with for the year. It’s hard to say whether I or my students learned more from that year of teaching!
I’ve of course also been blessed to experience the joys of traveling throughout Japan by train and bicycle, learning some of Japan’s traditional cultural arts, and seeing just some of Japan’s many cultural festivals. I’ve been invited into Buddhist temples to observe ceremonies, spent a day in a real ninja village, seen the world’s largest rice scoop, helped fly one of the world’s biggest kites, and met some of the most interesting people I know. In a country that is less than 1% Christian, I’ve also been able to share my faith through close personal relationships with my friends, family, and acquaintances in Japan, at the same time that I’ve been deeply impacted by the beauty and gentleness of Japan’s culture. I’m now finishing up a Master’s degree in Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan and will be pursuing a PhD in Japanese Literature. I can’t wait to see what new adventures I’ll encounter and what new people I’ll meet as I continue to learn about, and learn from, Japan.
During my three years at Calvin as an Asian Studies major, I spent a summer teaching English in Japan and a semester studying in China. These experiences as well as the classes I took at Calvin had a strong impact on me, and I knew I wanted to spend most of my life living abroad and learning about other cultures and languages. Something about Asia-- and Japan in particular-- had taken a hold of me, and I knew that was where I wanted to go. So after graduation I spent a year teaching English in Taiwan, followed by three years teaching in Japan.
The rewards I reaped from those years are greater than can be explained in words. I became conversationally fluent in Mandarin and near-native in Japanese. I met people who've become some of my closest friends-- some of whom I never could have gotten to know if I hadn't been able to communicate with them in their language. And in learning to understand other cultures, I ultimately learned so much about myself.
Different cultures have such different ideas about how people should look, how they should act, what they should strive for in life, and how they should view the world. Most people just accept the norms their culture imposes on them because it's all they know, but by immersing yourself in another culture you can challenge and expand your worldview. You can decide what's really right or wrong, and what's merely subjective. For instance, in American culture we're encouraged to be outgoing and gregarious, but
Japanese culture encourages its people to be quiet and reserved. Which one of these is right? Is one better than the other? I don't think so. I think both are legitimate ways of being, and we need to have both outgoing and reserved people in the world. Personally I'd always struggled growing up in the states because I wasn't very outgoing or talkative, but through my experience in Japan I learned to understand and accept this part of myself. Ultimately I grew more confident, and ironically more talkative as well!
There are so many other things I learned too, things I don't have the space to list here. But I'm so much more confident and happy with myself now than I've ever been before, and I know a large part of this is thanks to the experiences I've had abroad.
Teaching English was a difficult job at times, but it gave me the
opportunity to get to know so many interesting people, and it forced me to think critically about my own native language and culture. ESL teachers in Japan and Taiwan are required to have a bachelor's degree, so I couldn't have done the things I did without a college education. But already having some language skills and some experience abroad also gave me a huge advantage and prepared me to transition smoothly into other cultures. I met a lot of ESL teachers who could speak nothing but English, didn't even try to learn the local language and spent all their time with other expats or locals who spoke English. I didn't understand what these people were doing living abroad. Didn't they want to learn something and enrich their lives by experiencing another culture? As someone who's studied several languages, I know that language and culture are intimately connected and you really can't have one without the other. There are concepts in Japanese that simply cannot be expressed in English, and vice-versa. So I know my experiences in Japan and Taiwan were so much richer than they would have been if I'd arrived not knowing any of the language. I also think I was a better English teacher because I'd gone through the experience of learning a foreign language and knew what it was like for my students. I feel like I genuinely did help a lot of them to improve their English and learn about my culture, and that is a really good feeling. I'd like to think I've helped give them the opportunity to have the same kinds of experiences I've had.
I'm now completely addicted to language and culture "mining" as I like to call it (because I believe there are unique gems of wisdom hidden in every language and culture, and I'm going digging for them!). So although Japan is my favorite place in the world, I've decided to expand my horizons even further and see what I can learn in a different part of the world. So I'm now living in France, where I'll be spending a year as a live-in nanny (a.k.a. "au pair") for a French family. As to where I'll end up next, your guess is as good as mine! But my current dream is to eventually make my living writing books about everything I've learned living abroad and studying languages."
When I thought about how studying Japanese at Calvin prepared me for my journey to Japan, I really thought that it could be summed up by two points. First, surely the acquisition of a higher education (and especially a liberal arts education) should include a well-rounded study of many subjects, but the study of foreign language(s) is absolutely essential part of those studies. It isn't enough to sit back and pretend that English alone is sufficient in a rapidly globalizing world. Learning about the world we live in includes learning foreign languages. Language study ultimately gives us a deeper insight towards not just understanding foreign cultures, but also towards a deeper understanding of our own culture. So really, studying foreign languages is part of the intellectual maturation process undergraduates should experience, and Calvin provides wonderful opportunities for them to do just that.
Second, studying Japanese at Calvin provides students with an extremely solid foundation in the Japanese language. Since 2002, I've lived in Japan for a total of just over 5 years. During that time I have noticed that foreigners who come to Japan without previously studying Japanese usually require relatively more time to acquire the language as they do not have a firm basis with which to begin. On the other hand, those that have studied Japanese before coming usually become accustomed to the language very
quickly due to the fact that they have already been exposed to difficulties in pronunciation, grammar and writing systems that compose the Japanese language. Without this preliminary knowledge, it can be very difficult to know how to begin.
So for me, I am absolutely certain that by studying Japanese at Calvin I gained the essential exposure to Japanese culture, as well as a foundation for learning the language which both have helped me to not only succeed in my endeavors in Japan, but also to enjoy my experiences in Japan immensely. Learning Japanese at Calvin has directly helped me go forward and earn a teaching position with the Japanese government, work in a Japanese company, and to obtain a Japanese government scholarship for graduate school. I literally cannot imagine where I would be had I not decided to study Japanese at Calvin, but if I hadn't, I might not be enjoying life as much as I am today.
I was initially attracted to Calvin because of their Asian Languages program: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the time, but I was sure that I wanted to study Japanese. I had been fairly bored as a high school student, and Calvin’s Japanese program gave me the opportunity to learn something interesting. However, it wasn’t until the summer following my freshman year that committed to the Asian Studies major.
At the time, Professor Herzberg led class trips on alternating years on a tour of Japan. We started in Osaka and Kyoto, traveled down through Shiga prefecture by bullet train to Kyushu, and then back up to Osaka again. Over the course of three or four weeks, Professor Herzberg exposed us to Japanese food, Japanese culture and, through a series of brief home-stays, the Japanese people.
A phrase that is often used when Westerners experience something new is “comfort zone,” as in: “I was forced outside my comfort zone!” I do not like this phrase, as I believe it implies that “comfort” is a regional phenomenon, something that can be contained within a local or national “zone,” and because it positions one’s emotional response to an international encounter takes at the center. Rather, I believe that “context” is a more fitting expression, as “context” encompasses the whole of a person’s worldview, both as an individual and as a part of the groups in which they are affiliated (family, college, nationality, etc.). It was not as if I didn’t experience comfort and discomfort while in Japan, but these were fleeting emotions. What my trip to Japan did do, quite permanently was radically alter my context, my approach to the world around me.
As I write this now, I am a second year graduate student at University of Texas @ Austin. I cannot explain to you in concrete terms how my experiences abroad redefined my context, but I can say with confidence that it colors everything I currently do. My context is woven into the papers I write or the field research I conduct. It is not that I am more comfortable with these projects, it is that I approach them in a way someone without my context cannot. Nor can I guarantee you that, if given the same opportunity, your context will change in a similar way as mine. What I can guarantee, however, is that your context, your perspective will change, and that seeing things from a new perspective is as valuable, if not more, than anything you can learn in a classroom setting. The Asian Studies department at Calvin College can offer you this opportunity, and I wholeheartedly recommend without reservation that you seize it when presented.
First, I would like to offer a warning to those who are following in the footsteps of the many Asian Studies majors and minors who have come before them: those who fail to plan plan to fail. My Asian Studies career, and particularly my specialization in Japanese, was preceded by a strong desire to live and work in Japan doing what I consider to be meaningful, challenging, and inspiring work.
I spent many hours practicing writing characters, listening to the audio, doing my homework, studying, and watching anime! Anime may seem like a waste of time, but auditory exposure to a target language is key in being able to mimic the sounds that are used in the language. To cap it all off I was able to spend two semesters studying Japanese intensively in Hikone, Japan. This period of time was the most intense studying I have ever done, but it was well worth it because it catapulted my language abilities beyond those of almost every other student in the Japanese classes at Calvin College. This is not to make light of the excellent language teachers Calvin has, but to emphasize that time spent studying a language for hours every day in the country where that language is spoken is 2nd only to being born in the country for language acquisition.
I now use my Japanese on a regular basis with Japanese teachers in public schools in a little town called Ryuou in Shiga prefecture, Japan. I use it with students as well when necessary, and to help them grasp new vocabulary, grammar, and complex concepts. Without my current language abilities I would have a much harder time working as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan. The company, Altia Central, I work for actually incorporates some basic language tests into their interview process, and rewards those with better Japanese ability, not to mention it expands the potential places a person like myself can go in Japan.
Whether I in the classroom or on the soccer field with the students it is very rewarding to be able to help them in ways that another person with little or no Japanese language abilities could. It helps me form relationships with the students, which in turns builds trust allowing me to be a more effective teacher in the classroom as a result.
The ALT experience that I gain in Japan directly translates into leadership experience, which is perfect for me when it comes time to go to business school. I plan to seek an MBA focusing on sustainability and international business. The work I am doing right now is quite well suited to prepare me to be a business leader. I am, therefore, very pleased with the education I received from the Asian Studies department because it has brought me many rewards, and I am sure it will continue to do so well into the future.
Jon Van Farowe
I was one of the first Calvin grads to participate in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. Of all of the grads I am probably one of the few who have remained in Japan long term. Over the last 15+ years I have had 4 different types of visas. I have had a teaching visa, a Japanese language student visa, a missionary visa, and now a spouse visa.
During those 15 years I have lived in Hirado City (Nagasaki), Fukuoka City, Tokyo, Guam, and now the greater Nagoya Metro area. I have seen more of Japan than most Japanese people and this is what I have learned.
Knowing the language is not as important as knowing the people and knowing yourself. I have had many foreign friends whose Japanese is better than my own but who the Japanese people can not stand to be around them. I have seen foreigners running from who they are in Japan and it is obvious to everyone. The key to success in Japan is to not only know Japanese, and know the people, but most importantly to know oneself.
It is very easy in Japan to be an English Teacher and make $30,000 a year. It is very difficult to be anything else unless you know yourself. Today I work with the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society out of California, formed by Japanese American churches after World War II. I work with several local churches including the Reformed Church of Japan. We have an English school with 120+ students. We have local contracts with Japanese companies, a Nursing College, an elite Junior High & High School, an elementary school, and many local community classes.
The secret to making it to where we are has been knowing who we are. This has allowed Japanese people regardless of their belief system to trust us. I am thankful for the start I received at Calvin College. In the end, as much as the Japanese language courses helped me in my career, what was even more valuable was a Reformed Christian world view, which helped me to become someone others saw as trustworthy.
Stephen and Yire Woerner
Greetings from New Jersey! We are the proud graduates of 2010 from East Asian Department of Calvin College. Stephen double majored in Japanese and Religion and I majored in Japanese with a business minor.
Since we graduated in 2010, we have been preparing to do missions in Japan as it has been God's call for Stephen since he was 11. In order to prepare for the calling, Stephen and I moved to Princeton, NJ for Stephen to continue his education at Princeton Theological Seminary for his M.Div degree. I work half time at the East Asian Library of Princeton University (which offers great benefits with health/dental insurance, paid vacation/sick days, educational assistance with tuition, etc.) and study full time at the seminary as well (for a Master's degree in Christian Education).
We were greatly surprised to find a Japanese church in Princeton when we first moved and have been involved in their youth ministry (Stephen is the youth group leader for this year), summer camps (both children's camp and youth camp), etc. Stephen delivered a sermon in Japanese this past summer and is preaching again in Japanese this coming Sunday. Everything (worship, fellowship, emails, etc.) is conducted in Japanese.
God has been so gracious in leading us to this place after Calvin to not only prepare us for His work in Japan through the seminary education but also through working in this local Japanese church. We are praying for God's clear guidance in what to do after seminary. Stephen is considering pursuing a Ph.D degree in East Asian Studies/Religion at Princeton University in order to perfect his Japanese and gain richer understanding of the region. The hope is that through this program, his Japanese will not only be conversant, but also academic allowing him to preach and counsel more effectively.
We also might have an opportunity to go straight into the mission field after seminary as well, so please continue to pray for us! All of these opportunities that God has given us would not have been presented without Calvin and all of its excellent professors and staff who supported us in God’s calling for our lives. Thank you!
As a teenager with an interest in Japan, I knew I wanted to choose a college where I could fully pursue that interest. Amongst all that I looked at, it came down to Calvin College in the end, for a variety of reasons,
and one of the strongest was the option of Japanese language study. While I was an English major, the choice to study Japanese as well was important to me even if I did not know where it would take me at that time. After a few years study at my high school, I went happily through Calvin's second-third-fourth-year language courses. The instructors and the emphasis on practice through conversing with our fellow classmates proved invaluable to me later!
I graduated from Calvin College with a minor in Japanese language in 2008. During my time I was introduced to the idea of the JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program), involving placement overseas in Japan as an English instructor, and thanks to the support I received from the school, was accepted. Living and teaching in a small Japanese town, I had daily use of the Japanese I'd learned at Calvin. For two years it was truly the opportunity of a lifetime, not only for work experience but personal experience as well.
Recently in the fall of 2011, I have relocated overseas once again, this time for a Masters Degree in Japanese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Already I have met so many people and I know I will have a great variety of avenues to explore for further work related to Japan. I wouldn't have known when I began Japanese at Calvin where I would end up seven years later, but it's been a great journey!
For what other Calvin graduates have done with their knowledge of Chinese and Japanese, please click here.