What's it like to study... Japanese

Rebecca Smith is about to embark on her final year of Japanese at the University of Leeds - and it's much more than just a language course

Tell someone that you study Japanese and the response will be one of two things. The first, more common one, is complete surprise, followed by a string of questions. I soon perfected a spiel about the fundamentals of the Japanese writing system for when people ask how many alphabets there are. The second is bewilderment. “Do you study just Japanese?” is a question which makes me grit my teeth as I explain, patiently, that my degree covers far more than the Japanese language.

When it comes to being asked why I chose Japanese, I have to answer that when I was 18 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Upon hearing about my course, many people assume that the options upon graduation are rather limited; I am frequently asked if I intend to pursue a career in translation or interpreting. In fact, one of the reasons that I chose a language was the broad range of career opportunities it would bring me later on.

I was also attracted by the potential to study an array of subjects and disciplines. Throughout my degree, I have taken modules covering Japan’s culture, history, economy and religion. And not only those of Japan but of the surrounding region; I have written essays on Chinese modern history and learned about the development of civilisations over thousands of years in South East Asia.

The beauty of studying an academic discipline such as this is that in practical terms, the content of the essays I write is often fairly inconsequential. Far more important are the disciplines this helps to develop. I have learned how to conduct academic research, critically analyse texts, and construct a coherent argument. When I have chosen my topic well, I am able to feel like I am learning for learning’s sake, so I can choose what interests me. After all, it’s probably not essential to my future career that I gain an in-depth knowledge of angry ghosts in Japanese folklore.

That said, there are opportunities to study subjects whose practical application to everyday life is more apparent. Studying Japan’s economy has enabled me to understand basic economic concepts, and learning about the politics of the Asia Pacific Region has given me a greater appreciation for the ways in which countries interact. These are universal concepts, and ones which are useful for many careers. As an aspiring journalist, modules on politics and international relations may well prove invaluable.

The degree is divided into two distinct parts: the study of Japan and of its language. There is some crossover in that an understanding of language can aid that of cultural concepts, and in later years, the two halves of the degree begin to coincide in a much more noticeable way. The greatest difference between the two is the teaching style. Language lessons are taught in a classroom rather a lecture theatre. There are frequent in-class tests and homework not unlike that which you might have received at school, but on a much higher level.

There are few shortcuts to be taken when studying Japanese. The course involves more contact hours than many other arts degrees and preparation for seminars or assignments can be very time-consuming. There are also kanji to deal with: over two thousand characters derived from Chinese, several hundred of which must be learned within the first year.

While it’s true that a huge part of my degree requires me to analyse academic texts and form compelling arguments, there is also a significant amount of brute memorisation involved. This is unavoidable; it is impossible to study a language with three alphabets, thousands of characters and seemingly infinite combinations thereof without dedicating some serious time to sitting down and learning them. Much of my time is consumed with kanji revision for weekly tests and looking up characters I have forgotten.

This is one situation in which that oft-quoted maxim ‘you get out what you put in’ certainly applies. I have discovered through bitter experience that not revising for a test or keeping up with the reading for a module can quickly lead to bewilderment and stress, often culminating in a complete non-enjoyment of the subject at hand. However, making the effort to track down the week’s reading list before each seminar can be very rewarding. It is only through doing this that I have been able to fully engage with the course and really enjoy it.

While studying Japanese I have been constantly challenged; but where I have put effort in, I have also been rewarded. There is a great sense of satisfaction to be found in being able to hold a conversation in another language, or participate in complex debates about society or politics. I have surprised myself on more than one occasion, having grasped concepts I had previously thought beyond me. My degree has fuelled my curiosity about how the world works and led me to develop skills that can be applied to all areas of life. It has not quashed my love of learning, but helped me to understand that the acquisition of knowledge is inherently valuable; and that in itself is a great lesson to learn.