Who Owns the Japanese Language Curriculum?

Shigeru Miyagawa, MIT

Presented at the University of Maryland Conference on National Strategy in the Teaching of Japanese as a Second Language, April 1995. To appear in the proceedings of the conference.

Almost fifteen years ago, I was put in charge of designing the Japanese language program at the Ohio State University. In collaboration with colleagues, particularly Galal Walker, my counterpart in Chinese, we embarked on designing a language curriculum that focused on oral skills. We wanted to make sure that our students could at least speak and listen to Japanese well. This meant that we had to reduce the number of kanji, and I even instituted the use of romanization, which, frankly, I detested at the time and, to this day, I can't read very well. Of course, I wasn't the one learning Japanese, and, observing my students as they made the transition to the new curriculum, I was pleased at how relatively quickly they attained spoken and listening skills. That was the happy part of the story. Very soon after we began to install this curriculum, I began to receive complaints. Not from the students. But from my own colleagues in humanities and social sciences. I still recall vividly the conversation. They argued that I was doing a terrible disservice to their advanced undergraduate students and graduate students, by handicapping them in reading. They were outraged by the new curriculum. The question that popped into my head was, "who owns the Japanese language curriculum?" To finish this part of the story, we went ahead and implemented a language curriculum that privileged oral skills. I did this in the belief that those of us in the East Asian Languages and Literatures department were the sole owners of the language curriculum. Footnote 1.

Recently, I have been asking myself the same question that popped into my head fifteen years ago, "who owns the Japanese language curriculum?" I am no longer certain that the Japanese teaching professionals will continue to possess the sole ownership of the curriculum. Or, that it is even desirable to think that we are the only ones who should be calling the shots. My uncertainty has nothing to do with an orally-based language program. I still believe in that. Rather, this uncertainty stems from the fact that the world around us has changed in the fifteen years that I have been teaching Japanese at the university level.

There are at least two factors for my uncertainty, one internal to the field of Japanese teaching profession, and the other external. To mention the conclusion first, these factors point to a curriculum design that must be flexible in content. These factors suggest models for teaching that, in some cases, call on colleagues in other disciplines to assist with at least a part of the curriculum. That is, a joint ownership of the curriculum instead of the traditional sole ownership model. I'll begin with the internal factor.

The Japanese language profession has had a virtually monogamous relationship with the field of literature. This is not limited to Japanese, but it is true of most foreign languages. Looking back on the history of the development of Japanese studies in this country, it is somewhat odd that this relationship between language teaching and literature was struck in the first place. One of the biggest incentives for the study of Japanese was the War, and subsequently, eminent scholars such as Edwin Reischauer sustained interest in the study of Japanese. So, why did Japanese language teaching fall together with literature? As far as I can see, this was simply following the academic convention in this country which traditionally places modern languages together with literary studies. According to a colleague in German studies, this academic tradition can be traced back to the old German academic model. In this model, literature is the study of the classics. Modern languages are viewed as an extension of the classic languages, often poor and imperfect extensions. Hence the study of modern languages was put into literature departments, with literary studies being the primary goal of the language program. In this model, the study of modern languages is secondary to the study of literature and classical languages. When modern Japanese was introduced into the curriculum in this country, it was this traditional model that was followed. So, in virtually all institutions, study of modern Japanese takes place in some sort of language and literature program. The same is true of most other foreign languages. In this conventional academic context, the goal of the language program is naturally geared to the dominant content- focus of the department, that of literature. The goal becomes the ability to read the national literature of Japan. Even in the orally-based program I designed with colleagues at Ohio State, it was literature that topped off the language program at the time.

The factor internal to the field that is contributing to my uncertainty about the ownership of the language curriculum has to do with the fact that the nature of literary studies has changed fundamentally in the past fifteen years or so. The concept of "cultural studies" is quickly replacing the traditional "literary studies" as the primary intellectual endeavor for humanistic studies. The change in the name of some departments from "language and literature"to "language and culture" is but one reflection of this fundamental shift. Here's the challenge. If you look at cultural studies, it is easy to see that virtually nothing -- in fact nothing -- is excluded from a potential subject matter of study. Research in cultural studies may take on world music, post-colonial societies, or even the very nature of scientific revolution. It also includes what we might consider as traditional literary studies, although it is common to question even the very concept of a literary text. In this context, in a typical language program which has literature as the culmination of the program, it is no longer certain exactly what content we are suppose to provide particularly at the advanced level. We have been claiming ownership of a language program commonly with traditional literary studies as the primary goal. But, in the face of what is happening in cultural studies, this ownership seems virtually a moot point. The question before us is, what content should a language program have at the upper levels? Particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of cultural studies, which encompasses a broad range of subject matter, there is a real possibility that the content-focus of the language curriculum will likely include studies outside the traditional language and literature domain. The boundaries that encapsulated traditional literary studies are breaking down. The language and literature faculty will no longer be able to claim sole ownership of the language curriculum. This is the internal factor for my uncertainty.

Turning to the external factor contributing to my uncertainty, as I mentioned above, the field of Japanese language has had for the most part a monogamous relationship. Internally, it has been with literature, which has been the goal of most programs, although, as I just mentioned, it is no longer clear who our partner is anymore. I believe that, external to the field, out most common partner has been with business, in that at many institutions, there have been more students in business taking Japanese than from any other field of study. This seems incongruous -- carrying on a relationship internally with literature for content, and externally with business, by teaching students in business in large numbers. But that is simply a historical accident, in which the tradition of literature-focused language curriculum met the demand of business in the 1980's and into the 1990's. The 1991 MLA showed that between 1986 and 1990, the enrollment in Japanese at the college level in this country virtually doubled, to almost 45,000 students. Two earlier MLA surveys, in 1983 and 1986, also showed that Japanese was the fastest growing foreign language. This rapid expansion has a reason independent of Japanese studies. The enormous increase mirrors directly the growth in business enrollment. In the second half of the 1980's, there were more students majoring in business in this country than in any other field of study. But in the 1990's, the number of business students has stabilized, and in some cases decreased. This has likewise contributed to the stabilizing of enrollment in Japanese. Combined with the recession in Japan, this trend has led to a decrease in Japanese enrollment in some institutions. Thus, Japanese programs are no longer going to be overwhelmingly dominated by business majors. Instead, we are beginning to see a more diverse group of learners. These learners come from a variety of disciplines, leading again to the question, what content should we provide for the language curriculum?

I have laid out two assumptions. The field of literary studies, which has dominated the focus of Japanese language education, is being transformed into cultural studies, which embraces a broad approach to humanistic studies. This is a factor internal to the field. Externally, our clientele is changing -- it is no longer primarily business. This is where I see our profession today. One of uncertainty both internal and external to the field. I don't have the confidence I had fifteen years ago that the faculty of the language and literature department should hold the sole ownership of the Japanese language curriculum.

What is happening in the field now as a result of these and related changes? One phenomenon, still restricted in number, is that we are beginning to see multiple Japanese programs on one campus. I am told, for example, that at a major institution on the east coast, there are three Japanese language programs, one in the traditional language and literature department, another at a center for modern languages, and yet a third in the business school. At another institution, along with the language program in the East Asian department, the School of Engineering started its own Japanese program. This phenomenon is in part a reaction to the fact that the traditional, literature-based program does not serve today's students. This is the result of the incongruous relationship between literature content and the practical needs of students in business, engineering, and other professional schools. The phenomenon of offering an independent Japanese progarm in the engineering and business schools also reflects the external factor. There is a diversification of learner clientele, and at these schools, it was apparently deemed necessary to offer a Japanese program geared for students in a specific field of study, business or engineering. This trend points to a multiple ownership of the Japanese curriculum at one institution. The language and literature faculty holding on to the ownership of its own literature-focused program, and a new program whose ownership lies with the language specialists in a professional school.

How should we deal with this trend of multiple ownership as a field? Should we embrace it, or reject it? In thinking about the institutional context for this issue, it is helpful to think of two other disciplines which, in style, are on opposite extremes. These are mathematics and statistics. Students who need to take math go to the mathematics department. In other words, the mathematics faculty hold the sole ownership of the mathematics curriculum. Statistics is often fundamentally different. Particularly in a large institution, we find statistics courses taught in different programs: mathematics, psychology, and education, for example. Statistics is therefore taught across a variety of curriculum in accordance with the specific needs of a particular field, such as education.

How about foreign languages? The dominant model is the same as mathematics. Students who want to study Japanese come to the language and literature department. However, what we are seeing at institutions such as those I mentioned earlier reflect the model established for statistics -- Japanese for specific use.

Regardless of the uncertainty of the times, one thing I am absolutely certain of is that those of us in the teaching profession possess the pedagogical expertise that must be the basis for any reputable language curriculum. Whether there is sole ownership or multiple ownership of the language curriculum at an institution, what we must avoid is the creation of language programs that is questionable in the quality of training it offers. At the same time, the forces at play are great, and we cannot underestimate how rapidly this ownership of pedagogical expertise can be overshadowed by institutional politics and economy. If a school of management decides that the language program offered in the language and literature department fails to meet the needs of its students, the school will have the financial and political resources to start a program of its own. But the faculty of management schools do not possess expertise in language teaching. We should not stand still and allow non-experts to take away, or fragment, the ownership of the language curriculum. This part, I am certain. As far as I can see, this has not happened yet, but as resources become scarce, the temptation to offer language courses on the cheap will become great.

It is important to emphasize that I count literature specialists who teach language as critical members of the language teaching profession. My uncertainty about the sole focus of literature as content is independent of the areas of specialization of the teaching professional. I know of a number of excellent teachers of Japanese whose specialization is literature. They are pedagogy specialists whose teaching skills match, and often exceed, the standard we have maintained in the field. I am simply questioning the dominance of literature as the content for language programs. I would have a similar question if the dominant content of an advanced course were linguistics, for example. But this issue is independent of the ability of the linguists in the field to teach language. The teaching profession consists of those who have a commitment to offering an excellent program in Japanese, regardless of their area of specialization. Also, it is important to emphasize that I am by no means advocating excluding literature from Japanese language programs. In certain instances, traditional literary studies may very well be the appropriate content focus. Other programs may incorporate literature in varying degrees depending on its appropriateness to the curriculum and student interest.

But how do we ensure that the teaching profession will continue to hold ownership of at least the standard of education? Let me suggest two broad areas where we must put in work. Both call for strong leadership in the profession.

We must play a pro-active role in our own institutions. We can no longer afford to sit still and play the passive observer in academia. We have been lucky that our enrollment has increased dramatically, giving us the base to expand and enhance our position in our institutions. This has happened in the 1980's without much effort to recruit students. If anything, many of us discouraged students from taking Japanese in order to control the overflow. Now, it is time to become pro-active. It is more important than ever to build necessary bridges with disciplines across the curriculum, may it be management, engineering, social sciences, or whatever. Do we adopt the mathematics model or the across-the-curriculum statistics model? That will depend on the local conditions and the individual style of the leadership of the language program. In either case, we must be willing to move away from the Japanese-solely-for-literature model which persists in the majority of the language programs in the U.S. We must be prepared if necessary to give up a part of the ownership of the language curriculum, in order to better serve the diverse group of students we see, and also, in order to ensure that those of us in the teaching profession continue to hold the ownership of the standard of education. Here is a point worth noting. Most of the faculty, particularly senior faculty, who are in the most influential positions to mold the future of the Japanese language curriculum, are literature specialists. But I am claiming that the traditional literature paradigm for language learning is insufficient, both internal and external to the field. So, I appeal particularly to the senior literature colleagues to exert leadership in this time of uncertainty. The pro-active attitude is needed both to ensure quality of language education and to better serve a wider range of students. Here, let me note a point made by John Grandin, a Kafka scholar of German who designed a part of the University of Rhode Island German program to meet the needs of the engineering students. By refocusing the German program, he and his colleagues reversed the downward trend for enrollment. Not only is the enrollment up considerably in the basic levels, but, it is also up in the literature courses that in the past often failed to make the cut. So, moving away from the monolithic literature paradigm may in fact help the literature enrollment.

What is it that we must do as a field? The bottom line is that we must be willing to be flexible in the kinds of content we offer, and even in the way we deliver instruction. We can no longer justify language teaching primarily as a preparation for the study of the national literature of Japan. If literature is not the goal, then exactly what is the goal of a language curriculum? As John Grandin, et al, writes in an article in the 1992 Northeast Conference Report, I believe that it is imperative that we adopt the view that a foreign language is "a communication tool to facilitate other areas of study, of which literature is just one example." This view, once taken, has broad consequences for the design of the curriculum. First, regardless of the area of study, the students require a robust set of skills in speaking and listening. One change that has occurred in the past fifteen years is that people have become highly mobile. Regardless of whether you are in business, academics, or whatnot, people are coming in direct contact with each other more than ever before. The need for speaking and listening is obvious. What is not so obvious is that this requirement for speaking and listening may very well hold even when interacting with people other than those from Japan. I was told of a meeting on Japanese that took place in Japan that was attended by people from all over the world. A professor who was asked to lecture to the group had prepared her talk in English, but as it turned out, the one common language shared by everyone was Japanese, so she ended up lecturing in Japanese. Granted this was a meeting on Japanese. However, one can foresee in the near future situations like this in, for example, business, where the common language is Japanese, particularly in parts of Asia. Just as the U.S. Dollar currency is being questioned in some quarters as the international currency, with the Japanese yen being mentioned as a possible alternative, it is possible that the international language in some parts of the world may become Japanese.

The second consequence of adopting the view that foreign language training is primarily a communication tool to facilitate study of other areas concerns the content focus of the curriculum. In this regard, it is instructive to see what the professionals in other languages are doing to meet the challenge of a diverse group of learners. A number of institutions are experimenting with what is commonly called foreign languages across the curriculum. The proponents of foreign languages across the curriculum, or FLAC, believe that more students will be motivated to continue their study into the upper levels if the content is of direct relevance to their own area of specialization. FLAC may be implemented in a number of different ways, but they all share the common feature that the students have an opportunity to study their own area at least partly in the target language. A common FLAC model identifies faculty members in other departments who are speakers of the target language, and collaborates with them to establish a curriculum. This is shared ownership of the language curriculum, one that takes into account the assumption that a foreign language is a tool for communication. This is the kind of model I rebelled against fifteen years ago. Granted, this is more easily accomplished in the European languages, which allow authentic materials to be introduced at an earlier stage of training than for a language such as Japanese. But we cannot use this as an excuse for not being pro-active. At MIT, for example, we plan to experiment with the use of technology to compensate for the level of difficulty, by producing on-line software assistance for students at upper levels who want to study Japanese through material directly pertinent to their area of study, such as genetics, material science, and economics. The challenge before us is great. It can only be met with strong leadership and a willingness to build bridges with other areas of study. And to allow for the possibility that we might have to share ownership of the language curriculum with colleagues in other disciplines.

The final point I wish to make has to do with our national organization, Association of Teachers of Japanese. Articles published in the ATJ journal are primarily literature, with a sprinkling of linguistics. There is a dearth of publications that relate directly to language teaching. Footnote 2. The preponderance of literature articles sustains the traditional view of the language program as primarily serving the field of literature. Footnote 3. ATJ has served our field well up to this point, thanks to the effective leadership of its presidents, Hiroshi Miyaji, Jim O'Brien, Eleanor Jorden, and others who preceded them. But now, the field faces a time of uncertainty, and I call on the ATJ to exert leadership at the national level as we make the transition from the traditional literature-based curriculum to one that serves a broad range of learners. The most important thing for us as a field is to communicate with each other more extensively in order to keep abreast of the emerging trends in learner interest, second language acquisition, and curricular development. ATJ can play an important role at the national level in disseminating information with broad pedagogical interests through publication in its journal. An equally important effort is to continue to encourage national and regional meetings where this type of information can be shared.

To sum up, we have a great deal of work to do. We are in a time of transition as a field, a time of uncertainty. With strong leadership both at the institutional and national levels, I am confident that we will continue to hold much of the ownership of the language curriculum and the standard of quality, although we must face the real possibility that we should begin to share some of the ownership of the curriculum with colleagues from other fields of study, in order to ensure that the Japanese language will continue to play a vibrant role on our campuses.


Grandin, J., K. Einbeck, and W. Von Reinhart. 1992. "The Changing Goals of Language Instruction" Languages for a Multicultural World in Transition. Ed. Heidi Byrnes. Middlebury, VT: Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.


1. I am using the term "owner" to refer to those who have the primary jurisdiction and leadership of the curriculum. Back

2. I have been informed by an ATJ Board member that the primary reason for the lack of articles on language teaching in the JATJ is that the manuscripts in pedagogy tend to be lower in quality than in literature or linguistics. If this is indeed the case, we must find ways to enhance the quality of work in pedagogy. A natural way to do this is to continue to hold national and regional conferences on language education in which abstracts are refereed. This will establish a national standard for quality of work in pedagogy maintained by the leaders in the field, who take part in the referee process. Back

3. There are three encouraging exceptions. ATJ will publish the proceedings of the national conference on Japanese language teaching held at Georgetown University in April 1995. Also, an upcoming issue of the Journal of Association of Teachers of Japanese will focus on linguistics. Finally, for the past two years, ATJ has sponsored or co-sponsored a national conference on language teaching, at MIT in March 1994 and at Georgetown University in April 1995. Back

Date last modified: July 10, 1995
Copyright 1995 Massachusetts Institute of Technology