After eating “Tokyo Girls” on a Sunday night, I retired to my dorm decorated with trinkets of all things Japanese. There’s the pink Osaka poster, reminiscent of 1980s anime. The Gudetama socks, the Totoro figure, my blinking Itsukushima Shrine wallpaper. But there are also my Japanese textbooks waiting to be read.
I love studying Japanese since I started college. I like the sound of language and discovering the nuances of expression. Aside from my love for the language aspect, I had a hard time taming my relationship to Japanese culture as a person of non-Japanese descent.
Too often, I guiltily relish my daydreams of Tokyo’s flashing lights and scroll through countless TikToks romanticizing life in the Okayama countryside. But aside from a three-week trip to Japan and some precious friendships with Japanese exchange students, I’m a stranger to the country and the culture.
This irony is often the case for non-mother tongue students in Georgetown. Although we spend hours learning vocabulary and practicing pronunciation, we remain distant from the cultures of the languages we study. That’s why we end up with Korean students who continue to view BTS as the perfect embodiment, or Arab students who come to class in full military gear.
And of course, myself, the ignorant fan of all things Japanese. But as I lamented that my relationship with Japanese culture was no different from this anime-loving white man to a friend, she scoffed. “You’re an Asian-American girl, that’s different.”
Is it different, though? For me and other non-native language learners, we look at culture out of context. There are academic expressions for this: voyeurism, fetishization, white gaze. Culture becomes an object: The languages we learn become a personality trait, a fun complement that makes us seem different and cosmopolitan. We pick out the aspects of a culture we like, glossing over the parts that don’t fit the supposed aesthetic ingrained in our brains. In a first-grade Japanese culture class, my teacher showed us videos of historical events in Japan. Then he remarked, “Sometimes my students are shocked that Japan has…protests.” The American imagination has made Japan this mark of a peaceful society, so we conveniently overlook aspects of an entire culture in order to reinforce a stereotype.
Nevertheless, language textbooks often choose subjects that fit easily into this accepted aesthetic. Some advanced texts branch out, but I can’t count how many times Studio Ghibli has been introduced in my beginner and intermediate textbooks. At one point, I felt like each unit was an in-depth tourist brochure aimed at western sensibilities.
But at the same time, my friend is right. Our relationship with other cultures depends on a multiplicity of identities. It depends on how close our cultural backgrounds are to the languages we engage with, and the power dynamics therein, political and social. For example, my relationship to Japanese culture as an Asian American woman is different from that of, say, a white man – there are different cultural distances and colonial dynamics at play. has less of a negative stereotype attached to me. Yet, given the whole of who I am, how can I engage in the strained relationship between my identity and the culture I have decided to learn?
Now, opponents argue that any entry point into language learning is good. SFS students often take language classes to learn a new skill or perhaps to increase their job prospects. Judging students on why they chose a certain language can be discriminatory. So what if someone is an anime fan or a curious student who wants a new challenge? When students are exposed to cultures through language learning, there is a net benefit for all. Students acquire knowledge and communication skills, and the school fulfills its responsibility to produce graduates of the world.
For niche languages to learn in Georgetown like Japanese, the emphasis is less political. The textbook readings in my classes are geared towards the presumed interests of foreign students – anime, Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms – in an effort to prevent the small group of students from switching to another language. Once, after a class debate about the anime, my friend whispered to me, “You know, the Chinese class discussed security issues between the United States and China… I guess Japanese is just a fluffy language to learn.”
The implications of language learning in foreign relations are enormous as they are often imbued with political overtones. Vocabulary and old subjects reflect the spirit of the times. The classic Japanese 010 textbook used in American classrooms, Genky, begins the students with an original story about Takeshi’s crush on Mary. On the other hand, my friend joked that after taking Arabic for a semester, they only learned to say “my dad is a diplomat” and “I work for the United Nations”. What is taught in language courses reveals the supposed reasons people take the course and the underlying geopolitical priorities.
I’m not saying that Japanese lessons shouldn’t be about bento, Hello Kitty, and all that stereotypical Japan. These are fun topics, and certainly an interesting aspect of culture. But we should think about how educational institutions, such as SFS and Georgetown, should go about educating students who are aware of their connections to different cultures, especially those that are often exotified in the United States.
Of course, these nuances are often explored in courses on culture, sociology or similar subjects. But these conversations should also take place in language lessons. I demand more, but I’m conflicted because I don’t know how to demand more.
Perhaps these critical engagements could be explicit conversations held in language classes about personal identity and relationship to culture. Or it could be an additional culture class requirement on top of SFS proficiency. Whatever form this discussion takes, it is important to ask what is this language for? What do we get out of it and why is it important to engage in the culture of our choice? For language learning in Georgetown and beyond, we need to rethink our grammar.