After binging “Tokyo Girls” on a Sunday night, I retreated to my dorm decorated with knick-knacks of all things Japanese. There’s the pink poster of Osaka, reminiscent of 1980s anime. The Gudetama socks, the Totoro figurine, my blinking computer wallpaper of the Itsukushima Shrine. But there’s also my Japanese textbooks, waiting to be read.
I’ve loved studying Japanese since I started college. I love the way the language sounds, and discovering the nuances of expression. My love for the linguistic aspect aside, I’ve had difficulty grappling with my relationship to Japanese culture as a person of non-Japanese descent.
Too often, I guiltily relish in my daydreams about the flashing lights of Tokyo and scroll through endless TikToks that romanticize life in rural Okayama. But besides a three-week trip to Japan and a few treasured friendships with Japanese exchange students, I am a stranger to the country and culture.
This irony is often the case for non-native language students at Georgetown. Despite spending hours learning vocabulary and practicing pronunciation, we remain estranged to the cultures of the languages we study—It’s why we end up with Korean students who continue to view BTS as perfectly epitomizing, or Arabic students coming to class in full military garb.
And of course, myself, the ignorant fan of all things Japanese. But as I was lamenting about how my relationship to Japanese culture was no different than that anime-loving white guy to a friend, she scoffed. “You’re an Asian-American girl, it’s different.”
Is it different, though? For me and other non-native language learners, we’re viewing the culture out of context. There are academic phrases for this: voyeurism, festishization, the white gaze. Culture becomes an object: The languages we learn become a personality trait, a fun addendum that makes us seem different and cosmopolitan. We cherry-pick aspects of a culture we like, glossing over the parts that don’t fit the assumed aesthetic ingrained in our brains. In a freshmen Japanese culture class, my professor showed us videos of historical protests in Japan. Afterwards, he remarked, “Sometimes my students are shocked that Japan has … protests.” The American imagination has built up Japan to be this hallmark of peaceful society, so we conveniently forget aspects of an entire culture in order to reinforce a stereotype.
Nevertheless, language textbooks often choose topics that easily fit into this assumed aesthetic. Some advanced texts branch out, but I can’t count how many times Studio Ghibli was introduced in my beginner and early-intermediate textbooks. At a certain point, I felt like each unit was an in-depth tourist brochure catered toward 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 the proximity of our cultural backgrounds with the languages we’re engaging with, and the power dynamics therein, political and social. For example, my relationship with Japanese culture as an Asian American woman is different from, say, a white man’s—there are different cultural distances and colonial dynamics at play. At the very least, there’s less of a negative stereotype attached to me. Yet given the whole package of who I am, how do I engage with the fraught relationship between my identity and the culture I’ve decided to learn about?
Now the naysayers argue that any entry point into language-learning is good. Students in the SFS often take language courses to learn a new skill or perhaps to increase job prospects. Judging students for why they chose a certain language can be discriminating. So what if someone’s an anime nerd, or a curious student who wants a new challenge? When students are exposed to cultures through language learning, there’s a net benefit to all. Students gain knowledge and communication skills, and the school serves on their responsibility to craft worldly graduates.
For niche languages to learn at Georgetown such as Japanese, the focus is less political. My classes’ textbook readings are geared toward the assumed interests of foreign students—anime, Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms—in an effort to keep the small sliver of students from switching to another language. Once, after a classroom debate about anime, my friend whispered to me, “You know, the Chinese class discussed US-China security concerns … I guess Japanese is just a fluffy language to learn.”
The implications of language learning in foreign relations are huge because it’s often caked with political undertones. Early vocabulary and subjects reflect the zeitgeist of the time. The classic Japanese 010 textbook used in American classrooms, Genki, starts students off with a quirky story about Takeshi’s crush on Mary. On the other hand, my friend joked that after taking Arabic for a semester, they only learned how to say, “my father is a diplomat” and “I work for the United Nations.” What is taught in language classes reveals the assumed reasons why people are taking the class, and the geopolitical priorities underneath.
I’m not saying that Japanese classes shouldn’t talk about bento, Hello Kitty, and whatever makes up stereotypical Japan. They’re fun topics, and certainly an interesting aspect of culture. But we should consider how educational institutions—such as the SFS and Georgetown—should go about crafting students who are mindful of their relationships to different cultures, especially ones often exotified in the United States.
Of course, such nuances are often explored in classes about culture, sociology, or similar subjects. But these conversations need to be had in the context of language classes, too. 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 passing proficiency in the SFS. Whatever form this discussion takes on, it’s important to ask ourselves, what are we using this language for? What are we gaining from it and why is it important to engage with the culture of our choosing? For language learning at Georgetown and beyond, we need to rethink our grammar.