Japanese language education in the United States

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Japanese language education in the United States began in the late 19th century, aimed mainly at Japanese American children and conducted by parents and community institutions. Over the course of the next century, it would slowly expand to include non-Japanese as well as native speakers (mainly children of Japanese expatriates being educated in international schools). A 2012 survey of foreign-language learners by the Japan Foundation found 4,270 teachers teaching the Japanese language to 155,939 students at 1,449 different institutions, an increase of 10.4% in the number of students since the 2009 survey.[1]



The earliest Japanese language instruction in the United States was aimed at heritage speakers. Japanese immigration to Hawaii began in 1868, and to the mainland in 1869.[2] Issei parents, worrying about the increasing Americanization of their nisei children, established Japanese schools outside of the regular school system to teach the language and culture of their ancestral country. The first school was established in Kohala, Hawaii by Reverend Shigefusa Kanda, in 1893, and others soon followed, including several attached to Hawaiian Hongwanji missions.[3] The schools were financed by both the Japanese immigrant community and the sugar planters they worked for, as they provided much needed childcare for the plantation laborers during their long workday.[3] By 1920, the schools enrolled 98% of all Japanese American children in Hawaii. Statistics for 1934 showed 183 schools teaching a total of 41,192 students.[4][5][6] On the mainland, the first Japanese language school was California's Nihongo Gakuin, established in 1903; by 1912, eighteen such schools had been set up in California alone.[2]

The schools' perceived connection to Japan and support for labor movements, including the 1909 and 1920 strikes against the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association, exposed fault lines of religion and class within the Japanese American community, and fed growing anti-Japanese sentiment from the larger public. Buddhist organizations were heavily involved in the establishment of schools, and, while many Japanese American Christians founded their own competing schools, others ascribing to a more assimilationist view opposed their existence.[citation needed] Furthermore, non-Japanese also took a dim view of the schools, accusing them of indoctrinating Japanese American children and forming part of a wider strategy of the Japanese government to "colonize" the United States; public school teachers and the Office of Naval Intelligence went so far as to label them "anti-American".[6] Anti-Japanese prejudice had grown with their population, and nativist groups spent much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbying to limit Japanese immigration, create race-based restrictions on citizenship, enact discriminatory property laws, and otherwise combat the "Yellow Peril"; by the 1920s, the focus had shifted to Japanese language schools. A 1920 report by the Federal Commission of Education declared that the 20,000 students of Hawaii's 163 Japanese schools were being "retarded in accepting American customs, manners, ideals, principles, and standards," and recommended the schools be taken over by the public education system.[3] The territorial legislature had already passed a series of laws regulating who could teach and how often students could attend classes, and in April 1923 the Clark Bill imposed a per-student tax, forcing many schools to close when they could not (or would not) pay the tax.[3][7] In the meantime, California politicians enacted the Parker Bill in August 1921, establishing extensive prerequisites for teacher certification and giving complete control over hiring, operations and curricula in the schools to the Superintendent of Public Education.[3] Late in December 1922, sixteen Hawaiian schools banded together to file a lawsuit challenging the restrictions. The legal case was controversial within the Japanese American community; its more conservative members saw the lawsuit as yet another unnecessary wedge between Japanese Americans and whites, and argued that it would only exacerbate anti-Japanese prejudice. 88 of Hawaii's 146 Japanese schools eventually joined the suit, and Farrington v. Tokushige worked through several appeals before landing in the Supreme Court, where in 1927 the Justices found the regulations unconstitutional.[7]

Interest from foreign language learners was limited prior to World War II, and instruction for non-heritage speakers was established more slowly. One 1934 survey found only eight universities in the United States offering Japanese language education, mostly supported by only one instructor per university; it further estimated that only thirteen American professors possessed sufficient fluency in the Japanese language to use it in conducting research.[8] As late as 1940, there were only 65 non-Japanese Americans who were able to read, write and understand the language.[9] Even among nisei graduates of the community Japanese schools, true fluency was rare: a 1941 Military Intelligence Service survey of 3,700 nisei found that 3 percent could potentially become competent after extensive training, 4 percent were "proficient" but still required additional instruction, and just 3 percent were qualified for linguistic work in Japanese.[3] Due to this shortage, the military's need for personnel competent in Japanese even before the US entry into World War II drove the MIS to establish its own specialized school aimed at training specialists to serve as interpreters, interrogators, and translators, the Military Intelligence Service Language School; initially based at the Presidio of San Francisco, it was later moved to Minnesota, first Camp Savage, and then later Fort Snelling. Most of the 6,000 graduates were Japanese American.[10][11]

At the same time, Japanese language schools on the West Coast aimed at heritage speakers were shut down due to the Japanese American internment. (Japanese school instructors and principals were among those detained by the FBI after Pearl Harbor, so many schools had already closed by the time "evacuation" orders were issued in the spring of 1942.)[3] Even in Hawaii, which was not affected by Executive Order 9066 but was instead placed under martial law, authorities forced Japanese community schools to dissolve and liquidate their assets; however, after the war, the schools were revived with the support of issei, nisei, and non-Japanese community members.[12] Enrollment in such schools declined compared to the pre-war period; for example, the Moiliili Language School in Honolulu, which with over 1,000 students in 1938 was the largest Japanese-language school in Hawaii, had only 85 students as of 2002.[13]

Post-World War II[edit]

The first program aimed at training secondary school Japanese language teachers was established at the University of Hawaii under the provisions of the National Defense Act of 1958; it initially admitted 20 students.[14] Enrollment in Japanese language courses in US high schools had the fastest growth rate out of all languages during the 1980s, the time of the Japanese asset bubble.[15] During the 1990s, The College Board, a United States standardized testing agency, began to offer an SAT Subject Test in Japanese and conducted the first sitting of the Japanese Advanced Placement exam in May 2007; these examinations enable high school students to obtain college credit for their prior study of the Japanese language.[16] However, unlike Chinese, which continued to grow in the early 2000s, the popularity of Japanese declined sharply, with thousands of students dropping the language.[17] According to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the teaching of Japanese declined at both the primary and secondary levels between 2006 and 2009.[18]

Japanese-language education aimed at native speakers began later, as the rise of the economy of Japan resulted in increasing numbers of companies sending employees and their families to the United States for short-term assignments. As of 2010, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology officially recognized four Japanese nihonjin gakkō day schools in the United States,[19] in Guam, the Chicago metropolitan area, and the New York City metropolitan area.[20] Several other day/boarding schools are classified as Shiritsu zaigai kyōiku shisetsu (私立在外教育施設) or overseas branches of Japanese private schools;[21] as of 2010 there were three such schools in the U.S.[19] In addition, as of 2010 there were 79 weekend/supplementary schools;[19] in 2006 29 of them were supplied with at least one teacher by the Japanese government. [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Survey on Japanese-language Education Abroad 2012". Japan Foundation. 2012. Retrieved 2016-09-06. 
  2. ^ a b Morimoto, Toyotomi (1997). Japanese Americans and Cultural Continuity: Maintaining Language through Heritage (Garland Reference Library of Social Science). United Kingdom: Routledge. pp. 17–26. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Japanese language schools". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2014-09-15. 
  4. ^ Harada, Koichi Glenn (1934). A Survey of the Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii. p. 43. 
  5. ^ Takagi, Mariko (1987). Moral Education in Pre-War Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii. p. 18. 
  6. ^ a b Asato, Noriko (September 2005). Teaching Mikadoism: The Attack on Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii, California, and Washington, 1919-1927. Honolulu: University of Hawaii. 
  7. ^ a b Niiya, Brian. Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present (1993), p 190.
  8. ^ Takagi, Yasaka (1935). Japanese Studies in the Universities and Colleges of the United States: Survey for 1934. Honolulu: Institute of Pacific Relations. 
  9. ^ According to Beate Sirota Gordon's commencement address at Mills College on May 14, 2011. "Sotomayor, Denzel Washington, GE CEO Speak to Graduates". C-SPAN (US). May 30, 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-30. 
  10. ^ "Japanese American Women in World War II". Echos of Silence: The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII. AJA WWII Memorial Alliance. 2002. 
  11. ^ Nakamura, Kelli Y. "Military Intelligence Service". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2014-09-16. 
  12. ^ Shimada, Noriko (June 1998). "Wartime Dissolution and Revival of the Japanese Language Schools in Hawai'i: Persistence of Ethnic Culture". Journal of Asian American Studies. 1 (2): 121–151. doi:10.1353/jaas.1998.0022. 
  13. ^ Fujimori, Leila (2002-12-29). "Japanese school marks centennial". Hawaii Star-Bulletin. Retrieved 2007-03-15. 
  14. ^ Kikuoka, Tadashi (December 1964). "The Training of Secondary School Teachers of Japanese". The Journal-Newsletter of the Association of Teachers of Japanese. Association of Teachers of Japanese. 2 (3): 13–18. doi:10.2307/488774. JSTOR 488774. 
  15. ^ Walton, A. Ronald (Winter 1993). "Japanese Language in US High Schools: A New Initiative". The Modern Language Journal. Blackwell Publishing. 77 (4): 522. doi:10.2307/329677. JSTOR 329677. 
  16. ^ "AP: Subjects: Japanese Language and Culture". The College Board. 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-16. 
  17. ^ Dillon, Sam (2010-01-20). "Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-22. 
  18. ^ "National K-12 Foreign Language Survey". Center for Applied Linguistics. 2009. ; see p. 1 of the executive summary
  19. ^ a b c Tsukuda, Yoko. "Japanese American Transnational Families." In: Zhao, Xiaojian and Edward J. W. Park. Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History. ABC-CLIO, November 26, 2013. ISBN 1598842404, 9781598842401. Start p. 602. CITED: p. 604.
  20. ^ 北米の日本人学校一覧(平成24年4月15日現在) (in Japanese). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan (MEXT). 2006-04-15. Archived from the original on January 2, 2014. Retrieved 2014-01-02. 
  21. ^ "私立在外教育施設一覧" (). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Retrieved on March 1, 2015.
  22. ^ "海外子女教育情報 : 北米の補習授業校一覧(Information about children's education overseas: List of weekend schools in North America)" (in Japanese). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan (MEXT). 2006-04-15. Archived from the original on 2014-03-30. Retrieved 2007-03-14. 

Further reading[edit]