BA in Japanese: Is It Worth It?

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A bachelor’s degree in Japanese is quite the ordeal to put yourself through, both mentally and financially. Everyone has their own reasons. Some people, like yours truly, just happen to fall into it. One day you’re drowning in a certain field, only to emerge in another, with an interesting and very different skill set. But before you go down that long and winding road, sometimes you really have to wonder, is a BA in Japanese really worth it? The short answer is: it depends on you.

You really need to think about what it is you are hoping to gain. Getting a college degree is a major task in itself, let alone becoming fluent in a category five language. Let’s go over a few common scenarios as to why people choose Japanese majors in the first place, before checking out the overall pros and cons. If you are seriously considering this, it’s important you take in as much info as you possibly can, so play it smart and start now.

Scenario 1: I Want to Be Fluent

If you are looking to become fluent in Japanese, then yes, by the time you attain your BA, you should be fluent (if not, you’re in big trouble). Fluency means you’ll be able to easily express your own thoughts and ideas in Japanese. It’s important to note that fluent is not synonymous with native. No BA or N1 certificate can substitute the lifetime of knowledge learned by the average person growing up in Japan.

That’s why it is important to understand the struggle of learning Japanese. It doesn’t end with any degree or certificate. It’s an ongoing learning experience that continues the rest of your life. If you are not prepared to accept that, then maybe it’s best you reconsider your major.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test

Instead of a degree, you can always just study for the JLPT and aim for the top N1 level. To pass, you will need to learn a daunting 2000 kanji. To put that into perspective, when a student in Japan graduates junior high school, they will have already learned 2136 kanji. In Japan, the government decides which kanji and how many are learned for each grade of both elementary school and junior high school. High school in Japan isn’t compulsory, and while high students do learn a lot of kanji, it can vary by school.

Keeping all that in mind, I hope you have a better idea as to whether a BA in Japanese is worth it to you. Remember, if all you care about it just learning the language and becoming fluent, then there are plenty of ways to do that without getting a degree. Find out which way works best for you and stick with it. Let’s take a look at the next scenario.

Scenario 2: I Want to Live in Japan

If you are considering whether a BA in Japanese is worth it, than it makes sense you plan to experience living in Japan someday. When I say live in Japan though, I don’t mean just a trip. I mean something more long term; something that requires a visa, because those first few ninety days just aren’t gonna cut it.

If you are able to, studying abroad can be a one of a kind eye-opening experience. I’m not talking about the short month-long summer programs though. I mean going for at least a year. While a bit rare, it’s still not unusual for study abroad students to become so immersed in the language and culture, that they become exchange students. Completely transferring from their home schools, they then go on to graduate in Japan and look for work there. That’s supposing you can take your studies seriously. You’ll encounter plenty of people “studying abroad,” who really are just on vacation.

While you don’t need a BA to experience living in Japan, even if your country qualifies for a ninety day visa waiver, you’ll still need some sort of visa to stay any longer. If you are lucky enough to live in a country that offers a working holiday visa, it’s a very convenient way for you to live and work in Japan. US citizens aren’t eligible for this type of visa as of writing this, and similarly, Japanese citizens can’t visit the US on said visa either. But fear not, as a regular working visa is always an option. Let’s take a look at the next scenario, where we’ll explore that further.

Scenario 3: I Want to Work in Japan

If you are considering working abroad in Japan, then here’s something to chew on: the average person who relocates to Japan for work ends up returning to their home country within one to three years. There’s no way to know if Japan will be right for you until after you’ve already lived there for at least a year or two. And if it turns out that it’s not for you, then you need to figure out what you can do back in your home country, or hometown, with your new degree in Japanese. The bank will start collecting that student debt just a few months after you graduate. They don’t care about your situation, so consider that when deciding if a BA in Japanese is really worth it.

As mentioned above, if all you want to do is experience working in Japan, a working holiday visa may be an option for you. If not, there are still other options. The Japanese government has quite a few working visas to choose from, and while many Japanese companies do require that you possess a college degree (and it doesn’t have to be in Japanese), there are still a handful that don’t. Maybe your hobby is video games and anime, but when it comes to languages, you’d much rather be tackling C++ or Java. That’s okay. There are plenty of jobs for software engineers in Japan, and they don’t require knowledge of the Japanese language (though it can’t hurt to learn and make your life easier).

If you have the mindset and determination to study advanced Japanese while majoring in another field, you’ll have a lot more options in the future, should something not pan out. But if you have your heart set on being a Japanese translator or something similar, then just make sure you study hard and take yourself seriously. If you can start taking freelance work now, then do it. Don’t wait to start building that portfolio. You’ll thank yourself later.

BA in Japanese or JLPT N1

One last thing to consider, especially if you are looking into Japanese translation work, is that most companies don’t care about your degree. Even though you can find on the Japanese government’s website that a BA in Japanese is the equivalent to the N1 level of the JLPT, and scores you some of those sweet points in their visa point system, the average company in Japan is oblivious and will request further proof of your abilities (so I hope you paid attention in school).

Personally, I’m against standardized testing. I believe a test only measures your ability to take a test. The JLPT does not evaluate your skills as a translator or an interpreter, but it’s currently the only method many companies have for assessing your language abilities. If you are not a good test taker, just keep that in mind when moving forward. The test isn’t cheap and only held twice a year. If you are outside of Japan, then it’s usually held just once a year.

Types of Work for Japanese Majors

If you find yourself wondering what type of work is available once you get your BA in Japanese, the answer is: it varies. Perhaps the easiest job to get in Japan is the role of an assistant language teacher, as the only requirement is possessing a college degree. In fact, ninety percent of foreigners working in Japan at any given time are working as English instructors. Outside of the education field, there is of course, translation, interpreting, and localizing. These roles will almost always require you to take a company test to demonstrate your ability, but may occasionally waive the JLPT N1 requirement if they see you have a BA in Japanese.

Beyond education and translation, we have everything else, which basically encompasses any job in any field, where you will most likely be competing with Japanese citizens. So then you have to ask yourself, why you? If you have a BA in Japanese, what else do you have to market yourself? Because everyone else applying is Japanese, so take away your Japanese ability, and what do you have that gives you an edge? Figure that out, and you have a good chance.

The Breakdown

Hopefully, you have a much clearer idea of what to expect if you are still considering whether a BA in Japanese is worth it or not. Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of holding a degree in Japanese.

Pros

Cons

  • Japanese fluency doesn’t mean native level fluency, so you will need continue studying the rest of your life—the marathon doesn’t end with a degree.
  • Your degree won’t be recognized by many companies, who insist you present a JLPT N1 certificate—trouble for poor test takers.
  • If you didn’t really learn anything in college, but still managed to graduate, then you are in big BIG trouble, but hey, you can always be an ALT, I guess.
  • Student debt

So, What’s It Gonna Be?

In the end, deciding if that BA in Japanese is worth it is a very personal decision. If you choose to go through with it, and stay diligent throughout, you’ll come out with an exceptionally rare skill. Just make sure you think it through. Not only is it a huge investment in both time and money, but it will affect the rest of your life. If you think you have a passion for learning the language and culture, then be sure to use that to your advantage.

Before you make any rash decisions, consider that things don’t always work out the way we want, so make sure you have a pocketful of backup plans. Personally, I still believe that an investment in yourself is always the best investment you can make. That doesn’t mean that it needs to be in the Japanese language, but if that’s what you want to do, then put in the time, weigh your options, and think about it. You’ll figure it out soon enough.

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