The Modern Language Association recently reported that among American students, interest in Japanese language continues to climb; challenging the widespread perception that China has become more important than Japan in academia. In 2009, 73,434 American college students were enrolled in Japanese language classes, up 29% from 2002, and a 60% increase from 1990. Japanese represents 8% of all non-Spanish enrollments and is the 4th most popular non-Spanish foreign language, after the traditional languages of French, German, and Italian. (The MLA report ranks foreign languages apart from Spanish because more Americans study Spanish than all other foreign languages combined.) Despite a recent rapid expansion in Chinese language courses in the US, enrollment in Japanese is still well above that of both Chinese and Korean combined—its nearest competitors among the Asiatic languages.
The Japanese language, which the 2009 American Community Survey estimates is spoken at home by 458,692 people in the US, is taught at institutions of higher education across the country. American students took Japanese classes at 708 institutions in 48 states, while, according to the College Board, 102 colleges and universities offer Japanese as a major. California, New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania have the most Japanese language students and the most institutions offering the language. However, in terms of enrollments per institution, Nevada, Oregon, Hawaii, and Arizona lead the country, showing the prevalence of the language even in less populous regions.
Japan’s popularity among American youth has puzzled some commentators. The upward trend in American students studying Japanese and traveling to Japan has run counter to Japan’s economic and political fortunes of the past couple of decades. One factor may be the increased reach of Japanese soft power; greater exposure to Japan’s popular culture has sparked a greater in interest in Japan among this generation of American students. This is seen in the continuation of Japanese language studies beyond the first year. Dr. Kevin M Doak, Nippon Foundation Endowed Chair of the Japanese Studies Department at Georgetown University, noted this at a panel discussion as part of the US-Japan Institute’s USJI Week. He believes that most students of Japanese start the language due to personal desire to learn and are therefore more willing to stick with it. Students of Chinese, however, are more likely to take the language for external reasons or because they believe it will benefit a future resume. As a result, a greater share of Chinese language learners drop out of classes early on.
The Japanese Language enrollment figures by state from 1990 to 2009 can be found in our data section.