Panel examines PSU’s Japanese language program

Is Portland State’s Japanese program one of the best in the world? On the evening of Nov. 20, the PSU Center for Japanese Studies gathered the community in hopes to answer this question with their presentation of “Profiles in Excellence: What Makes PSU’s Japanese Language Program among the Best in the World?” A panel discussion with five professors from the PSU Japanese program provided discourse on why they believe this may be the case.

“On close examination it turns out that PSU has every right to ask this question,” said Hiroshi Furusawa, consul general of Japan, in his opening statement that preceded the night’s talk. “There is something special going on here that justifies that pride and ambition.”

Furusawa went on to detail that the number of students studying the Japanese language around the world has been steadily declining according to the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Tokyo, a global trend that does not seem to be letting up.

“Here at PSU, that seems to have never been the case,” Furusawa said.

“Currently, we have a very robust Japanese program,” said Dr. Laurence Kominz, senior faculty member of PSU’s Japanese program. “Over 200 students have chosen to be Japanese majors making us the second largest number of [world language] majors after Spanish.”

Kominz, who has been building the Japanese program at PSU from the ground up for the past 30 years, explained how the program’s stability is due to the number of tenured professors who have assimilated into and helped to strengthen the department. The variation of Japanese courses available also help to distinguish the school from its steep competition.

“If you want to learn Japanese up to the highest level of proficiency as an interpreter, a translator or a scholar…if you’re interested in Japanese literature, pop culture, film, linguistics, history, performing arts or music, come to PSU for first-rate education in Japanese studies,” Kominz said.

Kominz’s offered classes in Japanese drama and poetry are only a portion of the Japanese culture classes that are offered in the program. Other classes include fellow panelist Professor Jon Holt’s Japanese Literature through Film course and Susan Reese’s annual English course focusing on contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

The language program, the core of Japanese studies at PSU, was represented by Professors Suwako Watanabe, Patricia Wetzel and Emiko Konomi. They each detailed their own takes on teaching a language which, according to Professor Watanabe, takes approximately 1300 hours to approach near-native fluency; three times as many hours as it does to master Spanish and other Latin-based languages.

“Language is a skill,” said Wetzel. “It’s not like chemistry, it’s not like history. It’s much more like taking up a musical instrument or learning a sport.”

Wetzel explained the program’s focus on performance, where students meet with an English speaker once a week to gain instruction before performing what they’ve learned in a practical setting for the rest of the week, with heavy focus on speech over reading and writing.

“Spoken language comes first. This is true in your native language and we believe it is true in a second language, developmentally,” Wetzel said.

Though firm evidence for the bold titular claim of the event was mostly left for the audience to infer, those students who have persevered through the difficulties of the program serve as shining examples of why there may be more to the department’s argument than there seems to be on the surface.

“Even though [Japanese] is very difficult, I find I can measure my progress in this program,” said Josh Hunter, a senior Japanese major who served as a guest on the panel.

Hunter, who recently returned from an internship at the New York Times office in Tokyo, began taking Japanese courses at PSU only to fulfill the foreign language requirement for his degree. In short time however, his love of the language and culture flourished and he went from minoring to majoring in Japanese.

“My plan became to go to Japan to work as a foreign correspondent, and it’s only because of PSU’s Japanese program that…I am very close to landing a job in Tokyo.”

Hunter and his fellow peers show what distilled focus and passion in a discipline as dedicated as PSU’s Japanese program can result in. Prospective students take heart.

Read about student and faculty reflections in the Vanguard’s follow up here: