If you’ve ever studied Japanese at university or you’ve applied to a job that involved knowledge of Japanese, you’ve probably been asked some variation of this question: “Why did you decide to study Japanese?” On its face it seems like a simple question, but as most people who have taken Japanese in school know, the majority of Westerners learning Japanese are doing so in order to watch anime or read manga in the original language. You could give the honest answer: “I am learning Japanese because I like manga and anime”, but this brands you with the stigma of otaku. You don’t want your interviewer to think you are lazy, annoying, or anti-social, but unfortunately this the impression most people have of otaku. So how do you answer the question honestly while sounding like a professional?
You can tell a story, like “My best friend in 3rd grade was from Japan and we used to watch Doraemon and other Japanese shows together” or “I’ve been interested in Japanese art and culture since I learned how to make paper cranes in middle school.”
If some of your family is Japanese, you can give that as a reason, or talk about family vacations in Japan or plans to visit Japan in the future.
But what if you don’t have any friends or family who speak Japanese? You can give a vague answer, like “I like Japanese art” but then they ask what kind, and you’re back to square one. You can give an example of a traditional art you like, such as ikebana, shodo, rakugo, or origami, but you don’t want to just throw these out there if you’re not really interested. You could go and start practicing a traditional Japanese art, but if it’s just for the sake of having a more legitimate reason to study Japanese, there’s not really much point. There’s also the issue of cultural appropriation in being someone of European descent practicing a Japanese art form, which usually doesn’t get said in these kinds of getting-to-know-you conversations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it crosses the interviewer’s mind.
Talking about the beauty of certain physical objects or landscapes in Japan is harmless, but kind of shallow. For example: “I’ve always thought Japanese maples and cherry trees are beautiful.” But why Japanese language, though? You don’t need Japanese language skills to enjoy pagodas or the sight of Mount Fuji. Maybe you want to travel to Japan, but unless you want to move there for a significant amount of time it’s not really a big motivation to learn the language… and many of the areas frequented by tourists have signs in English and people that speak English, so you don’t absolutely need to know Japanese to travel in Japan.
The best way to answer the question is to relate Japanese skills to your primary field of expertise:
If you studied English, you can say you like Japanese literature and give an example of a Japanese author whose work you admire (and if you haven’t read any Japanese authors, I suggest Haruki or Ryu Murakami, Natsume Soseki, or Yukio Mishima).
If you studied psychology, you can say you are interested in Japanese culture and society.
If you studied computer science, you can say you are interested in someday working in the Japanese video game industry, or that Japan is a leader in the technology and robotics fields.
And so on and so on…
Of course, you could say you’re studying Japanese out of intellectual curiosity! It’s vague, but not incorrect…
Well, I hope this post has helped someone respond to this deceivingly tricky question. I’m interested in hearing, dear reader, if you are learning Japanese, why did you start? Have your reasons changed since you started?
P.S. If you’re not comfortable speaking Japanese (or your Japanese is rusty) do not put Japanese proficiency on your resume (or put writing proficiency only)! The interviewer may test you by speaking Japanese in the interview and they will find out very quickly if you are not up to conversational standards.
UPDATE: Maybe telling Japanese people you are an otaku is not so bad? Youtube user That Japanese Man Yuta posted a video of himself interviewing Japanese people about otaku and it sounds like they wouldn’t think badly of an American who got interested in Japanese culture through anime (of course, they could just be being polite… haha).