A strategic language no more? Why fewer Kiwi students are learning Japanese

Many Kiwis in Japan for the Rugby World Cup won’t have any need for phrasebooks because Japanese has long been one of the top languages in New Zealand schools. But in recent years, more and more students have been saying “sayonara” to the subject.

When Tia Tahau was starting Year 9 at Karamu High School in Hastings and deciding what subjects to take, she took a chance on Japanese.

“I’d always liked the idea of travelling and I thought learning a new language and culture would be really exciting.”

Now in Year 12, Tia is planning to take her Japanese study to the next level. Next year, the 16-year-old will travel to Japan to do a year-long exchange at a sister school in Kobe.

Tia Tahau

Karamu High School student Tia Tahau will spend her final year of school in Japan. PHOTO: Supplied

Tia is one of tens of thousands of Kiwi students who have fallen in love with the language and culture of Japan. Introduced in the late 1960s, Japanese was one of the first foreign languages to be offered in Kiwi classrooms. Growing recognition of Japan’s importance to New Zealand as a major trading partner made learning the lingo an attractive option, and by the mid-90s, Japanese had overtaken French as the most popular language in New Zealand secondary schools.

But during the past two decades the number had dropped to 11,300, according to Education Counts figures. While language learning overall has suffered a decline, there seems to be a feeling that Japanese in particular is in crisis.


Educators and language experts are united in blaming New Zealand’s “English is enough” mindset, and have been calling for a national languages policy for years. They say in the absence of such a policy, language learning in New Zealand is often swayed by the initiatives of foreign governments and funding bodies.

The Sasakawa Fellowship Fund for Japanese Language Education was set up in 1995 to promote and support the study of Japanese language in New Zealand. The programme is funded by a non-governmental organisation in Japan, and coordinated by Massey University. Thousands of students and teachers have benefited from the programme’s scholarships and study grants — but in recent years its funding has significantly reduced, making its future uncertain.

Programme coordinator Naomi Collins, who has worked for the Sasakawa Fellowship Fund since its inception, has conducted regular surveys with Japanese teachers which has given her a sense of the subject’s decline. She found the main problem is that languages are viewed as little more than “a nice extra”.

Naomi Collins

Naomi Collins was recognised for services to Japanese language education by Japanese Ambassador Toshihisa Takata. PHOTO: Massey University

“The big thing is that New Zealanders don’t value a second language —  we’re resolutely monolingual. We’re really up against it with that attitude.”

Jacky Braid, a former secondary school teacher of Japanese and past president of the New Zealand Association of Japanese Language Teachers, agrees there needs to be an attitude change around the value of learning a language. The demands of NCEA and university entrance have not helped the subject — which has the added struggle of being perceived as too difficult, she says.

“The challenge the kids have is that they start having to choose between subjects. Universities will say to the kids, ‘you want to do health science? You’ll need all your three sciences’. So the kids go, ‘I’ve got to do English, maths, and my three sciences’. That’s five subjects gone. If they get to do a sixth subject, they look at Japanese, and unless they’re really passionate about it, they’re going to dodge it.”


There is also a strong feeling there has been a shift in focus to Mandarin in New Zealand schools, bolstered by investment from the Chinese government in the form of the Confucius Institutes and the Mandarin Language Assistants programme.

While Japanese is still twice as popular as Mandarin in schools, in the past five years Mandarin “has certainly eaten into Japanese”, says Collins.

“When I was doing the surveys, I’d often hear anecdotally that schools had quite a strong Japanese programme, but school management suddenly wanted to go the Mandarin way. They would have been offered some level of financial assistance.”

Braid also feels that languages are prioritised based on which country is willing to fund them. She says one of the reasons Japanese was successful for so long was due to investment in initiatives such as the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme. More than 3000 New Zealanders have spent time in Japan teaching English through the programme, which was established in 1987. Many would return to New Zealand and become Japanese teachers.

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“The problem is, the Japanese government isn’t putting as much money into it as they used to,” Braid says.

“At the same time, the Chinese government is investing a lot of money into language learning — they’re following a very successful formula as to how to get schools engaged in picking up Mandarin.”

Associate Professor Sharon Harvey, head of the School of Language and Culture at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), in 2013 led a team in publishing a Royal Society of New Zealand paper that set the scene for a national languages policy.

She points out that languages are the only area of the curriculum where the support of external organisations is “expected and indeed required” for a subject to survive.

“My personal opinion is that if we had a coherent plan around languages in education, we wouldn’t see one language replacing the other in the dramatic way that it has with Japanese and Mandarin.”

The better scenario, Harvey says, would have been to keep Japanese strong alongside an increasing Mandarin presence. Some students may even benefit from learning both languages, which have common character writing systems.

Japanese language

Japanese and Chinese can complement each other, says Sharon Harvey. PHOTO: Asia New Zealand Foundation

“It seems a great shame that we’ve put so much energy into building up Japanese and schools are letting it go. Maybe they’re not getting the support they need to run really vibrant language programmes.”


But where does studying Japanese get you in 2019? While Japan is no longer the economic juggernaut it was in the 1980s, it’s still the world’s third-largest economy, and New Zealand’s fourth-largest trading partner. The 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are also expected to help put the Land of the Rising Sun back into the sports-mad Kiwi consciousness.

Of course, being proficient in the language isn’t a ticket to instant success. Anecdotal evidence suggests Japanese companies tend to prefer to hire Japanese nationals who can speak English, rather than native English speakers with Japanese skills.

This may have always been the case, admits Penny Shino, a lecturer in Japanese at Massey University and the president of Japanese Studies Aotearoa New Zealand.

“I think there was a perception in the 1980s that if you had a strong Japanese qualification, you could go to Japan and easily get a fantastic job. That was probably quite unrealistic.”

Back home, though, where fewer than 300,000 people born in New Zealand identify as multilingual, language skills can give job applicants a competitive edge. 

“What we’ve been trying to do is to educate employers on the value of employing people with language skills,” Shino says.

“We’re also trying to educate the students themselves about what studying a language can bring not just in terms of communication skills and cultural literacy, but the soft skills that come with language learning, like empathy for speakers of other languages struggling with English, active listening skills and flexibility in attitudes.”

Frances Brown, a Customer Manager at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), began studying Japanese as an elective at third form when the subject was at its peak in 1995. She kept up her Japanese all the way through, and was offered a scholarship to do an exchange in Japan after completing seventh form.

Frances Brown

Frances Brown, who studied Japanese, is now a Customer Manager for NZTE. PHOTO: Supplied

Upon returning to New Zealand, Brown was able to go straight into second year Japanese at Victoria University. It wasn’t long before another opportunity to go overseas came along — and she ended up spending another year in Japan on exchange, at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies.

After completing her Bachelor of Arts majoring in Japanese and History, she went on to do a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration in International Business. When it came to job hunting, Brown says her Japanese skills “definitely helped, but as part of a package”. 

“I think NZTE is actively looking for people with an international mindset and experience — so it was a combination of both my Japanese and the international business study,” she says.

“Anyone who studies a language realises pretty soon that unless you want to be a translator, in and of itself, it’s not a career. You do have to combine it with something.”

Career aside, Brown says she will always be “super passionate” about Japan. “It’s hard to imagine it not being a part of my life.”

Meanwhile Karamu High School student Tia Tahau, who will depart for Japan next year, hopes to one day combine Japanese with her passion for fashion. “I get a lot of my inspiration from Japanese fashion, like Harajuku,” she says. “I’m hoping to come back to New Zealand for university, and then maybe return to Japan after finishing a design or fashion course.”

Already, she says, studying Japanese has “opened up so many opportunities”.

A year from now I’ll be in Japan — maybe I’ll even come back fluent. It’s been kind of life-changing.”

Main image: Asia New Zealand Foundation

- Asia Media Centre