Romance and Language Learning

An Ethnographic Study of Female Japanese Students of English in Australia

Lachlan Jackson, Ritsumeikan University [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 2 (Book review 2 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 29 July 2014.

Takahashi, Kimie (2013) Language Learning, Gender, and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, paperback, ISBN: 9781847698537, 181 and xvi pages.

In recent years, a number of works have begun to explore the link between second language learning and romantic desire (e.g. Appleby 2013; Bailey 2006; Kelsky 2008; Piller 2008). Kimie Takahashi’s latest offering is an insightful and important contribution to this growing body of literature. Stemming from her doctoral work at the University of Sydney, Language Learning, Gender, and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move investigates the beliefs and experiences of several Japanese women studying English in Sydney. Based on almost five years of ethnographic fieldwork, Takahashi offers an intriguing account of the ways in which the abstractions of race, gender and desire affect the language learning experience.

In the introduction, Takahashi canvasses the rationale, theoretical underpinnings, and methodological framework of the book. Influenced by the “post-structuralist work on identity, desire, and power in general, and the work of three researchers, Karen Kelsky, Bonny Norton, and Ingrid Piller, in particular” (page 3), she seeks to “explore the dialectic relationship between public discourses and subjective agency in shaping Japanese women’s private desires and how these desires mediate their approaches to learning and using the target language” (page 7). 

In the second chapter, entitled Language Desire, media discourses pertaining to English language learning, as well as their “constitutive effect on Japanese women’s akogare [longing] for English, the West, and romance with Western men” (page 20) is explored. Takahashi first examines the way in which the identities of native English-speaking teachers in Japan are constructed. Through an interesting analysis of representative promotional materials from several English conversation schools, she highlights how sexual and romantic innuendo between Japanese female learners of English and their native English-speaking male instructors is frequently promulgated. Finally, Takahashi turns to the intriguing phenomena of ren’ai English (relationship English), by offering an analysis of instructional material periodically appearing in women’s magazines and websites “for the specific purpose of establishing and maintaining romantic and sexual relationships with foreign men in English” (page 28).    

Chapter 3 deals with the phenomenon of ryūgaku (studying abroad). Takahashi highlights how, in Japan, most magazines and travel agencies tend to limit the promotion of ryūgaku to the inner circle countries of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. These countries are shown to be seen as destinations of legitimate, authentic English. Secondly, the ryūgaku experience is shown frequently to be promoted as a “glamorous means of reinventing and empowering womanhood and kick-starting a new lifestyle” (page 45).

Desired Interlocutors is the title of Chapter 4. Here Takahashi uses excerpts from participants’ narratives to underscore the widely-held belief that “socialisation with Australian/native speakers of English was the key to learning English in the ryūgaku context” (pages 63–64). Interestingly, several of Takahashi’s informants expressed a growing frustration and disappointment in their inability to befriend hakujin (Caucasian) “Aussies,” whom they came to view as racist towards Asians. Nevertheless, the participants frequently described their desire to improve their English by way of acquiring a native-speaking boyfriend. For the women in Takahashi’s study, the desirability of these linguistic resources was, admittedly, far from straightforward, but three key factors “emerged repeatedly as powerfully inflating or deflating the desirability of their interlocutors: race, linguistic background and looks” (page 72). Paradoxically, this aspect of the data set, the seemingly reductionist and prejudiced tone of several of the participants’ own assertions about non-Japanese men in Australia—such as the frequent contention that bilingual western men were sleazy “losers” (pages 79–82), or that mixing with non-white men while studying overseas was initially viewed as a “waste of time” (pages 72–74)—perhaps deserved a somewhat more critical analysis. 

Agency is the theme of the next chapter. Here Takahashi explores her participants’ negotiation of their own English learning opportunities throughout the ryūgaku experience on two fronts: in the home (in shared accommodation with both native and non-native-English speakers) and in the workplace. Takahashi argues that, although the women in her study had initially hoped to improve their English by living and working with native English-speaking Australians, their linguistic practices were influenced by a complex interplay of their “financial needs, identity, non-linguistic desires and the power relations experienced in particular contexts” (page 110). 

The penultimate chapter, entitled Going Home, deals with the participants’ transition from ryūgaku into the next phases of their lives. Interestingly, the majority of Takahashi’s informants reportedly did not wish to return to Japan. Takahashi’s participants’ narratives sharply contrasted stereotypes of “returnees as empowered English-speaking women with promising international careers… [They] revealed a sense of powerlessness in the face of the authoritarian nature of Japanese companies, which openly discriminated against women on the basis of age and gender” (page 121).

Takahashi skillfully draws together the implications of her study in the conclusion of the book and so offers a meaningful extension to previous discussions. Significantly, she offers a multi-tiered conceptualisation of language desire (see page 144) at the levels of construction (i.e., where it comes from) and possible effects (i.e., its implications for the field of Second Language Acquisition and for Japan as a globalising society). 

Language Learning, Gender, and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move is both groovy and gutsy. Fresh, thought-provoking, well-structured, and accessibly written, it is a clever and sophisticated example of “think-outside-the-box,” cutting-edge sociolinguistics. This original and engaging contribution is highly recommended to scholars working across the fields of Second Language Acquisition, transmigration, and gender.


Appleby, Roslyn (2013) “Desire in Translation: White Masculinity and TESOL,” TESOL Quarterly, 47 (1): 122–47.

Bailey, Keiron (2006) “Marketing the Eikaiwa Wonderland: Ideology, Akogare, and Gender Alterity in English Conversation School Advertising in Japan,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24 (1): 105–30.

Kelsky, Karen (2008) “Gender, Modernity, and Eroticized Internationalism in Japan,” in David Blake Willis and Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu (eds) Transcultural Japan: At the Borderlands of Race, Gender and Identity, Oxon: Routledge, 86–109.

Piller, Ingrid (2008) “‘I Always Wanted to Marry a Cowboy’: Bilingual Couples, Language, and Desire,” in Terri A. Karis and Kyle D. Killian (eds) Intercultural Couples: Exploring Diversity in Intimate Relationships, London: Routledge, 53–70.

About the Author

Lachlan Jackson is an Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, where he teaches English. He holds a PhD from the University of Queensland, and is also the Editor of the Japan Journal of Multilingualism and Multiculturalism. He recently published “Language Edutainment on Japanese Television,” together with Belinda Kennett, in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

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