Fighting for a slot on the timetable
Lecturer Anne Convery has a small painted cat on her office desk in Nottingham University's School of Education. This grinning feline - or Naneki Neko - is a gift from one of her students, and is believed by the Japanese to bring good fortune.
Convery, who currently runs the only Japanese PGCE course in the country, certainly needs some help from above with her students' prospects. For although this year's graduates, peppy, resourceful, twentysomethings have all landed jobs in education, none has been able to find a full-time post teaching Japanese to British schoolchildren.
"Although I'm getting calls from people desperate to enrol in the course, we can't expand our intake until we can find them jobs teaching Japanese. There's not much point training people for a career that doesn't exist."
Of the four who make up the class of '95, one is off to Japan to teach English, another will be teaching beginner to intermediate Japanese to Manchester undergraduates, and the other two French and English in British schools.
Diarmuid Brittain, who has got a job teaching French in a grammar school in East Belfast, has secured a toe-hold in the subject - doing two sessions a week of Japanese with the sixth form. "I think we all accept it's going to be a long, slow road," he says. "Our only hope is to teach another subject, introduce Japanese as a fun extra and develop interest that way."
One of the 19 approved languages in the national curriculum, Japanese has grown in importance as Japan has become increasingly dominant in international trade. And the Department for Education and Employment's plans to fund up to 50 specialist language colleges over the next three years should give the subject a boost.
At least four schools bidding for funds this year have already said they intend to add Japanese to the curriculum and plenty more will follow. The Institute of Education in London is launching a new Japanese PGCE this autumn.
But like all minority languages, Japanese has to fight for its place on the timetable. Many of the 2,000 British schoolchildren who study it do so in twilight sessions or as a sixth-form extra. Convery says she has also heard of schools which are under such pressure to produce results in French that they are cutting back on second languages.
But in spite of the uncertain outlook and the dearth of teaching jobs, Japanese is the fashionable language of the moment, much as Russian was 10 years ago. Nottingham might seem an unlikely place for it to flourish but the university already had an Institute of Asian-Pacific Studies and the city is host to 14 Japanese businesses, including Canon Europa and Nippon Seiko.
The full-time PGCE Japanese course was introduced two years ago, triggered by the number of enquiries from graduates seeking a teaching qualification. Because Nottingham's modern languages PGCE is taught on a generic model, the department was able to add Japanese relatively easily to its existing repertoire of French, Spanish, German and Russian.
All the students work together, studying the methodology of language teaching through examples in many languages. Extra evening seminars are laid on for the students of Japanese, by part-time lecturer Helen Gilhooly, to tackle problems peculiar to this group.
"The fact that it has a non-Romanised script means we have to spend a lot of time on reading and writing," she says. "These students have to motivate GCSE pupils to learn hundreds of ideographs or kanji which represent ideas or objects - and make it interesting and exciting.
"They've also got to be able to sustain their own interest in the subject as many of them won't ever get the opportunity to teach more than the basics. And as there's a shortage of materials for the students to use in class, we have to make a lot ourselves."
Gilhooly is also co-ordinator of the Derby County Council Japanese Resource Centre. This was set up in 1990 to provide support for Japanese children brought over when Toyota opened its plant in Derby and to improve cultural relations by promoting the language. She goes into six Derbyshire secondary schools teaching Japanese.
"There has been a tendency, particularly for private schools, to take in a Japanese wife from the community to teach part-time. But if schools are going to be committed to Japanese they need someone who's qualified, who knows how to maintain discipline and be part of the team," she says, "I'd say to anyone who works with the Japanese, it's important to develop some understanding of the language, not just to rely on their opposite number's English - English isn't relevantly taught in Japan."
"There's a lot of translation work but not much listening, so many Japanese will smile politely through a meeting and appear to be keeping up. but there's an awful lot they will have missed - which their English business partners won't be aware of."
Only one of this year's intake at Nottingham had studied Japanese as a first degree. The rest developed a passion for the language while visiting the country.
Gillian Hall never considered herself a linguist; the only foreign language she did at school was French to O-level. Her interest in Japanese began as a participant on the Japanese Exchange Teaching Scheme in a small village, Nita, in south-west Japan. "I found the language fascinating, especially the idioms," she says. "It's a myth that it's difficult, there aren't any plurals, no cases for verbs, and only two tenses. It's perfect for the lazy language student. "
Gillian has beaten 15 other candidates for a job teaching undergraduates at the Greater Manchester Centre for Japanese Studies and pulls a face as she explains her other career option was to work for Mitsubishi Bank. "I'm not interested in company life, and teaching is an obvious way to use it."
Daniel Gallimore, who has already taken a degree in English at Cambridge and an MA in Japanese studies at Sheffield University, says this has been "easily the most satisfying of the three courses I've done".
His fellow students are similarly positive, the only minor criticism which emerges is that on the odd occasion, topics relevant to the other languages such as GCSE orals don't apply to them, because all the Japanese coursework is written.
As there aren't many schools where Japanese is offered as a substantial part of the curriculum, the students dispersed around the country for their 24 weeks of teaching practice, to schools in Bury St Edmunds, Derby, Cardiff and Croydon.
Victoria Folkard, who studied Chinese and Japanese as a first degree at Leeds University, went to County Upper School in Bury St Edmunds. "With the supervisor so far away, much of the supervision devolved on to the mentor and the relationship between mentors and students became correspondingly stronger, " she says.
Victoria who took up languages because she's "nosey and likes to know what is going on", particularly enjoyed the group's five-week study trip to Japan funded by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. She went into schools in Yokohama and studied the importance of understanding culture in teaching a language.
The youngest student on the course at 24, she's going back to Japan to improve her fluency but hopes the job situation here will improve meantime. The Japanese have an expression gambare, which means "stick to it". This oriental stoicism seems to have rubbed off on the group. None of the four is downhearted about the limited opportunities available to use their training.
As Daniel Gallimore, off to teach English in Essex puts it: "My first priority is to be a good English teacher but having said that, I know my experience of Japan will inform my teaching in numerous ways. Even if I don't teach the language, I have my travels, Japanese literature and haiku to draw onIit's a very rich resource."