“Goseicho arigato gozaimashita” (thank you for listening), a regular way of ending a speech, echoed in the meeting room after each foreign speaker gave their presentations and received a big round of applause from the audience.
Diplomats from 13 countries — including two ambassadors — all gave Japanese speeches at different levels of fluency, some adept and others just learning. Most read from prepared text, struggling to pronounce the words. A few memorized the three-minute-long speeches and spoke with confidence.
The envoys were taking part in a Jan. 22 forum in Tokyo as the final part of a Japanese language program designed for ambassadors and diplomats. The theme of the speeches was “Japan and my country.”
The forum consisted of three parts, including speeches about their own country, a panel discussion arranged by their teacher, and exchanges with Japanese participants, among them junior high and high school students affiliated with University of Tsukuba.
Micronesian Ambassador John Fritz, one of the most fluent participants, said the course was a wonderful opportunity for him to present his speech. “I wanted to charm the listeners with my Japanese speech, and my Japanese teacher helped me out a lot to brush it up,” said Fritz, who is a quarter Japanese and has a Japanese wife.
Moroccan Ambassador Samir Arrour said that although he finds the language very difficult, he enjoys learning it and is intrigued by Japanese culture. Arrour is on his second mission in Japan after an assignment here 20 years ago.
He said his goal here is to strengthen educational ties between Morocco and Japan, adding he wants to get more Japanese courses offered at universities and schools in his country. “People in Morocco are eager to learn Japanese, and to know more about its culture and civilization,” he said.
The program was organized by the Japan Return Program, a nonprofit organization that offers Japanese training programs and intercultural exchange forums. A total of 200 people from 176 countries have taken part since the group started its activities in 1999.
CEO Miyoko Ikezaki initially launched the programs to support foreigners who had previously stayed in Japan and wanted to come back to study the language more. The group annually invites youths from around the world and organizes home-stay programs and exchanges with Japanese youths.
According to the group, the objective of the Jan. 22 event was to “provide an opportunity for ambassadors and diplomats to introduce their country in Japanese and share opinions with Japanese participants.”
Ikezaki, a Japanese language teacher who has taught a number of ambassadors and diplomats, said many of the diplomats have a strong desire to improve their Japanese skills while juggling their busy schedules.
People from developing countries find it especially difficult to learn Japanese due to financial circumstances, she said.
She said diplomats definitely need to learn Japanese in order to understand the culture.
“I want them to improve their Japanese while they are here in the country. It’s the best chance for them,” said Ikezaki.
During the eight-month program that started last May, the group sent teachers to give one-on-one Japanese language lessons to six ambassadors, and joint lessons involving 20 diplomats from 15 countries, including Russia, the Philippines and Azerbaijan, with advanced Japanese ability.
Deborah Paul, counselor and head of the political section at the Canadian Embassy, said she found the honorific expressions in Japanese especially difficult to learn even after living in the country for five years.
“It was good to be able to practice it (honorific expressions) in a nonthreatening environment (detached from the workplace), where it allows you to make mistakes,” she said.
She said she hopes the expressions will be useful when she needs to contact Japanese politicians and academics in her job.
Paul added that she also learned about the cultures of other countries through the program. “It was interesting to hear stories about countries that I have never visited, such as Kyrgyz, Russia and Azerbaijan,” she said.
Kento Kozawa, 16, a first-year student at the Senior High School at Komaba run by the University of Tsukuba, said he was impressed by the high level of the presentations given by the diplomats, even though some of them had been here for only a few months. He was among the Japanese who took part in the exchanges with the diplomats.
Kozawa, who is currently studying several languages, including English, French and Chinese, with an eye to living overseas in the future, said that the forum reminded him of the importance of learning foreign languages in achieving his goal.
“I was impressed by people explaining about their country using a language other than their mother tongue. I thought that I should make more effort to learn other languages,” he said.