Ever since Japan opened its doors to the West, English has been zealously studied in Japan’s high schools, night schools, universities and companies.

But now that business with other Asian economies is booming, for how much longer will English remain the tongue of choice for linguists?

In the cramped reception area of a gray office building not far from Matsudo station near Tokyo is a bookshelf packed with well-thumbed textbooks. “Easy first steps in Indonesian” reads one. Another is titled: “An Introduction to Russian.”

Next to it is a row of Chinese-Japanese dictionaries. On the other side of the room, a notice board displays leaflets advertising study trips to Shanghai and Seoul, and a large poster shows two colorful stars of the Peking Opera.

The World Languages College was founded 12 years ago and now has four branches in and around Tokyo. The schools provide courses in no less than 33 languages and 1,000 students learn languages ranging from Arabic and Bengalito Urdu to Vietnamese.

Students’ reasons for wanting to learn are as varied as the choice of languages. Some study for business, others as a hobby, says school manager Akichika Nagaki. Also, many students come to study the language of their non-Japanese spouse, says Nagaki.

Many are men wanting to learn Filipino or Thai — and more recently Russian,Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean. (The number of international marriages in Japan is growing rapidly, 41,000 in 2005, almost twice as many as 10 years ago). Other students come because they intend to spend their retirement years outside of Japan and want to learn some local language first.

“Thai has been popular recently,” says Nagaki. “There are lots of older people planning to retire in Thailand.” The average age of the students in the schools’ Thai classes is about 50. Another popular retirement destination is Mexico and the school now has five native speakers teaching classes in Mexican Spanish.

Students of Korean make up about a third of the school’s pupils. For the last few years, Japan has been seeing a craze for Korean cinema and TV melodramas — and some of the most passionate fans are middle-aged and elderly women. “I want to watch Korean dramas without subtitles,” says 59-year-old student Yoshida Hitomi. Her teacher occasionally uses Koreans films and programs in their lessons.

About half of the school’s students, however, are studying Chinese, says manager Nagaki. “Some businessmen come to our school because their boss has told that that they have to learn Chinese,” he says. Housewife Kyoko’s Kaihara husband was transferred to China four years ago and she has been studying Chinese since. She spends three or four months a year in China.

“When I go to the market, I can bargain now,” she says. “If you know a little of the country’s language, people are kind to you.” School manager Nagaki is expecting the number of Chinese learners to increase as attention turns toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And the trend toward Asian languages isn’t limited to language schools. Every year more high school and university students pit their wits against devilish tonal pronunciation and thousands of complex ideographs in the Chinese language.

In 2005, 553 of Japan’s 5385 high schools offered lessons in Chinese — more than twice as many as a decade before. Korean-language learning has seen a similar rise, last year overtaking French to become the third most taught language after English and Chinese.

Tomoyuki Kikuchi, section-chief of the International Education Division at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, says that a burgeoning interest in Japan’s Asian neighbors may be one reason for the change. “Historically, China is the closest country to Japan. That’s why the number of students learning Chinese is increasing,” he says. Japan’s falling birthrate and schools’ struggle to find students could be another.

“Public high-schools are trying to offer special subjects, to be more international, so that they can attract students and survive,” he says. For its part, China has been energetically promoting Chinese language and culture not just in Japan, but all around the world.

In 2004, China set up the first “Confucius Institute” in Tashkent, a language and culture center not unlike the U.K.’s British Council or Germany’s Goethe Institut. As of June this year, there were 24 institutes in Asia, three in Africa, 16 on the American continent, three in Australia and New Zealand and 25 in Europe.

China’s Ministry of Education is rapidly nearing its goal of 100 institutes. Japan has four Confucius Institutes — in southern, central and northern Japan — all set up in cooperation with local universities. Two more are planned.

At the moment, the only Confucius Institute in Kanto is at Obirin University. It officially opened in April of this year and now has over 100 students. Half of its running costs are met by the Chinese government, the rest by the university. Director Akimasu Mitsuta says that the usual emphasis on English-teaching in Japan ignores the reality of doing business in modern Asia.

Many younger Chinese speak English, but they are increasingly expecting business partners to speak Chinese. “In Japan, we say that because it is the age of globalization we need to start teaching English in primary schools,” he explains. “But the Chinese say: ‘Everybody, please study Chinese.’ ”

The institute aims to provide their students with the skills to study and to do business in China. Since February this year, the institute has recruited nine students from Obirin University into its intensive Chinese course. During their first year of study, they will have up to 22 90-minute language lessons each week.

Only two of this year’s intake have studied Chinese before, but by at the end of one year, it is expected that they will be able to read a Chinese newspaper. In their second year of study they will attend university in China.

The institute also has language courses open to ordinary members of the public. About 40 percent of students are businessmen; the rest include students, retirees and housewives. The courses are relatively cheap — 24,500 yen for 12 lessons, less than most private language schools. A wide variety of levels and learning styles are on offer and there is even one Chinese class taught in English for students who want to study both languages at the same time.

Institute director Mitsuta believes that the interest in Chinese is evidence that Japanese people are rediscovering their Asian roots.

“Some people say it comes from TV dramas,” he says, “but I think that unconsciously people are feeling that we do not belong to Western civilization.”

Even if English’s hegemony as a global lingua franca is safe for the moment, the cultural balance in Japan may already be shifting, says the Education’s Ministry’s Kikuchi. “English is the global language, that’s a fact . . . but if you look at the way the world is going, it’s not enough to just study English.”

Not surprisingly, the director of Obirin University’s Confucius Institute would like the most popular of those other languages to be Chinese. “At least half of Japanese intellectuals should speak Chinese,” stresses Mitsuta. “The Chinese are our most important neighbors.”

This article first appeared in the November issue of The Japan Journal

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