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The world still needs to learn Japanese

For the attention of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren):

I have previously addressed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in this forum about the necessity for Japan to internationalize further, especially by developing English skills. However, at the same time, I believe the world also needs to learn more Japanese.

Indeed, Japanese is likely spoken as a mother tongue by more people in the developed world than any other language except English. Why is it, then, that so few people in America and other developed countries are learning Japanese?

Perhaps it has previously been the case that young adults did not think Japan had much economic promise, and given that they need to be more practical these days, with youth unemployment so high globally, they chose more vocational-oriented languages — if not other studies entirely.

It is just one example, but among prestigious New England prep schools, there were 10 that taught Japanese 20 years ago. Now there are only three, and even they are struggling. The pervasive media coverage of “Abenomics” and Japan’s apparent revival has recently boosted interest in the language in these schools, but only moderately so. Unless something is done, the equivalent of Harvard and Yale among prep schools could lose their Japanese programs. Can one imagine Harvard or Yale not teaching Japanese? Meanwhile, every New England prep school teaches Chinese, despite the fact that most Chinese people that foreigners encounter are quite capable of speaking English. This is not to denigrate learning Chinese, but the story is likely the same around the world.

Of course, business and vocation are not the only reasons to learn Japanese, as the culture, especially in artistic, culinary and etiquette matters, is admired globally. Learning the language, at least in basic form, is very important to understanding the deeper characteristics of any culture, but especially so for Japanese. Japan will remain a very important country — economically, politically and culturally — for the next century, no matter what people say about demographics, so both Japanese and foreign leaders should promote the language more vigorously. Scholarships, teaching fellows and summer language camp support need to be boosted dramatically in the U.S. and other countries, in tandem with more promotion of the culture and Japan’s economic vitality in the media.

As many schools cannot accept foreign government funds, much of this work would require private-sector or NGO support. With such support, the current sad situation could easily be reversed within 10 years, with the benefits to last many more decades ahead.

JOHN VAIL

Chief Global Strategist, Nikko Asset Management Co., Ltd., Tokyo

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