The proposal to make English Japan’s official second language has been hotly debated over the past few months, but panelists at a recent symposium say it is Japan’s leaders — not necessarily the general public — who need to master the language.

The symposium, which discussed English as an international language, was organized by the nonprofit English-Speaking Union of Japan, established in 1998 to promote international understanding through the use of English.

According to Yasushi Akashi, a former U.N. undersecretary general and vice chairman of the ESUJ, in order for Japanese business and political leaders to have “real negotiations,” they need to be able to speak with foreign leaders without the use of interpreters.

“A great deal of important negotiations take place in the lobby, hallway, or even the toilet . . . it is not desirable to bring interpreters along in that kind of situation,” he said, based on his many years with the United Nations.

While it is essential that leaders speak English, not all Japanese need to be able to do so, Akashi said. “Perhaps 10 percent of the Japanese working population would need a high level of English.”

A lack of English proficiency also deprives Japanese leaders of opportunities to clearly explain Japan’s stance to foreign media, added Ian de Stains, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

When Japan is unfairly criticized by foreign media, “it’s a great shame that some of its leaders are not able to stand up and answer that,” de Stains said.

Singaporean Ambassador Chew Tai Soo said the people of Japan should keep in mind that the country is a homogeneous society — very different from the immigrant society of Singapore, with its many races, cultures and religions — in pursuing the spread of English.

“We were a British colony . . . and English was a unifying language to cut across various languages and cultures,” Chew said. “Language is a highly emotive issue, it touches the very heart of race, culture and existence of a nation . . . so my suggestion is to drop the word ‘official,’ and find the right motivation to make English a second language in Japan.”

The Internet, where much of the information is written in English, could be a motivating factor for Japanese to learn English, just as British and American pop music and films inspired Scandinavian people to learn English in the 1960s and ’70s, Chew added.

Panelists agreed that the important thing for Japanese when learning English is not to be afraid of making mistakes.

“Japanese people tend to be perfectionists and thus dislike speaking incorrectly,” observed Mexican Ambassador Manuel Uribe.

Grammar and correct spelling are not the most important things in learning English because “the purpose of learning a living language is communication,” he said.

Toshiko Marks, a professor of cross-cultural communication at Shumei University, said she believes the Japanese are afraid to speak English because “they feel English belongs to a superior culture.”

Referring not only to English, Marks said that the Japanese education system is problematic in the way that it provides students with “very little training and encouragement to express their own opinion.”

“When Japanese youngsters can’t use their own language, how on earth can we expect them to do so well in English?” she said, suggesting that Japanese students be encouraged to debate in both languages.

Both Marks and Chew recommended the use of English-language newspapers and magazines in studying higher levels of English.

By comparing different reports of the same news event, students can see different ways the language is being used, and reading newspapers is also a good way for students to form an opinion on contemporary issues, they said.