Japanese generally know two things about the city of Okazaki in Aichi Prefecture.

It is the birthplace of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867, while the local economy is now heavily dependent on the Toyota Motor Corp. group.

But the city, which has a population of some 330,000, is also garnering kudos abroad as a center of Japanese-language excellence.

This is largely due to the endeavors of Hattori Kogyo K.K., a midsize corporation specializing in the manufacture of kitchen appliances for commercial use, including gas rice cookers.

Hattori Kogyo President Yoshio Hattori established the Yamasa Institute nine years ago to help foreigners study Japanese, work or set up service ventures in Japan.

Hattori, who studied in the United States, said he launched the institute because he felt that Japan should follow the American example in offering foreigners opportunities to exploit their talents and fulfill their aspirations.

While guiding a visitor around the institute, located in a five-story building near the Hattori Kogyo factory, Hattori said he embarked on the venture free of any fears over what he would do if it failed.

He said his father, Tarokichi, who established the kitchen equipment-making firm, gave him free rein to do whatever he pleased.

“My ultimate goal was the establishment of the institute,” he said.

The government has not granted the institute ordinary corporate school status.

“Instead, there is the aspect that we can operate (the institution) freely,” Hattori said.

Personal computers and keyboards are available in the institute’s classrooms, where 177 students from 23 countries are taught Japanese by some 40 full-time and part-time teachers.

Monthly tuition at the school runs 55,000 yen, and courses range from four-week affairs to two years.

Most students say they learned of the Yamasa Institute on the Internet. Officials later said they get some 150 inquiries a day on the official Web site.

About 95,000 foreigners are currently studying Japanese at universities and corporations around Japan, while there are about 1,500 Japanese-language educational facilities, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Declan Murphy, an Irishman who grew up in Sydney and who also holds an Australian passport, studied at the Yamasa Institute and subsequently set up Internet ventures in a leased office in the institute building.

He is currently pouring his energies into the development of software for learning Japanese.

Murphy is putting together a program that will enable individuals pursuing a correspondence course to sit in front of a personal computer and study Japanese in six areas — including vocabulary, kanji, grammar and conversation.

He will incorporate photographs and recordings of spoken Japanese into the program, which will be available in seven languages including English.

“I’ve worked in Tokyo,” Murphy said. “But there are too many people there and foreigners such as us would be buried if we tried to do something.

“Here (in Okazaki) I can work until midnight every night because my apartment is close (to the office).”

Murphy said Japanese businesses lack knowhow in the tourism industry, claiming they lag behind in terms of utilizing the Internet and are slow in achieving growth in productivity.

Murphy said foreigners can engage in business in areas outside Tokyo if they use the Internet.

Hattori is meanwhile cooperating with a local university on ways to breathe new life into the conservative one-firm town, and to reinvigorate the area.

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