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A government-sponsored summer program promoting exchanges between Japanese and Japanese-speaking foreign guests will for the first time expand its activities to South Korea, according to an official of the Japan Return Program.

Miyoko Ikezaki, executive managing director of the JRP, said that the decision was made after the organizer learned that Korea has the world’s largest population of Japanese-language learners.

The Japan Return Program 2002, starting Monday, is backed by the Foreign Ministry and the South Korean Embassy in Japan and received corporate sponsorship from The Japan Times. It features trips to Miyazaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Seoul, which is the first overseas site in JRP’s seven-year history.

At each place, 10 international participants will stay with host-families and discuss, in Japanese, peace and history issues with local students.

The participants — from Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, South Korea, Uruguay, China, Australia, Bulgaria and Mexico — were selected on the basis of essays they wrote in Japanese on “Global Citizens and Peace.”

The Japan Return Program was launched in 1995 to give young foreigners who had spent their early days in Japan an opportunity to visit Japan and brush up their Japanese. It has grown and evolved, however. Among this year’s 10 participants, only two have ever visited Japan.

“Zeal for Japan and Japanese is so strong,” Ikezaki said. “An increasing number of people have started learning Japanese at a younger age, and we have received a number of applications from students who have never been to Japan.”

The program opened its doors to all teens studying Japanese in 1999. It now aims to create more “Japan fans” overseas and promote greater understanding of Japan, she said.

The 10 are expected to finish their program August 7. When they return home, it is hoped they will tell people about what they have seen and learned in Japan.

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