JRP grads bridge cultures

Foreign youths' take on key words broadens Japan's global reach


A group of young foreigners who visited Japan as part of a study program and mastered the language announced their favorite Japanese words Tuesday to an admiring domestic crowd.

The 14 visitors, representing 12 countries from Mongolia to Morocco, gave presentations at Nikkei Hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, after spending a month in Japan with the NPO Japan Return Program, a group that runs projects to encourage the study of the Japanese language. The speakers, aged 18 to 27, wowed the audience with their fluent Japanese and sophisticated presentations of the Japanese words they want to introduce to the rest of the world.

The chosen words often portrayed sentiments that reflect Japanese culture, such as “otagaisama” meaning “we’re in the same boat,” or new concepts key to modern society, such as “mieruka” meaning “visualization.”

“The word ‘otagaisama’ has the intention of not putting a burden on the other person, and a consideration to lighten their mood,” said Abdelaziz Kimy, a 26-year-old from Morocco, who chose the word after hearing it used on the job at a Japanese firm.

“In the teachings of Islam, there is the term ‘I have only done what I was supposed to,’ but ‘otagaisama’ has the power to make the speaker and listener equal,” he said.

“I believe that better relationships can be built if you say ‘otaigasama’ when you’re busy, and share problems and help each other,” he added, referring to the warring factions of Islam.

The speakers were selected from students of Japanese living abroad who originally came to Japan to experience the culture over the last decade on JRP’s annual program. Over the years, the program has invited 162 participants from 128 countries.

The speakers, some of whom stayed in Japan after leaving the program as others returned to their home countries, returned to the program last month and got work experience.

Their key word presentations marked the culmination of the project.

Mongolian speaker Nomiun Delgerkh, the youngest of the participants at age 18, said she came across the word “mieruka” in the workplace. Although the word is used in companies to increase efficiency, she was struck by its applicability in everyday life.

“Nowadays life is becoming very convenient, and it is a matter of course that most everyday goods are easily available, but other important things are becoming less visible,” she said.

“I feel that there are many occasions when the ideas that come into our heads or our feelings toward those people who are important to us get lost,” she added.

Risa Stegmayer, a celebrity in Japan born to an American father and a Japanese mother, commented on the speakers as a guest at the event, and applauded them for their “superb” Japanese.

“Listening to your presentations, I was reminded of words that I hadn’t used in a long while,” said Stegmayer, who herself confessed to having ongoing problems with intonation.

Most of the participants studied Japanese as children in their home countries. The JRP program attracts between three to 10 applicants per place each year.

Many were first drawn to Japan through their love of Japanese culture, such as “manga,” TV dramas or J-pop. For others, their interest in Japan was inspired by a historic event in their home country.

Malgorzata Maria Zurawska, 25, from Poland, was born when her country was still under Soviet rule, and she witnessed its first free elections in 1990 at the age of 5.

“The new president (Lech) Walesa said in his speech that he wanted to cause a revolution, (make Poland) grow financially and establish the next Japan,” she said.

When Zurawska was later choosing a language to study, she remembered Walesa’s words and chose Japanese, she added.

For her key phrase, Zurawska chose “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” which loosely means “please kindly look after someone or something.” She said she found it very difficult to translate the phrase into other languages when she was working as an interpreter.

“Even though it’s commonly used in everyday life, even Japanese people are not aware of its actual meaning,” she said.

“When you are asking somebody for something, it has the power to convince them and gives them the will to do it, and makes it difficult for them to refuse.”

Other key Japanese words presented at the event included “omoiyari” (“consideration”), “dozo” (“here you are”) and “ichigo ichie” (“treasure every meeting”).

Some of the speakers capitalized on their Japanese experience gained during the JRP program when they returned to their home countries.

Janyl Mamatova, 23, from Kyrgyzstan, works at the local branch of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and hopes to become a diplomat.

Other participants have stayed in Japan to study or work. Ah Lim Lee, 22, and Mijn Kim, 27, from South Korea are students at the University of Tokyo, while Kimy from Morocco works at a company in the Sumitomo Group.

During the JRP program this year, the participants visited Japanese firms to witness business strategies and the companies’ efforts to become global.

Kim, 26-year-old Eiichi Hakata, who is half-Japanese and half-Mexican, and 22-year-old Mongolian Byambatsogt Tungalag, a student at Chiba University, joined Nifco Inc., a plastics manufacturer and the parent company of The Japan Times. During their two-week internship, they visited the Nifco plants and dropped in on the company’s car manufacturing clients.