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There were a record 3.98 million people studying Japanese abroad in 2012 amid widespread interest in the nation’s culture, the Japan Foundation announced Monday.

The figure in its preliminary report on Japanese-language education overseas showed the number of students rose 9.1 percent from its previous survey in 2009, which counted some 3.65 million students.

Although Japan’s economy has worsened, a certain number of people study the language nonetheless because it’s needed to further their careers, said Toshiki Ando, managing director of the foundation’s Teacher and Institutional Support Department.

“In addition, there are many people who learn the language out of their interest in culture, including animation, manga and history,” Ando said at a news conference Monday in Tokyo.

By country, China topped the list for the first time, with around 1.04 million learners, up 26.5 percent from the last survey, followed by 872,000 in Indonesia and 840,000 in South Korea, which topped the previous survey.

Ando warned, however, that the tally in China may fall amid the current chill in bilateral relations.

The triennial survey by the foundation was conducted from July 2012 until March this year in 203 countries and regions, with questionnaires distributed to 19,834 institutions listed as teaching Japanese.

The survey, to which 18,479 institutions responded, indicated 16,045 were engaged in language education, up from 14,925 in 2009. It also showed an increase in the number of teachers of Japanese, rising to 63,771 from 49,803.

Overall, East Asia, including Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam, accounted 82 percent of all learners, the preliminary figures show.

Interest in Japanese itself came first among the motivations for learning the language, followed by the ability to communicate and acquiring knowledge about manga and animation.

The Japan Foundation is a public organization under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry, specializing in international cultural exchanges, including fostering Japanese-language education overseas. The organization has 22 offices in 21 countries.