A panel of experts discussing ways to increase the number of Japanese language learners overseas proposed Wednesday promoting “Cool Japan” pop culture and online services to provide more opportunities for speaking the language.

The panel stressed the importance of drawing young people to Japanese through popular culture, such as manga, anime, fashion, music and food. One tack, they said, is to develop more online language learning materials with cultural content.

At the same time, the country has to incentivize learners by cooperating with companies and universities, the panel said. An example might be to prioritize people highly proficient in Japanese in screening candidates for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or in hiring foreign grads by Japanese firms.

The panel also proposed opening online chat rooms for language learners and using TV conference systems and Skype to train nonnative Japanese teachers.

The panel was launched amid worries about the recent slow growth in the number of Japanese learners as the country’s economic power wanes.

Last year, there were a record high 3.98 million people studying Japanese abroad, according to the Japan Foundation. Though 30 times more than in 1979, the panel called attention to the recent slowdown in growth. The government aims to raise the number to 5 million by 2020.

By country, China topped the list for the first time, with around 1.04 million learners, followed by 872,000 in Indonesia and 840,000 in South Korea.

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