The Japan Foundation will boost cultural ties with Southeast Asian countries, including increased support for Japanese-language lessons and enhancing art and cultural exchanges, its president said Thursday.

The public organization will set up an institution next month to be called the Asia Center to boost exchanges during the seven years leading up to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando said at a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

“Japan needs to promote cultural relations with Asian countries,” Ando said. “We’d like to enhance interactive exchange on an equal footing with them, respecting their identities and giving care to diversity.”

In a bid to support Japanese-language learning in Southeast Asia, Ando said the center plans to dispatch 3,000 seniors and college students under the “Japanese Language Partners” project to serve as assistants for local teachers.

“The dispatch program is different from what we used to do in that they will be sent mainly to high schools, not universities,” Ando said, “Moreover, they are supposed to not only teach Japanese but also engage in cultural exchanges by introducing Japanese culture to students and locals.”

The region embracing about 1.1 million learners of Japanese has a shortage of language teachers and the quality of local teachers is not necessarily high, Ando said.

There were about 3.98 million people studying Japanese abroad in fiscal 2012, according to the Japan Foundation. The figure was the highest since the organization began compiling the statistic in 1979.

Moreover, the organization aims to promote interactive exchanges in art and culture by enhancing networking among artists and nurturing talented people.

“I hope these efforts will bear fruit by 2020,” Ando said, adding that the center will also help preserve and utilize Asian cultural heritage.

The center will be set up based on a fresh cultural exchange project announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a special summit between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Tokyo last December.

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