When Pham Quang Hung started studying Japanese at Foreign Trade University in Hanoi in 1994, he never imagined that Vietnamese children would one day be able to learn the language in elementary school.
Now the first secretary for educational affairs at the Vietnamese Embassy in Tokyo can hardly wait to see the launch in September of a pilot project to offer Japanese lessons at three elementary schools in Hanoi.
It will be the first time that Japanese language education has been offered at the publicly run primary school level in Southeast Asia, according to Japanese officials.
The project follows the development of a Japanese program that the Vietnamese government introduced for middle and high school students in 2003. At present, English and French are the only foreign languages Vietnamese students can learn in elementary school.
“I’m so excited about the project,” Hung, 39, said in a recent interview. “I understand Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training will consider expanding it at the request of other students and parents.”
The ministry will run the project in partnership with the Japanese Embassy in Hanoi and the Japan Foundation, a government-backed institution dedicated to promoting international cultural exchange.
Bilateral educational exchanges will increase when Vietnam-Japan University, an institution backed by the government, business and academic sectors of the two countries, opens in September in Hanoi.
With an eye toward training people to facilitate greater development in Vietnam and further relations with Japan, the organizers aim to develop the institution, which initially will operate graduate programs in English and Japanese, into a leading university in Asia.
Japan is Vietnam’s biggest aid donor and fourth-largest trading partner after China, the United States and South Korea. About 1,400 Japanese companies were operating in Vietnam as of last year, according to Japanese government data.
Educational exchanges and human resources development may also be discussed when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc meets Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late May on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit in Mie Prefecture as part of a Japan-sponsored outreach effort.
According to Hung, an admiration for the discipline and strong work ethic ingrained in Japanese people that helped them build their country into a leading industrial player after World War II and weather the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has prompted an increasing number of Vietnamese to study the language.
“The Japanese people’s diligence has become a role model for us,” he said, speaking in fluent Japanese. “And needless to say, Japanese animation and cartoons are very popular among Vietnamese schoolchildren.”
Hung brushed up his Japanese and earned a doctorate in economics during a 2003-2009 stint at Kagoshima University before teaching the language and Asian economics at his alma mater until last year.
A 2014 opinion poll on Japan in Vietnam and six other Southeast Asian countries showed that 67 percent of 293 Vietnamese people interested in learning Japanese desired to do so because they wanted to visit Japan.
The poll, conducted by research company Ipsos Hong Kong at the request of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, also found that 62 percent said they like Japanese culture, 40 percent want to understand Japanese comics, animation and dramas, and 32 percent believe the language is useful for their jobs.
Recalling the 2003 launch of the Japanese language program for Vietnamese middle and high school students, Hung said, “We started from scratch.”
Now, about 50 middle and high schools in major cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang have Japanese classes.
“Such an expansion would not have been possible without the Japanese Embassy’s help in training Vietnamese instructors of the Japanese language, as well as supply of teaching materials by the Japan Foundation,” Hung said.
The elementary school project will similarly involve Vietnamese instructors who have experience and know-how in teaching at middle and high schools, with teaching materials to be provided by the Japan Foundation.
Including middle and high school students, there were about 46,000 people learning Japanese in Vietnam as of 2013, and more than 40,000 Vietnamese students are currently studying in Japan, according to Hung.
“The combined figure is the third-highest among Japanese language learners in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after Indonesia and Thailand,” he said. “And the number of Vietnamese students studying in Japan is larger than those studying in the United States and China.”