Schoolmates Beatrize Chee and Gio Franza from Manila’s financial district of Makati are both self-confessed anime fans.

As such, it was only natural for them to decide to enroll in the Japanese language and culture course that Makati Science High School has been offering ninth- and 10th-graders over the past few years.

“My reason for joining the nihongo (Japanese-language) class was initially for anime. But halfway through, I realized I can use it to be able to experience going to Japan,” 16-year-old Franza, who took the elective course for two years starting in 2015, said in a recent interview.

Chee, who is a year younger than Franza, said, “One of my life goals (includes) watching anime without subtitles. Also, I’m interested in Japanese cookbooks.”

The Filipino Department of Education started offering the Japanese language and culture program to high school students in 2009, together with Spanish and French, to prepare young Filipinos for both local and international opportunities that would require communicative competence in a second foreign language, after English. Mandarin Chinese and German have subsequently been added.

The foreign language programs are offered in selected schools across the country, with Japanese taught in 38 schools, mostly in Manila.

So far, more than 3,000 students, nearly all avid viewers of Japanese anime, have enrolled in the Japanese program while in grades nine and 10.

“We have to recognize the fact that the globe is getting smaller and smaller,” Education Secretary Leonor Briones said of the program’s relevance.

Many students want to go on to further their studies, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and Japan is one of the preferred overseas destinations, given the availability of many scholarships to study there, the secretary said. “So it helps if they take lessons.

“In terms of preparing them for jobs, or even mere exposure to what is happening in Japan, (the program) is very helpful and very useful to them in their future plans,” she added.

When the education department decided to introduce the Japanese program, it partnered with Japan Foundation Manila to train Filipino teachers, a task that proved challenging. A five-week intensive seminar was held during the summer break, with follow-through training once a month throughout the school year.

Eduardo Tan, 43, one of the more than 90 high school teachers who have been trained by the Japan Foundation over the years, recalled that his initial training classes focused on culture before moving onto grammar.

“It was difficult studying the grammar at first because the sentence construction in English is totally different from Japanese,” he said. “And also, we only have limited vocabulary in Japanese.”

Eight years after he first began formally studying the language, Tan, primarily a social studies teacher at Florentino Torres High School in Manila, has attained a proficiency level of N4 in Japanese and been tapped by the Japan Foundation as a trainer for his fellow high school teachers.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test grades ability on five levels, with N1 the highest. N4 represents the ability to understand basic Japanese, including vocabulary and kanji as well as daily conversation.

A fan of the anime Voltes V, Tan admitted his students “easily learn the Japanese language because of their fascination with anime, J-pop music and J-drama.”

Fellow teacher Emma Urika Sabado, 29, said “learning something new is a great opportunity,” and being able to share that with her students gives it more meaning “because, beyond academic learning, it will help them in the real, lifelong learning process, particularly after they graduate from school and when they become professionals in the future.”

Tan said some of his former students have been hired by Japanese companies in the Philippines and others are studying in Japan. Some are already better at Japanese than he is.

Mylene Castro, 26, an English teacher from Pangasinan province north of Manila who was selected by her school to teach the Japanese program, boasted that its students have already participated in Japanese “quiz bees” and won.

Franza and Chee of Makati Science High School won third place, representing their school as a pair, during a Japanese quiz bee earlier this year.

“Beatrize and Gio take their own initiatives to learn the Japanese language even outside the class. They are really interested,” teacher Joselito Bisenio said of his two students.

“Generally speaking, people in the Philippines view Japan positively. And we’d like to encourage that more, especially in the young generation,” Taro Naritomi of the Japan Foundation Manila said.

“The Japan Foundation sees the Philippines as a very important country because, from a historical point of view, we are close,” he said. For the current school year, 15 Japanese natives arriving from different parts of Japan will be deployed to selected schools to assist in the program, he added.

Isabelle Sibayan of the education department said the agency hopes to institutionalize the program in the future so that all secondary schools across the country will start offering it to students from grades seven to 12, especially since the interest of students in Japanese has proven to be high, based on the current number of enrollees.

Franza, now in 11th grade, hopes the course is offered in his level so he can enroll again for further learning.

“In the future, I expect that I will handle our family business. So, maybe, if I have Japanese connections, it can help me grow our business,” Franza said. “Also, personally, I really want to have friends from another country like Japan.”

Chee, for her part, hopes that with her knowledge of Japanese language and culture, she can, in the future, become an interpreter for Japanese while also dipping her hands into Japanese culinary culture.

Certainly, their long-term vision has become something much more than simply fascination with Japanese anime.

Agreeing that the program helps foster better relations between the Philippines and Japan, Education Secretary Briones said, “Young people connect to young people, everywhere. It is instantaneous because young people probably don’t have yet an inventory or a store of prejudices.

“So, if you want your country to play a major role in global and international activities, the thing really is to reach out to the young people.”

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