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When the “Demon Slayer” movie hit cinemas in Japan late last year, its box-office success reverberated beyond the archipelago — all the way to Thailand.

According to Major Cineplex, one of the leading chains of cinemas and theaters in Thailand, the film topped the list of 2020’s top-grossing foreign movies with revenue of 115 million baht (about ¥400 million) even though it was shown for just two months of the year.

For decades, the latest Japanese manga and anime releases have topped Thai youngsters’ must-read and must-watch lists. Yet the influence of Japanese culture has not stopped there. These media are acting as steps to the door of language learning, which is allowing Thai people to gain a better understanding of another culture.

“Japanese culture always interests me,” said Korn Mutirangura, a student at the School of Language & Culture, Technology Promotion Association (Thailand-Japan) in Bangkok and a programmer at a Japanese IT company in the city. “Their food, their TV shows, anime, even their crowded commuter trains, all of these made me decide to study Japanese.”

If he improves his Japanese, he has been promised a promotion and even a transfer to his firm’s parent company in Japan.

Japanese has had a powerful magnetizing effect on many younger and middle-aged Thais, especially in the cities. This has led to a staggering growth in the number of Japanese-language learners, who say they can gain a deeper insight into Japanese culture and a ticket to a well-compensated career with a Japanese employer.

According to a survey by The Japan Foundation, a government-funded cultural exchange institution based in Tokyo, the number of Thai students studying Japanese leapt 42.7% to 184,962 people in 2018 compared to 129,616 people in 2012.

The top Asian nations by the numbers of people there studying Japanese are China, Indonesia and South Korea. But the numbers in those three nations plummeted in 2018; by 4% to 1,004,625 people in China, by 19% to 706,603 in Indonesia and by 36.7% to 531,511 in South Korea, compared to figures from 2012. The latest figures from the survey by The Japan Foundation will be released this year.

The survey also reveals that the number of Japanese-language institutions in Thailand increased from 606 in 2015 to 659 in 2018. These numbers include primary, secondary and higher education, as well as private language schools.

“Our school has been welcoming more and more students each year,” said Aunchisa Rungthongkumkul, the administrator of Mainichi Academic Group, a Japanese-language institute located in Bangkok that has served Thai students for more than 20 years.

Japanese manga has enjoyed popularity in Thailand, and has been credited for some people's interest in learning Japanese. | KYODO
Japanese manga has enjoyed popularity in Thailand, and has been credited for some people’s interest in learning Japanese. | KYODO

“Sadly, the strike of the pandemic decreased our students by half,” she said. “A lot of young students want to study Japanese for reasons such as the love of manga, anime, games, food, traveling and more. But there are also students who have bigger goals like studying abroad or for their future career.”

According to the analysis by The Japan Foundation, the motive for many Thai learners is that they are studying with a view to gaining job opportunities with Japanese companies. In Thailand, Japanese organizations are seen to offer a mix of a strict culture that gives people discipline, with the relaxed, laid-back attitude of Thai culture. With that curious combination and appeal as well as long-term job security, higher pay and generally good benefits, Japanese employers in Thailand are gaining popularity with young and middle-aged generations a positive places to work.

And people don’t usually need to go too far to find such jobs. Japan has been one of the top nations for foreign direct investment in Thailand for decades. A survey by the Japan External Trade Organization in 2017 revealed that there are more than 5,000 Japanese organizations currently operating in Thailand. The figure includes major Japanese automotive companies as well as electronics firms such as Nidec, Panasonic and Mitsubishi Electric. The number was up by almost 900 compared to the previous survey in 2014.

This provides a lot of job opportunities for the local workforce and is an excellent career path for Thais who are fluent speakers of Japanese. Moreover, many Japanese organizations in Thailand are willing to provide a language proficiency allowance to members of staff who manage to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which has a number of levels. The higher the level passed, the higher the allowance. A worker who can pass the highest levels, N2 and N1, and who works at a company with a generous training subsidy program, might, for example, be able to receive an additional 6,000-9,000 Baht (approximately ¥20,000-30,000) per month, which could account for about 10-20% of their salary, said Thana Wattanasomsiri, who used to work as a sales staffer for a major Japanese trading company.

For many, the desire to study might be driven by necessity.

“During my work, I am mostly surrounded by a Japanese environment. My colleagues are Japanese, my supervisors are Japanese, my customers are Japanese. Being able to communicate in Japanese is a lifeline in my career,” said Rapeepat Nomkiattikul, a flight attendant for a Japanese airline.

“When I entered the company, I had zero knowledge in Japanese language. Then the company provided me with basic language training and urged me to study more and more,” she said. “It was then that I realized the importance of Japanese language to my career and it made me want to know more about Japan.”

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