After the national disaster of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdowns in 2011 and amid the ongoing economic depression, a new report offers at least one bright spot for Japan. A record number of people — 4 million — are studying Japanese around the world, according to a survey released last week from the Japan Foundation, a public organization promoting international cultural exchange projects.
The number of students learning Japanese around the world rose 9.1 percent in 2012 from 2009 when the last survey was conducted. Around the world, the number of institutions outside of Japan teaching Japanese rose by 7.5 percent and the number of Japanese teachers abroad increased by 28 percent.
The increase in students indicates an underlying interest in a country that has often seemed listless and uninspiring in recent years. The 4 million students now studying Japanese abroad, at least, are showing plenty of enthusiasm.
The main reasons students gave for studying Japanese reveal continued interest in Japan. Most students were studying Japanese because of popular culture. Anime, manga and history, it was reported, are attracting ever more students to work on what is one of the world’s most challenging languages.
Other students said they wanted to promote their careers and be able to communicate with Japanese. East Asian and Southeast Asian students led the increase. Chinese students of Japanese rose by 26.5 percent, to a record 1.04 million. That number is perhaps surprising given the political conflict between the two countries in recent years. Students in Indonesia, especially in high schools, increased by 21.8 percent and in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, Japanese became a foreign language elective in secondary education.
Those increases reveal an urgent need to train more teachers of Japanese and to create interesting textbooks and study materials. The need to create engaging materials and supply well-trained teachers abroad demands action. Training programs and licensing for English teachers in Japan have already been established, but more such programs for teachers of Japanese are greatly needed. Publishers and writers of Japanese textbooks should get to work.
The hard work of setting up exchanges, programs and learning centers by organizations such as the Japan Foundation will ensure that the language skills acquired through the studies that so many students are grinding through will have a real chance to be used in the future, in business, leisure and other areas. And it will contribute to broader mutual understanding.
The efforts of so many students to study Japanese should also inspire students here in Japan to study foreign languages harder. A “language study gap,” which is already developing, is not to Japan’s benefit. Foreign students working hard to learn Japanese will help lead to better communication in the region. Japanese students must do their part as well by making strenuous efforts to learn English or other foreign languages.
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