Japanese language diplomacy

An expert panel has proposed increasing the number of Japanese teachers sent abroad to teach the Japanese language as a way of improving relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The proposal is one positive step forward toward a fuller recognition of just how many students in the ASEAN member nations — the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — are studying Japanese, and just how vital that is for Japan’s ties with this important region.

The proposal was not just about upping the level of Japanese grammar, however. The panel seemed to recognize the need for promoting a genuine exchange between Japan and ASEAN countries. This means not just exporting knowledge of the Japanese language and commercially driven popular culture, but also importing the culture of ASEAN countries.

Of course, language programs are essential to any exchange. The Japan Foundation found that the number of Japanese-language students in ASEAN countries increased in 2012. Indonesia had 872,000 students, Thailand 129,000, and Malaysia 33,000, all up from 2009. With the Olympics coming, these figures will surely increase. However, the numbers of Japanese students studying the languages of those countries should also increase. The panel could have recommended more language study here in Japan as well.

To follow up on increasing Japanese-language study abroad, Japan will need to produce teachers with sufficient training. Japanese teachers will need to find fresh ways of teaching and learn how to be sensitive to the nuances and differences in other cultures. For any exchange to succeed, Japanese teachers will need to adapt to ASEAN cultures just as much as students in the ASEAN region need to learn Japanese ways of doing things.

The original aims of ASEAN were to establish cooperation in economic, social and educational fields; promote regional peace and stability; and encourage respect for justice, the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. Japan shares such aims. The expert panel’s suggestions encourage the search for more common ground. Culture, even with diverse forms in different countries, is a positive way of finding common values.

At the same time, cultural and linguistic exchange is a way of respecting diversity. The panel recommended TV programs, films and animation, but deeper study of culture is also needed. What is also needed is more active, involved study of less commercially oriented cultural expressions such as dance, music, and literature.

In all exchanges, Japan should be aware of the potential for its robustly developed contemporary culture to overwhelm the traditional cultures of other countries.

For too long, cross-cultural exchanges between the East Asian and Southeast Asian regions have been hindered by conservative attitudes and social resistance. There is no better time than now for all nations in these regions to knock down old barriers and share their fascinating, valuable cultures with each other.

  • Flavio Spezzacatena

    I live in Rome and I’m studying japanese by myaelf. I tried to follow courses at schools but I found or too much expensive courses or teacher really unable to teach, also japanese. So I bought a lot of textbooks and now I can speak a colloquial japanese. 2009 nen kara mai toshi Nihon ni ikimasu, dai suki desu kara. Nihongo ga chotto hanasemasu. Hitori de benkyou shite imasu. Sukoshi muzukashilute tanoshii desu ne.

  • Rastaman

    The main assumption in this editorial is that increasing the number of local people who can speak Japanese in a country “improves relations” . The argument is that Japan, therefore, should increase the number of Japanese language teachers and improve the quality of language education. The theory that increasing contact between nations – through language and cultural exchanges, foreign travel, etc – dispels prejudice and strongly promotes peace is not supported by convincing evidence. This view is supported usually by democrats (small “d”) with an optimistic view of human nature.

    The first problem in the editorial is the claim that increasing the number of Japanese speakers can “improve relations” between Japan and ASEAN countries with no definition of what this actually means.

    Is it referring to increased diplomatic cooperation (i.e. work with Vietnam and the Philippines to limit Chinese claims to sovereignty over disputed territory)?

    Does it mean increased military cooperation (i.e. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/world/asia/japan-and-us-agree-to-broaden-military-alliance.html?pagewanted=all)?

    Or does it mean increased trade?

    The idea of “improving relations” is so broad and difficult to define that it is virtually meaningless (what would it mean to “worsen relations”, for instance?). It is very nice that a number of students from Southeast Asian nations are studying the Japanese language but that does not mean it will have any effect on relations between Japan and the region apart from photo ops where Japanese prime ministers can visit ASEAN school children learning Kanji and ASEAN leaders can visit Japanese university classrooms teaching Thai and Bahasa.

    The second problem with the editorial is the claim that closer contacts between Japan and other nations promote better relations between the two countries.

    During the last three centuries, the majority of conflicts in the world have been fought between neighboring countries which, we could assume, know more about one another than non-neighboring countries. It appears that familiarity does not necessarily breed warm feelings as anyone with a passing knowledge of Asian history should know.

    Civil wars also clearly show that sharing a common language and cultural familiarity with others does not necessarily promote peace. People who speak the same language and live in close proximity to one another have, at times in history, tried to kill one another.

    Just because people in ASEAN countries study the Japanese language does not mean that it will lead to better relations between the countries. Without even considering the question of HOW such language learners would exert any kind of influence of security or economic policy, It is simplistic to believe so.

    But the biggest hole in the article’s argument is that the evidence does not support the claim that more Japanese language learners in a country will lead to better relations between two countries.

    According to the Preliminary results of the “Survey on Japanese-Language Education Abroad 2012” by the Japan Foundation, the top three countries in total language learners of Japanese are 1. China 2. Indonesia 3. South Korea. Australia, Taiwan and the US are a distant fourth, fifth and sixth.


    What evidence is there here that having more Japanese language learners leads to improved relations? I did not see all of the Japanese language learners in China and South Korea rushing out to defend Japan during diplomatic missions or shouting down protesters during the disputes over the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima (maybe because domestic political structures matter too?).

    The fact that China and South Korea are first and third is highly suggestive that having large numbers of language learners does NOT lead to improved relations. Relations with the US are “good” (to use the same precise terms as the editorial) yet it ranks only sixth in terms of total numbers of Japanese language learners. Japan has good relations with numerous other countries that do not even appear in the top ten (India, UK, Canada, Germany to name a few).

    To conclude, it is highly doubtful that increasing the number of Japanese language learners would have much effect on Japan’s diplomacy with ASEAN countries which is determined primarily by economics and security matters, as it has been since before the Pacific War, as it was during the Cold War, and as it is today. The military balance of power matters in the region, especially with respect to what the US and China does, as does Japanese trade and foreign direct investment.

    Sure, it would be nice for lots of people in Southeast Asia to speak Japanese but no evidence suggests that this would be a significant factor in “improving relations”.

    But, of course, the term itself is so vague and ambiguous that proponents of such policies, like the Japan Times editorial board, could never actually make a claim that could risk being falsified by actual empirical evidence. What evidence would it take to convince the editorial board that Japanese language teaching in Southeast Asia will have no effect on Japan’s relations with the region?

    • Rastaman

      Another obvious comment to make here is that promoting Japanese language and culture in Southeast Asia can be argued to be a good in itself and does not have to be justified in terms of its diplomatic benefits to Japan. The fact that people want to learn about Japan and study the Japanese language does not have to have any political, economic or security benefit.

      I think that the editorial board could have taken the utilitarianism out of the argument and it would have been a whole lot stronger. Now, whether the government should provide financial support for this if there are no diplomatic benefits is a completely different question. It is just tiresome to hear the non-evidence based justifications and poorly constructed arguments for promoting Japanese language learning abroad. Just do it because Japan wants to promote its culture and language abroad. Full stop.

      While cutting back on the overstatements, generalizations, and ambiguous terminology may reduce budgets for the Japan Foundation and all other groups who may benefit, is more likely to increase the credibility of the argument.

  • Hills Learning

    Catchy article and interesting comments. While Rastaman’s points are strong that having more language learners does not necessarily lead to better diplomatic relations (China and South Korea are the examples), it doesn’t hurt the relations between countries to have more language learning promoted between them. Students studying the Japanese language are more apt to explore the culture more, thus purchasing more manga, anime, etc improving at least business relations. Our Japanese students at our school have at least shown a great interest in the culture, looking to expand beyond just purchasing textbooks or signing up for the JLPT.