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.

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