It may not be well-known to most of the public but the number of foreigners studying Japanese has been growing more than ever, especially as Japan's "soft power" in the form of "anime" and manga becomes more effective overseas.
With Japan's reliance on more foreign workers in the future, it is natural to think that Japanese language schools in Japan are getting more chances to increase their enrollment.
Unfortunately, the reality is not necessarily so.
Domestic Japanese language schools face many issues leading to questions on the future of such schools and on the roles the government should take on these issues.
According to the government, the growing interest in Japanese is conspicuous as the number of foreigners in the country studying Japanese increased to 170,858 in fiscal 2009 from 135,146 in fiscal 2003.
However, since the language schools' main customers are international students, factors like political and financial stability in the students' home countries can influence enrollment, said Hiroko Yamamoto, president of Kai Japanese Language School.
Yamamoto added that the strong yen is another major factor hurting Japanese language schools, which witness an immediate decrease in applications and enrollment from countries facing a weaker exchange rate against the yen.
People in the industry also often say that the Immigration Bureau's policy on how it accepts international students can greatly impact potential enrollment as well.
Because of these external factors,"it is quite difficult for language schools to form realistic mid- to long-term plans," Yamamoto said.
In terms of setting school fees, Japanese language schools have generally been very accommodating and have shown sensitivity in regard to students who come from developing countries.
Yamamoto also pointed out that the tuition of Japanese language schools in Japan is lower when compared to other language schools overseas. In one estimate, the average weekly rate is around 80 percent of what is charged in Europe and South Korea, according to Yamamoto.
Also cited was the public-private Japanese Language Education Center of JASSO (Japan Student Services Organization) being able to offer lower tuition because it was receiving government subsidies, resulting in private schools having to lower tuitions to the same standard in order to stay competitive.
While facing these difficulties, its seems apparent that Japan must accept more foreign workers, since the Japanese population continues to decrease and Japanese language schools will have crucial roles to play.
Yoshihiro Shirai, who runs the Tokyo Central Japanese Language School, also said Japanese language schools can play bigger roles that other organizations like colleges cannot play.
"The needs of people studying Japanese are becoming more varied and only Japanese language schools can provide lessons with tailored to match each individual's goal," Shirai said.
He said that often when foreigners join Japanese firms, some difficulties occur due to cultural differences. Because Japanese language schools have experience teaching foreigners, they can identify the cause of the trouble and facilitate the foreign employees' understanding of their work in Japan while teaching them the language.
Yamamoto suggested that the central and local governments should collaborate more with Japanese language schools to tackle Japanese language-related problems, such as some children of foreign residents having difficulty in learning Japanese.
In many cases, governments rely on volunteers to handle such issues, but it is important to use professional knowhow, too, she said.
"There are no other organizations that have this many Japanese language professionals and we know how to work as a team," she said.
The language school operators also stressed that the government should more actively promote the Japanese language education policy, especially as the government wants to increase the number of international students to 300,000 by around 2020.
Takahide Ezoe, principal of the Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute, expressed his fears:"Currently, Japanese language schools don't belong to any category of educational institution recognized by the government. What results is that language schools can easily be set up as a business entity, though they should primarily be education providers. That makes me worry."
Ezoe hopes that the government makes legislative preparations to qualify Japanese language schools as educational entities.
Moreover, Yamamoto added, it seems only natural that the government recognizes and prioritizes the status of Japanese language schools to that of colleges and universities, as language schools? with their student focus? have demonstrated a long history of developing foreign students to function efficiently in Japan.
Meanwhile, Masaharu Nakagawa, the senior vice education minister, has expressed his interest in promoting the Japanese language policy and improving the situation of the Japanese language schools.
He said the education ministry should take more initiative to clarify Japanese language schools' position as an educational institution and draft standards for their quality for them to be able to manage schools more smoothly.
Currently, Japanese language schools are overseen by the Justice Ministry or Immigration Bureau since they deal with many international students. The quality of the schools is checked by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education (APJLE), a Tokyo-based public interest corporation, which handles the Japanese language schools' quality inspection for the Justice Ministry.
The government's project screening team suggested that the APJLE's quality standards examination be abolished, a move Ezoe supports because it is more appropriate that the government directly oversees the quality of language schools and all educational institutions.
However, Yamamoto said the ministry tends to map out a system that cannot fully address diverse needs.
"I wonder if they can have flexible thoughts on the language education policy. If they were to do it, I would like them to look into the situation of studying language abroad," she said, adding that she would welcome it if the ministry can really achieve its plans.
At the same time, she said, the APJLE should continue its accreditation responsibilities as they have a long-established, proven record and are knowledgeable on how to check the quality standards of schools.