Home > Life in Japan > Education
  print button email button

Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004


Japan is learning to love (and loving to learn) Chinese

Special to The Japan Times

Every day, it seems, more and more Japanese want to communicate -- in Chinese. One million Japanese, says Web magazine ChinaGate, are learning Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. At Japanese universities and schools, Mandarin has overtaken French and German to become the most popular language after English.

News photo
More and more Japanese, like members of this class at Tokyo's Institute of Japanese-Chinese Studies, are choosing to study Mandarin.

According to educators and business people, however, few students ever attain fluency. This is leading experts to question whether Japan is poised to lose business opportunities because it has too few Chinese speakers.

"In China both senior business people and officials, as well as staff, often don't speak much English or Japanese," says Masaaki Tanabe, a China investment adviser at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). The increase in capital tieups between the two countries, and the trend toward Japanese companies building and operating factories in China, he notes, have raised the stakes.

Chinese resident in Japan number only a few hundred thousand, a much smaller business force than the 2.5 million Chinese-Americans living in the United States But despite this lack of homegrown bridge-builders, Japan's connections with China are expanding swiftly. In the first 11 months of 2003, China was Japan's largest source of import products and its second-largest market for export products.

But business is only a part of the appeal of learning Chinese. Reflecting Japan's long-held fascination with China, travel to the country has soared. In 2002, Japanese made almost 2 million visits to China, greater than the number of visits to the U.S. mainland and Hawaii combined. And Mandarin is fast becoming a valuable language in the sphere of international affairs.

Second favorite

In Japan, the most widely studied form of Chinese is Mandarin, with a smaller number of people learning Cantonese, and a few studying Hoken and other dialects.

News photo
Masashi Kamimura

Mandarin learning was kick-started at Japanese high schools by a 1987 Education Ministry policy recommendation to encourage second-language learning in addition to English. Since then, the number of schools offering Mandarin classes has risen by about 20 a year, and in 2003 there were estimated to be some 530 schools teaching the language.

According to the most recent figures from the Education Ministry, in 2000 about 18,000 high-school students studied Mandarin, more than twice the number who studied French (8,600) and about four times that for German (4,600). This is still a tiny number, though, compared with the 8 million high-school students learning English.

The trend for choosing Mandarin over other second languages continues beyond secondary school. "At Japanese universities, Chinese is the most popular elective language, second to English," says professor Kenichiro Shimizu, who teaches Chinese at Hokkaido University. And officials at the Tokyo branch of the Japan-China Friendship Association say many language schools have started up Chinese classes aimed at business people, homemakers and retirees.

Motivating aspiring linguists are two ages-old factors: personal gain and an interest in China. "I think students study Chinese mainly because they see the importance of the Chinese economy," says Shimizu. "But in the wider community there is an enormous range of interest, including people interested in China's society, history and culture."

Other educators say that it is recent advancements in the learning environment that are motivating students. Topping this list is new software and TV programs designed to help students master Mandarin's difficult pronunciation. Information on Chinese culture and society is readily available through the Internet, and satellite TV tempts students to learn more about China. The days of textbooks with fuzzy fonts and cheap paper vanished with the arrival of better publishing technology.

Quality, not quantity

For all these inducements, however, some Japanese working in Japan-China commerce point out that the number of fluent Chinese speakers is running far short of optimum. This poses a problem for headhunters such as Masashi Kamimura, deputy managing director of JAC-Japan, an agency that matches Japanese labor with businesses in China. "Japanese can do basic greetings and shopping, but business conversation is beyond them," he says of most job seekers. Specialists like doctors, lawyers, and scientists and senior managers with fluent Chinese-language skills hardly exist, he said.

With a hundred unfilled jobs for Chinese speakers on his books, Kamimura is looking to the future. "Some excellent speakers will appear out of the current crop of university students, when they're in their 30s or 40s," he says -- in about 10 to 15 years time.

Educators tend to agree that quantity is outstripping quality. The Center for Testing Chinese Proficiency, the country's largest accreditation center for the Chinese language, tested more than 31,000 speakers in 2002. A mere 256 -- less than 1 percent -- were rated proficient enough to manage a regular business transaction.

Professor Yuko Hoshino, reflecting on her experience during the past five years teaching Chinese at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, says that at most only 2 or 3 percent of the 200 engineering students she teaches each year will ever improve on the beginner-level Chinese they learn at university.

Barriers to learning

Findings of The Japan Forum's most recent study on Chinese teaching at senior high schools uncovered serious barriers to learning. The Forum, a Tokyo-based NPO promoting Chinese-language learning at high schools, found that only about 10 of Japan's 5,500 senior high schools offered intensive tuition in Mandarin, in which students study for about the same number of hours as they do English. In fact, one leading educator estimates that weekly classroom time for more than 50 percent of Chinese-language students at senior high schools is two hours a week or less -- too little time, he says, to expect any real progress.

The Forum points out that the Education Ministry has not developed a standardized curriculum for high school Mandarin as it has for English.

Educators also assert that Chinese language learning is negatively influenced by unrealistically high standards required by the testing of Mandarin in both university entrance exams and Japan's generic exam institution, the University Center. Examining Mandarin at a similar level of difficulty as English, they say, is discouraging students from studying the language to fulfill university admission requirements.

Persistence pays off

Even acknowledging these problems, however, educators insist that the star of Chinese-language teaching will continue to rise. They state that China's economic growth has become impossible for Japanese young people to ignore, especially as youth employment stays weak at home.

The number of people learning English points to the fact that mastery of a foreign language may mean better pay and jobs, says Yuichi Izaki, Public Affairs Manager at Nova, Japan's largest language school.

In Japan's hefty foreign-language teaching industry, which is mainly built on demand for English, aggressive schools are looking to open new markets.

For example, Chinese classes can use the administrative and technical infrastructure already in place for English teaching. On Nova's optical-fiber system, Mandarin is literally surfing in the wake of English. Initially designed to facilitate English instruction, high-speed cable and camera networks let Nova's city-based teachers reach Mandarin students at home anywhere in Japan.

Others in the education business see the wealth of English-language teaching software and techniques as pioneers for similar products and methods for teaching Chinese.

Can Japan keep up?

"Japanese companies trail their European rivals in producing savvy Chinese marketing copy, believes Chinese journalist Mo Bang Fu. "In the Chinese market," he wrote in a recent Tokyo-based trade journal, "you must talk in Chinese to Chinese consumers." Although Mo aimed his comments at large companies, Japan's smaller, less-experienced organizations are also increasingly focusing on China.

Hokkaido University's Shimizu says that local government officials regularly press him to turn out a higher number of fluent Chinese-speaking graduates. It is the smaller organizations and businesses with meager language-training budgets that are bearing the brunt of Japan's shortage of fluent Chinese speakers.

The haphazard approach to communications taken by small and medium-size enterprises entering China can lead to unwarranted risks, says Tanabe of JETRO. "They use linguists with no business experience or business people with little language ability; neither is very good," he warns. In the future, small businesses hitting snags in relationship-building on the continent may have only themselves -- or Japan's lackluster commitment to Chinese-language teaching -- to blame.

Meanwhile, putting his mouth where his money is, the energetic headhunter Kamimura has started learning Mandarin. "The Chinese people very quickly understand whether you like them and their culture: Speaking to them in their language is the best way of building friendship and trust," which, he says, are the keystones for business.

His advice? "Start learning and get out there!"

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.