November 29, 2013 7:00 pm JST
Japan-China-South Korea rivalry expands into language education
YUICHI SHIGA, TAMAKI KYOZUKA, MANABU ITO and KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writers
TOKYO, BANGKOK, HANOI -- Japan and its two neighbors -- China and South Korea -- tend to slug it out in whatever arena they can find. In particular, the three countries have been locked in a fierce competition for influence in Asia. It is therefore not so surprising that their ongoing rivalry is now spilling over into the area of language education.
The three countries are stepping up their efforts to boost the number of people who can speak their languages in other parts of Asia. They are sending language teachers and providing financial support to promote their languages in countries like Vietnam and Thailand.
The three Asian economic powers are acting on the assumption that locals who can communicate in their language are valuable assets that underpin their international economic and cultural competitiveness.
The current main target of Japan's language promotion drive in Asia is Vietnam, which is assuming growing importance for the business strategies of many Japanese companies. With the bilateral economic relations expanding rapidly, there is growing interest among Vietnamese in learning Japanese.
Enthusiasm, job hopes
At a Japanese language class in Ho Chi Minh City offered by Esuhai, a Vietnamese company that provides human resources development services, students were brimming with enthusiasm. When the teacher asked about their reasons for learning Japanese, one student loudly said in Japanese, "I want to conduct inspections of home electric appliances." "I want to learn car coating," shouted another.
Esuhai was founded by Le Long Son, a Vietnamese businessman who once learned about die machining technology in Japan.
The company's Japanese language course is designed to help Vietnamese without any knowledge of the language acquire enough linguistic knowledge and skills to land a job at a Japanese company. Currently, some 750 young Vietnamese are learning Japanese in its classes in hopes of working for a Japanese firm.
One year of learning under the company's language program enables students to understand basic Japanese, according to Esuhai. In addition to the language, students also learn about Japanese business practices such as regular morning meetings and cleaning in factories by workers.
After one year of taking the course, students are sent to small and midsize Japanese companies in Aichi Prefecture and other places to obtain practical skills useful for job-hunting, such as welding and coating.
Besides Vietnam's expanding economic ties with Japan, another factor behind the growing wave of interest in learning Japanese in the country is the relatively low levels of English-language skills among Vietnamese.
In countries like Singapore and the Philippines, where people generally have a good command of English, it is often more efficient to adopt English as the official language of the company.
In countries like Thailand and Vietnam, where knowledge of English does not go such a long way in communicating with locals, however, Japanese companies could be better off helping their local employees learn Japanese.
The number of students at Japanese language schools around the world hit a record 3.98 million in 2012, according to the Japan Foundation, a government-backed institution to promote Japanese culture overseas.
In terms of the number of people learning Japanese, Vietnam was eighth on the list of countries. But its population of Japanese language learners has jumped fivefold since 1998. More than 20,000 Vietnamese took Japanese language proficiency tests in the year, more than in any other Asean country.
Driving the growing popularity of the Japanese language in Vietnam is surging Japanese investment in the country, which has emerged as a major alternative to China for Japanese manufacturers seeking to expand their operations into low-cost Asian nations.
During the period between 1988 and 2012, Japan poured a total of $28.7 billion of investment in Vietnam on a basis of newly-approved one, more than any other country. Most of the investments were made by manufacturers. Japanese companies like Canon operate large plants in Vietnam, providing jobs to thousands of local workers.
Japanese businesses offer many jobs that pay higher than English-language positions. The monthly salaries of Vietnamese workers employed by Japanese companies are $50-100 higher than what their counterparts with jobs for English speakers earn. As a result, jobs at Japanese companies are popular among young Vietnamese who see mastering Japanese as a door to lucrative job opportunities.
The Japanese government and business community are determined to ride the wave, not only to capitalize on the newfound vogue that surrounds the language but also to perpetuate it as a way of extending Japanese influence in the country.
Esuhai is receiving financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government-affiliated entity dedicated to promoting cooperation between Japan and other countries. JICA has provided nearly 200 million yen ($1.94 million) to the Vietnamese firm as an overseas lending project.
One Japanese company that is trying to accelerate the trend is G A Consultants, a staffing services provider based in Osaka. The intensive Japanese language course provided by the company at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology is extremely popular, with 10 applicants for every seat available.
A total of 20 students in the university's mechanical engineering and other faculties spend eight hours a day learning and practicing Japanese. A variety of materials likely to stimulate their interest are used, including "Project X," a series of documentary shows aired by Japan's national broadcaster NHK, which focuses on great achievements made in Japan.
A growing number of small and midsize Japanese companies are seeking to recruit top-notch Vietnamese university students with Japanese language skills, according to a senior executive at G A Consultants.
Some junior and senior high schools in the country have adopted Japanese as their first foreign language.
Japanese companies are becoming increasingly eager to raise the share of Japanese-speaking workers in their local workforces. for example, about half of the roughly 170 Vietnamese employees of NTT Data's local unit can speak Japanese. Vietnamese employees with Japanese skills are "essential for our offshore development and sales operations targeting Japanese companies" in the country, said a spokesman at NTT Data. Two years ago, the Japanese system integration company started a mandatory Japanese language training program for its new recruits.
Fuji Xerox hired 10 Japanese-speaking Vietnamese for its new plant in Vietnam, which came on stream in November.
Japan, however, is facing strong competition from China and South Korea in its push to promote its language in the region. In Indonesia, for instance, Japan's traditional large presence in its landscape of foreign language education is being eroded by challenges form the two rivals. A total of 870,000 Indonesian students are learning Japanese including high-school program as the second foreign language, the second largest number following that of Chinese learners.
But the popularity of Japanese among Indonesian businesspeople is on the wane. The number of students at Gakushudo, a time-honored Japanese language school in Jakarta, has declined to 300 from 1,000 a decade ago. The decline could be due to a boom in South Korean pop culture among young Indonesians and China's drive to promote its language.
In an effort to reverse the trend, the Japanese government and companies should increase investment in the development of Japanese-speaking workers in the country, said the head of the school in Jakarta.
China pushing ahead
Japan is lagging China in global language promoting efforts.
The Japan Foundation offers JF Japanese language courses in 26 countries. But China has already built a global network of Chinese cultural centers, called Confucius Institutes, to teach the language to foreigners throughout the world. Confucius Institutes now operate in over 100 countries.
The Chinese government has an agreement with the Thai government on Chinese language learning. In fiscal 2013, China sent some 1,700 teachers to the Southeast Asian country to teach Chinese, up 20% from the previous year. That represents three times the number of Japanese language teachers in Thailand. There are even Confucius Institutes in universities in Thailand.
The South Korean version of Confucius Institutes is a program named Sejonghakdang, or King Sejong Institute. Under the program, launched in 2007, Korean language schools authorized by the South Korean government are eligible for annual subsidies worth 330 million won ($31,000). Currently, there are 117 Sejong schools in 51 countries and regions, with those in Asia accounting for over 60% of the total.
TOKYO -- Japanese companies' acquisitions of Southeast Asian businesses reached all-time highs this year in both value and count, a remarkable trend considering Japanese M&As dropped sharply in other parts of the world.
As of Dec. 16, Japanese firms' M&As in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reached 816.3 billion yen ($7.83 billion), nearly quadrupling from 2012's full-year figure and exceeding the previous record of 557.6 billion yen logged in 2007, according to M&A brokerage Recof.
Though one big deal, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ's purchase of Thailand's Bank of Ayudhya, accounted for 560 billion yen of the total, the number of deals notched a record as well, climbing to 92 from 78 last year.
Not only manufacturers but retailers, financial institutions and other services firms -- companies traditionally focusing on domestic demand -- are aggressively seeking to build a foothold in the region's fast-growing economies.
"We want to secure a solid market share before Japanese rivals make inroads," says Takahisa Takahara, president of Unicharm, a sanitary napkin and baby diaper maker that bought Myanmar Care Products, a major household products group. Electronics retailer Nojima has decided to invest in a Vietnamese peer.
In fact, Japanese companies' overall foreign M&As have been trending about 30% lower on the year. North America and China have seen plunges of some 70% and 60%, respectively, drawing a sharp contrast with the jump in Southeast Asia. The proportion of Asean has soared to 17% from 3% last year in the overseas Japanese acquisitions in value terms.
Direct investment by Japanese businesses, which includes the establishment of local subsidiaries, is also sharply rising in Southeast Asia. The figure reached 13 billion dollars in the first nine months of this year, more than the 10.6 billion dollars in all of 2012, according to the Japan External Trade Organization, or Jetro.
Asean economies are expected to expand 5.4% next year, the International Monetary Fund forecast. The region is steadily growing popular as investment targets for Japanese firms, as an alternative to China.