Thai public needs a better understanding of Japan and 'nihongo'

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 23 13:14:50 UTC 2007

Thai public needs a better understanding of Japan and 'nihongo'

In introducing a new Thai language book on Japan's diplomacy "Change and
Continuity of Japan's Foreign Policy", by Dr Chaiwat Khamchoo, Dr Khien
Theeravit, the doyen of East Asia Studies, was elated as he waved the
book. "It took a total of 39 years before the second book on Japan's
foreign policy came out," he said. Khien wrote the first book on Japan's
foreign policy back in 1968 as a young scholar. The new 670-page book
explains in detail the evolution of Japan's diplomacy in the post-war
period and its relations with various parts of the world. "The Thai people
should learn more about Japan and its foreign policy," he said.

The reasons for this are many. Japan is so important to Thailand's
economic development, especially as it pertains to the transfer of
technical know-how. Assistant Professor Kitti Prasertsuk of Thammasat
University was succinct in describing the scale and scope of Japan's
investments in Thailand - Japan has been the number one investor in the
Kingdom for years - not to mention the huge two-way trade volume between
the two countries. As Thailand's largest investor, employing more than
350,000 people, Japan remains the Thai economy's largest benefactor and
makes the most important contribution to the country's wellbeing.
Moreover, each year Thailand receives an estimated 1.2 million Japanese
tourists who pour millions of dollars into the Thai economy, while at
least 70,000 Japanese are long-term residents in the country.

This year both countries are celebrating their 120th year of diplomatic
relations with over 100 activities in both countries to strengthen
bilateral relations. The commemoration will last until the end of the
year. To mark this special occasion, Thai scholars on East Asia have been
lamenting the drop in the number of books and articles related to Japan
studies that are being published these days compared to the past. Chaiwat,
who simultaneously published two books on Japan last week, said that
judging by the number of books published on the topic, Thai people are
more interested in rising China. "We have yet to maximise Thai-Japanese
relations," he said.Back in the 1970s, Japanese politics and foreign
policy were a cause of tension because of the anti-Japanese sentiment
among young students here in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Students took up anti-Japanese protests, which also linked up with
demonstrations against the Thanom-Prapas regime.

Now over 30 years have elapsed and interest in Japan has not increased
that much. Back then, it used to be Japanese cartoons (manga), pop culture
and fashionable products. Now Japan has many competitors, especially from
Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even China. One thing remains unshakeable
however: Japanese comic books continue to dominate among young Thai
readers. There is only a handful of Thai lecturers on Japanese politics,
foreign policy and literature, though obviously there are more language
instructors. A quick check with the Japan Foundation showed that only
around 200 books, journals and reports in vernacular have been published
related to Japanese culture, economics, history and politics since the
1970s. But in the past five to 10 years there have been only five to 10
books published about Japan.

While the number of Thai students learning Japanese has increased steadily
year by year, the number of those studying the Chinese language has
increased rapidly in the past 10 years to well over 350,000. However,
there are differences between Japanese and Chinese language education in
Thailand. According to statistics provided by the Japan Information
Service, 15,884 students were learning the Japanese language in Thailand
in 2003, which placed the country seventh in terms of the number of people
studying Japanese in the world. South Korea had the most Japanese language
students followed by China, Australia, the United States, Taiwan and
Indonesia. However, the latest figures provided by the Japan Foundation
showed that by the end of January, 2007, there will be 67,710 Thai
students taking up nihongo (Japanese). Thai students have an extremely
high level of competence in the Japanese language, according to Kazuo
Shibata, the director of JIS.

Over 10,000 Thai students have passed the test for Japanese as a second
language, he said. "Thailand ranks fourth followed by China, Korea and
Taiwan," he said. "But Thai students study Japanese without knowing the
root words from Chinese characters," he pointed out. Over half of the
students take up Japanese at tertiary levels. Leading state and private
universities and major Rajabhat institutes teach the language. The other
half comprise high school students and several hundred office workers.
There are 274 learning institutes teaching Japanese throughout the
country. By contrast, there are more students learning putonghua (Chinese)
in Thailand. The number is at least five times higher than those learning
Japanese due to the proliferation of private schools in Bangkok and
provincial areas. Of late, those studying Chinese also take lessons in
Chinese string instruments such as the qu-jeng and pi-pa, which has not
been the case with Japan.

It is interesting to note that there are more Thais teaching Japanese who
were trained in Japan than there are Chinese language instructors who were
trained in China. Thailand has certified 864 Thai teachers of Japanese. It
is an open secret that Thailand urgently needs more Chinese language
instructors but it has been extremely difficult to find local teachers to
teach putonghua. At the moment, the Thai government has asked the Chinese
government to provide hundreds of language instructors from China. The
Education Ministry has also added putonghua as an elective foreign
language at the secondary school level.

This is the first article in a series on the 120th anniversary of
Thai-Japanese diplomatic relations.

Kavi Chongkittavorn


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