STUDENTS in premier government schools are given a choice to learn Japanese, which is one of the foreign languages offered to them other than French, German, Chinese or Arabic.
The learning of Japanese, also known as Nihongo, was given a huge boost after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister in July 1981.
A few months later, he launched the Look East Policy, which exhorts Malaysians to follow the good aspects of the Japanese and South Koreans.
Since then, learning Nihongo has become fashionable, even with the increasing popularity of all things Korean.
An outcome of the Look East Policy is that many young Malaysians were sent to these countries for training in the fields of science and technology.
Naturally, a good number were also sent to Japan to learn Nihongo, spoken by about 125 million speakers, so they could come back to teach the language.
In 1995, the Education Ministry sent 67 college-trained teachers to study to become Japanese language teachers in Japanese universities. The first batch of 10 teachers graduated in March 1995, and many more has been trained since then.
Nihongo was introduced as an elective subject in six residential schools since 1984. The subject was later introduced in daily secondary schools in 2004, and is now taught by 135 local teachers in 79 daily schools and 56 residential schools.
There are various ways one can end up teaching Nihongo, and not all of them involve going to Japan to learn how to teach.
For example, Ahmad Jazemi Mohamed was sponsored by the Public Service Department (JPA) to study economics at the University of Wakayama. While he did graduate with a degree in ecnomics, he is now a full-time Nihongo teacher at SMS Jeli in Kelantan, where it is compulsory for students to choose betweeen French, Arabic or Japanese as an elective subject.
Ahmad Jazemi, 40, who hails from Kota Baru, had previously taught in SMK Lenjang, Pahang, before applying to be a language teacher. For that to happen, he entered a teacher education institute for a second time to be trained.
Following that, he taught nothing else but Nihongo for the past eight years: the first three in SMS Pasir Puteh, Kelantan, before he was transferred to SMS Jeli five years ago.
Improving language proficiency
Spreading Nihongo and along with it, Japanese culture, took on increasing importance following Japan’s succesful bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.
It is now raising a generation of volunteers known as Nihongo Partners (NP) that it hopes will not just assist non-native Japanese speakers to appreciate the language, but also foster intercultural exchanges and understanding between Japan and its Asean neighbours.
NP will have to commit eight months of their time for this programme that comes under the auspices of the Japan Foundation’s Asia Centre.
According to the Japan Foundation, the programme is more than just about lending a hand to spread Nihongo. NP are expected to “deepen their understanding toward the language and culture of the area or country where they stay, and serve as the bridge between Japan and Asia in the future”.
Other than assisting with the teaching of Nihongo, they are expected to “create a Japanese environment” for the students who are studying Japanese by sharing cultural experiences through activities such as games, tea ceremony, wearing traditional clothes and more.
“We hope this programme will create human resource who can serve as a bridge between Japan and Asia. While providing assistance in Japanese language learning class, the NP also serve as ambassadors who are responsible in sharing the beauty of Japanese culture as well as promoting the country,” said the Japan Foundation, which hopes to send out over 3,000 volunteers to Asean secondary schools as well as some universities by 2020 to support local Japanese language teachers and students in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics.
“At the same time, this programme also serves as a good platform for the NP to discover more about Malaysia, its culture and people,” said the foundation as it welcomed the third batch of volunteers to Malaysia last month.
The first wave, consisting of eight NP, arrived in Malaysia in 2015, even though the programme began a year earlier. Last year, the number increased to 20, and this year, it grew to 30, attesting to the programme’s appeal and success.
According to the Education Ministry, a total of 120 NP would have undergone placements in our schools by 2020.
The NP spent nearly a fortnight in Kuala Lumpur as their orientation before reporting to their respective schools on Feb 21. They had to undergo intensive Malay classes to prepare for their eight-month stay here, though a basic requirement for a NP is that he or she must be able to converse in simple English.
A NP has to be a Japanese citizen aged from 20 to 69, and even housewives and retirees are welcome to apply.
The Japan Foundation covers travel expenses to Malaysia and basic accommodation, as well as paying a small allowance to the volunteers.
One of the youngest participants for this year’s batch to Malaysia is 21-year-old Hitomi Otsuka, who hails from Kanagawa.
The third year sociology student was paired with Nazhatulsyima Mohd Idris, Nihongo teacher of SMS Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra in Kota Baru.
For Hitomi, being a NP is an appealing proposition as it allows her to utilise Nihongo.
“This is my first visit to Malaysia. I’ve always had an interest in developing countries,” said the undergraduate who had to choose between Brunei and Malaysia.
“There were 30 slots for Malaysia (Brunei only had one), so I reckoned I stood a better chance. And the country’s diversity is also more interesting,” said Hitomi, who continues to correspond with her lecturers back in Japan as she does her coursework via distance learning so she can proceed to her final year without any interruption to her studies after returning to Japan.
Hitomi’s parents are also very supportive of their daughter’s decision to volunteer overseas.
Masayuki Watanabe of Kagoshima was also brimming with enthusiasm upon learning he will be posted to Malacca’s Sekolah Berasrama Penuh Integrasi (SBPI) Selandar, about 50km from Malacca city centre.
The 23-year-old tourism student who will graduate from the University of East Asia, Shimonoseki, next year, is a well-travelled person, having volunteered in the United States, Canada, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan before this.
“However, this is my first time as a Nihongo Partner. I decided on this after many foreign friends told me I was good in teaching Nihongo,” he said, adding that he was driven by the urge to discover new things in the world, and to experience something different.
Saori Nakagawa, 34. of Saitama, quit her job as a patissier to join NP.
Having been working since she was 18, she was looking forward to her posting to SMK Tuanku Muhammad, Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan after having travelled widely throughout Asia (though not Malaysia).
“I just love Asian culture, where people have ready smiles for you. I want to pay it forward in Asia, and NP is an avenue for me to do so. When I saw Malaysia has this opening, I just grabbed it. And I do look forward to travelling to other Asian countries after this.”
Yu Saito, 30, is a Nihongo teacher in real life.
“I quit my job in a private school in Japan after a year there to join NP. I always wanted to join NP since I was in school. Malaysia’s diversity appeals to me, so here I am. I have been looking at some pictures. I just love the beaches,” said the native of Shizuoka who was posted to SMK Tunku Putra, Langkawi, Kedah.
Ahmad Jazemi, was paired with Akisa Kinugawa, 27, of Chiba, who quit her job as an IT support personnel to join NP.
“The NP programme is very effective in learning as it provides the opportunity for students to interact with native Nihongo speakers. Other than this, the students and NP are also able to exchange information about their respective cultures,” he said.
For Nazhatulsyima, the NP programme has the ability to spur students to work harder at their Nihongo.
“It is because they will try their best to use the language to communicate as much as they could with the native speaker.
“The students love their new Japanese teacher and it really motivates them to learn more. This programme helps to stimulate the students’ interests because sometimes they feel that learning Nihongo is quite difficult. As students can experience interacting with a real Japanese, they will gain confidence in using the language.” she said.
Interestingly, Nazhatulsyima noted that there is also a certain charm in having a real Japanese promoting the positive sides of Japanese culture.
“Its uniqueness motivates students and teachers to be more concerned with the aspects of cleanliness, punctuality and politeness.”