“Welcome to the Golden Guest Inn, Ms Takahashi! We’ve been expecting you!” A Chinese-Burmese man warmly welcomed me on my arrival at his family-run inn in Yangon. It’s just a typical welcome greeting, not a big deal, of course, except that he delivered this in his fluent Japanese: “ようこそゴールデンゲストインへ、高橋さん！お待ちしてました！”
My cheerful conversation in Japanese with this smiling inn owner was set against a conversation in English earlier that day: just then, a Western NGO staff had told me that “Burmese are too busy learning English. Not many people are interested in learning Japanese at this stage”.
It was not only the Japanese-speaking inn owner that proves this observation wrong. Let me give you a quick account of what you could expect in Yangon if you know Japanese.
One of the first things that you’ll notice is the hundreds of busses on the roads of Yangon that are imported from Japan. Some busses still carry original logos in Japanese, while some others are covered with local advertisements. Inside, however, most of the busses still have original Japanese signs and notices. Japanese tourists love those signs as a quick google image search of “日本語 バス ヤンゴン” demonstrates.
Also, expect to see many second hand cars and trucks from Japan running around in town. Many of them carry Japanese writings on the body of the cars or markings on the windscreen. Why would the car owners leave these writings on? It seems that they function as a symbol of authenticity. While products made in China and South Korea are on the increase, Japanese products continue to be seen as ‘high quality’ and thus desirable. No wonder, then, that Daiso is already there, as well as its local equivalent shops who sell “Japanese products”.
You’ll also find many Japanese(-themed) eateries in Yangon, even if the scale and range is still limited in comparison to other major cities in Southeast Asia, which is currently going through a Japanese food craze. Japanese eateries are often more expensive than local ones but many of them are packed with locals and Japanese expats alike. My favorite is Oishii Sushi on Latha Street in downtown Yangon, where the Burmese owner spent 12 years training as a sushi chef at Bikkuri Zushi in Tsuzuki-ku, Yokohama.
Indeed, I met many Japanese-speaking Burmese in Myanmar. Realizing that I’m Japanese, they excitedly told me that they love everything Japanese; that they have Japanese friends who taught them Japanese; and that their family members are studying or working in Japan. Of course, these language proficiencies in Japanese remain invisible to non-Japanese speakers.
What is strikingly visible, however, is the rapidly increasing number of Japanese companies that are opening their businesses in Yangon.
Enter Sakura Tower. Located across from the Traders Hotel (by Shangri-La) and built by a Japanese company, Sakura Tower hosts many large Japanese corporations and organisations including Honda, Mitsubishi Corporation, ANA, NTT, NHK and JICA. When I had a coffee at Sakura Tower’s Sky Bistro, one third of the customers were Japanese expats having power lunch. I happened to meet a young Japanese man who told me that he decided to open a business in Yangon because he thought Myanmar was “Asia’s last frontier”. During our conversation, a Japanese car pulled up and the driver yelled out, “吉田さん、迎えに来ました！(Mr. Yoshida, I’ve come to pick you up!” Mr. Yoshida turned to me and said, “He is my local business partner. I’m studying Burmese, but it helps a lot that his Japanese is really good.”
Indeed, Japanese-speaking local people are one of the factors that make Myanmar attractive to Japanese businesses. For instance, established in 2008, Myanmar DCR is rapidly expanding its IT business by hiring Japanese-speaking local staff. According to their website, Japanese is their official company language and everything is presumably carried out in Japanese. It is likely that as more Japanese businesses, large or small, are entering the Myanmar market, the demand for Japanese speaking staff will increase further.
Given all these observations above, it is rather surprising that there seems to be little discussion on improving the provision of Japanese language education in Myanmar. It is understandable that improving English language education is a must for Myanmar as it continues to embrace globalization. At the Seminar on Promoting Multilingual Education, which was held in Yangon in early February, English was the only international language (in addition to minority languages and Burmese)that was considered worth discussing. Chinese was mentioned occasionally but only as a remote option. Other languages, including Japanese, did not even rank a mention.
During the seminar, however, I met many local students who expressed their interest in learning Japanese. During lunch time, for example, an English-speaking young man, a member of the Mon ethnic group, showed me his notebook which was full of Japanese writing, saying that he wanted to study in Japan in the future. A teacher told me that her 23-year-old son, who is currently studying Japanese in Japan self-funded, is seeking a scholarship to continue his studies in Tokyo. They both said that Japanese proficiency and familiarity with Japanese culture would be a great advantage given that more Japanese businesses are entering Myanmar and that English proficiency alone would no longer suffice to secure attractive employment. Although they are not trained language education experts, these participants, who never spoke up during the official parts of the workshop, can clearly see that a single-minded focus on English is short-sighted.
In fact, a language policy without a material basis might leave many multilingual youths disillusioned. Towards the end of the last day at the seminar, a male high school student stood up and commented: “All these discussions are very useful. But we want to be kept informed, too, like what we are learning all these languages for or what we can do with these language skills in the future.” Also, some of other young Burmese I met during my visits are already multilingual, and yet they are uncertain about finding meaningful work or securing scholarships in the future.
To build a socially-inclusive language policy in Myanmar necessarily requires research on the intersection between multilingual proficiency and employment and education. It will be crucial to have a systematic understanding of current and emerging employment (for instance, foreign companies and organisations in local areas) and further educational opportunities locally and internationally, and to base language policy on language requirements to secure these.