Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Japanese Language Politics in Southeast Asia a Case Study in Vietnam


Kayoko Hashimoto*


Abstract: This article is part  of a major project on ― Japanese  language,  employability,  and mobility in Southeast Asia and Japan,‖ which builds on my edited book, Japanese Language and Soft Power in Asia (Hashimoto, 2018b). The project explores how teaching Japanese as a second foreign language has been shaped by social, political, and economic factors and how it has contributed to employability and mobility in the region and in Japan. Based on an online questionnaire and individual face-to-face interviews of university students and teachers in Japanese programs in Vietnam, this article explores the gap between educational policies and practices as well as expectations and assumptions in terms of Vietnamese learners’ proficiency in Japanese language and their employability.

Keywords: Japan, Vietnam, language policy, employability



The major project on ― Japanese language, employability, and mobility in Southeast Asia and Japan,‖ of which this article forms a part, builds on my edited book, Japanese Language and Soft Power in Asia (Hashimoto, 2018b). This interdisciplinary book—in the fields of language policy, language teaching, socio-linguistics, cultural studies and history—argued that Japan needed to adapt to local contexts in order to exercise influence in the region through its language. This project further explores how teaching Japanese as a second foreign language has been shaped by social, political, and economic factors and how it has contributed to learners’ employability and mobility. In 2009, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially adopted English as its working language. This is in marked contrast to the European Union, which has twenty-four official languages – the languages used by people of the member states of the EU. ASEAN’s decision to use English as its working language could be interpreted in many ways – e. g. a lack of multilingual facilities and resources for translation and interpreting services, and different views of the role of languages within the Association. The decision has changed the nature of multilingualism in the member states significantly. It has been pointed out that English has replaced local and indigenous languages other than the national language (Kirkpatrick, 2012). In other words, it has helped to further strengthen the national and dominant language, but the impact on other foreign languages remains largely unknown.

Inside Japan, due a declining population since 2005 (Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2008), the need to increase its foreign labour intake has become pressing. Despite this, the Japanese government has vehemently denied any connection between the declining population and the foreign labour intake in relation to immigration policy in particular (Miyajima & Suzuki, 2014; Yagi, Mackey, Liang, & Gerlt, 2014). As the number of foreign workers in Japan has been growing rapidly, Japanese language teaching for foreigners who are potential members of the labour force has become an urgent issues for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversees Japanese language teaching outside Japan, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology that is in charge of education for residents in Japan (Hashimoto, 2018a). Facing pressing issues such as a shortage of qualified Japanese language teachers and the largely deregulated Japanese language education industry in Japan, on 21 June 2019, the Diet finally passed a bill to advocate Japanese language education 日本語教育推進法 [lit. Japanese language education promotion law], and on 28 June 2019 the Agency for Cultural Affairs sent a notice on the implementation of the law to relevant bodies, including heads of local governments and the secondary and tertiary educational sectors (Agency for Cultural Affairs, 2019). Combined with the revised immigration law enacted in April 2019, which was designed to address problems surrounding low-paid trainee programs for unskilled workers (Obe, 2019), the new law was welcomed as a step forward in addressing the urgent need for a comprehensive educational policy for foreign residents. However, it has also been pointed out that the law is ―fundamentally philosophical, and avoids mapping out specific measures that should be taken by the government,‖ including in relation to funding (Osaki, 2019).

The expected level of Japanese language proficiency for foreign workers is a complex issue in Japan (for further details see Hashimoto, 2018a). A case in point is the employment of trainee nurses and care workers in local hospitals and institutions as part of Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which was entered into with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam in 2008, 2009 and 2014 respectively. Although the scheme involves skilled foreign workers with a high level of Japanese language proficiency, language was treated as a peripheral matter in the original treaty documents (Otomo, 2016). In relation to Japan’s immigration policy, the EPA scheme has been seen as a side door for migration to Japan (Vogt, 2018). At the same time, however, it is a missed opportunity to set clear guidelines for the language and communication skills that are essential for skilled workers without depending on assumed, not actual, proficiency based on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which only measures receptive skills (Kusunoki, 2018).

Even though the employment of trainee nurses constitutes only a small part of the EPA, the scheme has attracted considerable attention, partly because of the low pass rate of the national nursing exam after the three- year training period at local hospitals. Among the three countries, however, Vietnam has a significantly higher pass rate than the Philippines and Indonesia— Vietnam 47.9% (23/48), the Philippines 17.7% (31/175), and Indonesia 7.5% (15/200) in 2019 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2019). One of the reasons for the high pass rate of Vietnamese trainee nurses is that most of them have JLPT N3 prior to their arrival in Japan whereas the Filipino and Indonesian candidates only have JLPT N5 (Hashimoto, 2018a). This difference in language requirements reflects the differences in the agreed EPA schemes in the three countries.

Passing the national exam, however, does not seem to be everything for  foreign workers from Asia. It has been reported that more than 30% of the successful candidates in the national exams for nurses and care workers returned to their home countries after the exam without seeking longer-term employment in Japan (Asahi Shimbun, 2016). Desperate to keep the EPA nurses and care workers in Japan to work, it is reported that the government has been considering a special stay permit for those who fail the national exam (Ishikawa, 2019). While there has been extensive research on the EPA, research on the views of Japanese language learners and educators within Asian countries is relatively new. Although the number of Vietnamese workers and students in Japan has been rapidly increasing, this phenomenon has not been fully understood in relation to Japanese language education within Vietnam. The next section examines the voices of university students and teachers in Japanese language programs and explores the Vietnamese side of the story of Japanese language learning and employability in Asia.

2.    Japanese    Language    Education    in Vietnam

In  Vietnam, the government  issued Decision 1400 on ― The  Teaching and Learning of Foreign Languages in the National Education System Project, 2008- 2020‖ in 2008 in the expectation that enhanced foreign language capacity would increase the nation’s competitiveness within the ASEAN community (Nguyen, 2018). As noted above, in the following year, ASEAN officially adopted English as the working language of the community. While the so- called 2020 National Foreign Language Project has been a vehicle for the promotion of foreign languages in the formal education system, it has also been reported that neither employers nor blue/white collar workers in Vietnam consider a foreign language to be an important job-related skill (Bodewig, et al., 2014).

The 2020 Project has promoted not only the country’s first foreign language, English, but also other second foreign languages such as French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, reflecting Vietnam’s political history and local industry connections (Japan Foundation, 2017; Nguyen, 2018). Not all plans flagged under the Project, however, have been implemented as scheduled, partly due to a lack of funding and resources. For example, the 2017 initiative to introduce Japanese into the primary school curriculum was not renewed in 2018. Cao (2017) points out that some of the fundamental issues surrounding Japanese language education in Vietnam are related to the heavy reliance on support from Japan and the inconsistent application of the national six-level foreign language proficiency framework to the Japanese language curricula at secondary and tertiary levels. Although support from the Japanese government and industries has been essential for curriculum development and delivery, as well as for further study and employment opportunities for learners and teachers, it has not necessarily encouraged local initiatives to create programs and develop materials suited to the local context.

The national six-level proficiency framework is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is intended to provide a common basis for the production of language syllabi, curriculum guidelines, examinations and textbooks (Council of Europe, 2001). The framework has been transposed to both European and non- European languages worldwide (Byram & Parmenter, 2012), based on the assumption that the generic scales of the CEFR are designed to allow their adaptation to specific contexts. In Australia, for example, some tertiary language programs refer to CEFR standards, but their use remains largely descriptive and their potential has not yet been fully acknowledged by language educators (Normand-Marconnet & Lo Bianco, 2015). In Vietnam, as the application of the national six-level foreign language proficiency framework to languages other than English has been being developed, passing the JLPT, which is administered by the Japanese government, remains the priority for many Japanese language learners. This has a significant impact on learning and teaching activities, particularly because, as mentioned earlier, JLPT assesses only receptive skills, and not the productive skills that are essential to work in Japanese companies/organisations and study in Japan.

2.1.  Online survey and face-to-face interviews with students and teachers

The online survey was conducted in March and April 2019 with Japanese language teachers who are currently teaching Japanese in university Japanese programs and students who are currently studying Japanese at a university in Hanoi. Recruitment of participants was conducted through professional networks for teachers. To recruit students, the survey link was circulated through a university administrative office, rather than by teachers, in order to ensure that the survey was totally unrelated to students’ university results. The 24 survey questions (written in Japanese and English) asked participants’ views on teaching/learning Japanese, and at the end of the survey participants were asked to indicate their availability for a follow-up face-to-face interview with the researcher during the researcher’s three weeks stay in Hanoi. A total of 26 teachers participated in the survey, and 5 of these were interviewed in Japanese for 30 minutes. In addition, 51 students participated in the survey, and 28 were interviewed in Japanese for 20 minutes. Participation in the survey was anonymous, except for those participants who agreed to be interviewed. The follow-up interviews were semi-structured, and were tailored to participants’ individual responses to the survey. Since the student participants were all from one university but the teachers were from more than three universities, it was not the intention of this research to examine the gap between the views of teachers and students on their study programs.

2.2.  Teachers

The teachers are all female, and only two are Japanese nationals. 60% are in their 30s, and their teaching experience varies from one to twenty years. 70% of the teachers have a higher degree (PhD 30%; MA 40%), and half of them have a higher degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics. 20 teachers (out of 26) knew about CEFR, and 10 claimed that it has been implemented in their Japanese programs. They responded as follows to one survey question about assessment:

Q20. What is important for you when you assess your students? (tick all that apply)

1.    Assessment  criteria  are consistent throughout the program (21)

2.    Assessment items match students’ level (20)

3.    Assessment items are linked to what students have learned in the class (19)

4.    Assessment  criteria  are clear to assessors/markers (17)

5.    Timely feedback to individual students to enhance their progress (16)

6.    Assessment  criteria  are  clear to students (13)

7.    Students are assessed individually, not as a group (12)

While the teachers seemed to care about assessment consistency across the program as well as learners’ level and progress, it is interesting that only 12 considered it important to assess students individually, rather than as a group. In Australia, it is expected practice to ensure that each student is assessed individually without being advantaged or disadvantaged by peer performance in a group task. Through interviews with both the teachers and the students involved in this study, it became apparent that there are several reasons for this response about group assessment. One is that, because of learners’ limited exposure to the Japanese community within Vietnam, it is important to improve the proficiency of the learning group as a whole, as it also functions as a quasi-Japanese-speaking community for individual learners. In fact, a similar suggestion in relation to learning communities has been made for English language teachers in Vietnam (Mai, 2018). The current Vietnamese higher education system also contributes to this kind of learning environment because students do not study anything apart from their major subjects at university. When contrasted with Australian universities, where students are allowed to focus one major study area for a maximum of 50% of their undergraduate program, the limited focus of their study could hinder the Vietnamese students’ employment opportunities. Some of the teachers were acutely aware of this issue, and stated that various attempts, including structural changes to course offerings, had been made in order to broaden students’ learning experience and knowledge to areas beyond interpreting and translation.

2.3.   Students

The participants are all local Vietnamese students - the majority are female (4 males out of 51), and 60% are 20-21 year-old 3rd- year students. 40% have been to Japan, including on university exchange programs, and 80% viewed their Japanese language proficiency as at an intermediate level. 95% of the students had not studied Japanese at high school, and the majority claimed that they had chosen to study Japanese at university because of future employment opportunities as well as because of a personal interest in Japanese culture and society.

Individual face-to-face interviews were conducted for 20 minutes in Japanese, as the researcher does not speak Vietnamese. Even though the researcher was a complete stranger to the students, most of them managed to carry on a conversation throughout the interview, which was impressive and rather unexpected given that most of them had only started studying Japanese at university. This suggests the intensity of university language programs in Vietnam. In terms of the selection of languages, several students stated that they had chosen Japanese because they had received high university entry scores. Obviously, there is a hierarchy among foreign languages as university subjects, and the students seemed to be genuinely proud of being Japanese majors.

In relation to future employment, the survey asked the following question of both students and teachers:

Q26. What would be important for you/your students when you/they work for Japanese companies/organisations? (tick all that apply)

Students’ view

1.    Gaining new skills (44/51)

2.    Improvement of Japanese language proficiency (34/51)

3. Salary (29/51) Teachers’ view 1. Salary (21/26)

4. Gaining new skills (21/26)

5. Improvement of Japanese language proficiency (21/26)

While the majority of teachers thought that salary, gaining new skills, and improvement of Japanese language proficiency were equally important for students, the students placed more weight on gaining new skills than on salary or language proficiency in working for a Japanese company/organisation. Through interviews, it became clear that this relates to personal growth.  To  the  question  ―What  would  be your concerns when you work for Japanese companies/organisations?‖, they listed cultural differences and their Japanese language proficiency level as major concerns. In the interviews, almost all of the students stated that, because of cultural differences, they would not be interested in working in Japan for more than three years. When prompted to elaborate on these cultural differences, they all cited that Japan’s work ethic, saying that they did not think they could achieve their personal goals, including maintaining relationships with family and friends if they stayed in Japan.

Due to space limitations, it has not been possible to report all of the findings of this study here. In relation to Japanese language as a transferable skill in the ASEAN community, only four students answered that they were interested in working in foreign countries other than Japan. In this sense, learning Japanese language remains a matter between Japan and Vietnam – or more precisely, to borrow one participant’s expression, it is about the future of Vietnam with Japan. Lastly, although gender issues are not a focus of this study, the fact that the majority of participants (both teachers and students) were female needs to be taken into consideration in relation to learners’ employability, particularly because of Japan’s worsening international standing in terms of gender equality over recent years (Rich 2017).




* Ph.D., School of Languages and Cultures, The University of Queensland, Australia

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Sources cited: JOURNAL OF Vietnam Review of Northeast Asian Studies, Vol. 8 - 2020



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