Stories from Japanese Language Training: Participants from Mongolia and Cuba

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The Japan Foundation

With assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan Foundation has been inviting young diplomats, mainly from Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipient countries, for training on Japanese language and culture. Since the inception of this program in 1981, nearly 500 people have completed the training. Fifty-four of them, including seven ambassadors, are currently working at government offices of their respective countries in Japan. Until fiscal 1996 the training took place at the Japanese-Language Institute, Urawa in Saitama City, but it is now offered at the Japanese-Language Institute, Kansai in Rinku Town. Upon completion of the program, even absolute beginners can give a speech in Japanese. Mr. Rentsendoo Jigjid, Ambassador of Mongolia to Japan, attended the program in 1991, and Mr. Herminio Lopez Diaz, Counsellor at the Embassy of Cuba in Japan, participated in 1993-1994; both figures kindly shared their experiences with us.

Mr. Rentsendoo Jigjid, Ambassador of Mongolia to Japan

To serve as a bridge between Japan and Mongolia

201009-01.jpgMr. Jigjid has been deeply involved in the history of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1977, the Japan-Mongolia Economic Cooperation Agreement was signed, and Japan granted aid for the construction of a cashmere factory as part of its ODA efforts. To meet the need to train local specialists who would be engaged in the operation of the plant, a program to send young Mongolians to Japan for training was launched. As the first to be enrolled in the program, Mr. Jigjid studied at the Faculty of Textile Science and Technology, Shinshu University from 1981 to 1985.

After going back to his country, he worked for a government-run textile company for a few years. Then with the democratization of Mongolia, a need for diplomatic personnel arose, and Mr. Jigjid became a diplomat. In 1991 he was sent to attend the Japan Foundation's Japanese language training for foreign diplomats. Again, he was the first Mongolian to receive this training. Since he had already studied in Japan, he just needed to brush up his Japanese, and was able to devote the rest of his energy to learning about the Japanese government, politics, and society, as well as its diplomatic policies.

In order to help other Mongolians who would follow the same path, he created a trilingual Mongolian-Japanese-English diplomatic glossary.

Viewing the world from the perspective of the Japanese language

During the training session, diplomats from many different countries gathered at the Japanese-Language Institute, and there was lively interaction among them. Mr. Jigjid said, "We lived under one roof and forged strong bonds with each other." They celebrated Japanese traditions such as Hina Matsuri (Doll's Festival), and organized an event where participants danced in their national costumes. They also enjoyed playing sports. Personal connections established through the training have become invaluable in their lives as diplomats. Many of Mr. Jigjid's fellow participants have taken diplomatic posts in Mongolia while he was working there, and he met others again when he was assigned to Japan. His English was not very strong, so during the training he made a point of talking to people from English-speaking countries such as Vanuatu, India and the Philippines to improve his skills. That is why he included English in the glossary he created.

Mr. Jigjid said, "The training program of the Japan Foundation is great because it teaches us to see the world from the perspective of the Japanese language. We trainees from developing countries can absorb a tremendous amount of information just by being in Japan. I'm really grateful to the Japan Foundation." He has been serving as the ambassador of Mongolia to Japan since September 2006. The current ambassador of Romania to Japan attended the training with him. Mr. Jigjid told us his stories in beautiful, soft-spoken Japanese.

Mr. Herminio Lopez Diaz, Counsellor at the Embassy of Cuba in Japan

Learning Japanese from scratch

201009-02.jpgMr. Lopez was twenty-five years old when he took part in the Japanese language training for foreign diplomats. He was an absolute beginner and had to start from Hiragana and Katakana. The first three months were very tough for him. But, thanks to enthusiastic teachers, he started to get the hang of studying the language. It became much easier after he understood the grammatical differences between Spanish and Japanese.

The Japanese language was not the only thing he was exposed to for the first time. Until then, he had never been to Asia, let alone Japan. Nevertheless, he got to know not only Japan but Asia as well through contact with participants from the region including Korea and Malaysia. The training included trips to learn about Japanese culture and history, and lectures on Japanese economy and politics, through which he gained a deep understanding of Japan. He also experienced a homestay with a Japanese family.

He is still in touch with diplomats who took the training with him. Whenever they come to Tokyo, he gets together with them and has a great time talking about the time they shared. The experience of spending nine months with diplomats from various countries for the training has proved to be a tremendous advantage in his work.

No dancing at Japanese parties

Differences in the cultural backgrounds of the training participants gave rise to various misunderstandings during their lives in Japan. These incidents reflected the social norms in their respective countries, and through their mistakes, they acquired a better understanding of each other's countries, and developed stronger bonds with one another. Like his fellow participants, Mr. Lopez experienced many instances of culture shock.

On the first day of the training, there was an announcement about a welcome party. For Mr. Lopez and two other Latin American participants from El Salvador and Bolivia, a party meant singing and dancing. They put on tropical shirts, and set off full of excitement for the event.

However, after speeches from a few guests and a nice meal in a friendly atmosphere, the party was over: not quite what the three had expected. That was Mr. Lopez's first experience with Japanese-style parties.

He worked at the Embassy of Cuba in Tokyo for four years after he completed the training. Then, he served as a Japan expert at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba and was sent to Japan again in 2003.

He humbly says, "I'm busy with work and don't have time to study Japanese." But he spoke the language beautifully as he answered our questions. At receptions he gives speeches in Japanese, and most of the time he speaks only Japanese at work. He keeps up his Japanese studies whenever he can spare a moment from his busy schedule, saying that he would like to master more Kanji characters.

We were very encouraged and happy to hear that these diplomats who spent time in Japan at a young age have come to assume important diplomatic roles between Japan and their countries.

*This article was originally posted on the Japan Foundation Supporters Club Website on October 31, 2007.

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