More than 4,000 pupils are studying Japanese at schools in the United Kingdom. This figure has doubled since 1993 and is well ahead of other European countries. And what's unusual is that UK children are taking it up at the start of secondary school.
These are the main reasons the Japanese government has invested almost #163;500,000 in the recently-opened Japan Foundation London Language Centre in Knightsbridge. Its palatial classrooms and growing library of Japanese textbooks will prove useful for UK teachers.
The Japan Foundation - which is similar to the British Council - has set up seven language centres throughout the world, in Bangkok, Sydney, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Kuala Lumpur, and now London.
But the rise of Japanese in the
UK runs against a world trend. "Interest in Japanese is levelling off," says Yuji Nakamura, manager of the London centre. "People are looking to China, so the UK pattern - particularly that children start it at 11 rather than 16 - is unique."
Several factors account for the success of Japanese in the UK. One is a steady supply of proficient teachers. The PGCE course in Japanese at Nottingham University has helped - although, according to organiser Ann Convery, awareness that trained teachers of Japanese are available hasn't penetrated yet. She says: "We produced four graduates last year, but the expansion can only be steady for now because we have too few schools where students can practise teaching."
The course gets quality entrants. "Some have masters degrees, some have been to Japan. They usually have an interest in Japanese culture. And they're highly sought-after when they leave," says Ms Convery.
Two Nottingham PGCE graduates have gone to Tavistock College in Devon - one of the new language colleges that have helped fuel the rise and rise of Japanese. Tavistock is an unselective community school, and with 1, 900 pupils, the fourth-largest comprehensive in the UK. Headteacher Peter Upton says: "Japanese is compulsory in years 7 and 8. This year 305 pupils are studying it. Next year we will have more than 600."
To demonstrate the school's commitment to internationalism, Mr Upton has arranged that next year all school signs will be in four languages - Spanish, French, German and Japanese - no English.
The college has two almost full-time Japanese teachers, Anu Jain and Crispin Chambers, and one native Japanese intern. "Many parents were sceptical at first, " says Mr Chambers. "But they are impressed with how well their children have taken to it. One father is now studying with his son."
Tavistock found in Japanese an unexpected bonus for special needs. "Some of the year 9 special needs pupils are performing at least as well as their peers," explains Mr Chambers. "In Japanese, dyslexia doesn't seem to count."
Support from local Japanese companies has helped Tavistock. It has also been good for the Cantonian High School in Cardiff, which each year sends at least 20 pupils for an extended trip to Japan. Head of languages Clive Warlow uses his persuasive powers on Japanese companies in south Wales, which help fund the expensive exchanges.
Mr Warlow was a French and German teacher who learned Japanese in his spare time. In 1990 he introduced Japanese into language clubs at the school. The pupils liked it and asked for it to be on the curriculum. Now 174 children are taking Japanese - starting with the top band in year 7.
Mr Warlow says: "It's much easier to speak than French or German, although reading and writing correctly is a different matter."
Two 12-year-olds from Cantonian who are going to Japan, George Allen and Matthew Curran, were attracted to the language by their perceptions of Japanese culture, "particularly their discipline and manners", says Matthew. And the language? "It was hard at first," says George. "The characters look so alike that sometimes you say the wrong word." Matthew hosted a Japanese boy on an exchange. He taught Takahiro football and got some Sumo instruction in exchange. Neither boy can wait to go to Japan.
In Northern Ireland Japanese is big, but different. It is taught exclusively to sixth-formers, at 27 schools - 18 of them linked by e-mail to Japan. David Farrell teaches at Glengormley High School, Belfast. One of his classes recently had an hour's on-line conversation with Japan. "Our pupils nervously introduced themselves in Japanese. When the replies came our lot nearly fell off their seats," he says.
Japanese flourishes in other pockets - the Derby and Nottingham area is one. In the early 1990s, following the arrival of a Toyota car plant, the local education authority set up a Japanese resources centre.
Helen Gilhooly is co-ordinator of the Derby centre and a mentor for the Nottingham PGCE students. She notices the change in Japanese studies. "It used to be seen as too difficult. But more people are going on exchanges to Japan and coming back with a good know-ledge of the language. Twenty years ago Japanese was a kind of luxury, now that's not so."
The Japan Foundation London Language Centre, 27 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7QT. Tel: 0171 838 9955, fax: 0171 838 9966 The centre is running two free courses for teachers at Knightsbridge in July and plans INSET courses in the regions with local partners