Japanese needs more than gifts to survive, says George Turnbull.
Only an eleventh-hour reprieve for 16-year-old Kelly Emery meant that her six-month study trip to Japan was secure, as All Nippon Airways stepped in to top up a grant from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. An A-level student at Cantonian High School, Cardiff, she is spending a term at a high school in a Japanese fishing village and nearly had to scrap the visit because she couldn't raise enough funds.
She is just one of the thousands of young people in schools throughout the UK who have caught the bug and learned the language. But the future of the subject, like Kelly's trip, is constantly hanging in the balance, dependent on grants and donations for survival. According to Joyce Jenkins, director of the Japanese Language Association, this has forced teachers to "just muddle along and make the best of a situation in which there is no central support, funding or policy".
She says Japanese is not a difficult language to learn: "The pronunciation is on a par with Spanish, which makes it one of the easiest. Reading and writing are more difficult, but the grammar isn't. It is certainly easier than German or Russian."
Yet though Japanese is one of the 19 approved languages in the national curriculum, and though more than 2,000 students are learning it in more than 100 schools, only 900 take GCSE or A-level each year and the future of these examinations is under threat, because of the low numbers and the high costs of assessment.
Qualified teachers are in short supply too. There are only a few pockets of teachers training for Japanese. The Schools' Japanese Project, based at Marlborough College, trains one or two teachers a year, but only up to GCSE standard. One university currently offers a PGCE course, and will be joined by another in the autumn. But few students who qualify are likely to find a full-time position.
One exception is Mary-Grace Browning, who pioneered the teaching of Japanese at secondary level in 1970, at The County Upper School in Bury St Edmunds. She now shares her expertise with West Suffolk College and two other schools and has about 65 students to prepare for A-level, GCSE and other courses.
One area where Japanese is flourishing is Hereford, under the direction of Bernard Bramwell. An RE teacher who helped with visiting Japanese students at his school, he learned the language, became more involved, and was seconded in 1988 to establish The Two Red Dragons Education Trust to promote the teaching of Japanese in schools.
Early retirement has meant that he has been able to spend more time on that work. Part of his lump sum went on equipment for the trust's office, on the second floor of his terraced house. On the ground floor is the office used by four Japanese nationals, who teach their language to 200 students in local schools.
Now plans have been prepared to convert the upper floor of the local railway station into a state-of-the-art Japanese centre where teachers can be trained and businessmen and women can learn the language and customs of Japan. Research and library facilities will be available and a sushi bar opened to the public. Bernard expects the centre to open in the autumn, but Pounds 160,000 is needed to prepare and equip it. He is confident that his dream will be realised through company donations and grants.
Just like Kelly Emery, who is currently in Japan. Her ultimate aim is to become a British Ambassador there, but learning and adapting to new customs and cultures is essential.
The Japanese have learned much since 1872, when Britain was leading the world with its technology and the first train journey from Tokyo to Yokohama was being taken by the Emperor and other VIPs. By observing the similarities of the carriages to their homes, and therefore removing their shoes on entering, some of the guests could only gasp in horror as the train sped towards Yokohama - while their shoes remained on the platform.
The Japanese are now at the forefront of technological innovation. The shoe is on the other foot, and we have a lot of new things to learn and outdated customs to change. Making it easier to learn Japanese - without depending on gifts and grants - might be a good place to start. Otherwise, we might remain on the platform, when the rest of the world moves on.