Slurping noodles is one way retiree promotes Japan's culture

Mr Watanabe says forging people-to-people ties is a forward-looking approach.
Mr Watanabe says forging people-to-people ties is a forward-looking approach.

Mr Teruyuki Watanabe was seeking a new challenge after retiring from a transport company when he chanced upon an opportunity to be a cultural ambassador of sorts.

The 62-year-old has been helping to promote Japanese culture and language abroad in his own way, as part of an outreach by Japan to Asean launched in 2013.

Since April, the former director of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation has been teaching the finer points of Japanese culture at the Centre for Transcultural Studies at Singapore's Temasek Polytechnic.

Mr Watanabe is one of nearly 550 "Nihongo partners" who have been deployed across Asean countries since 2014 to promote Japan's language and culture under the official "Wa Project", a soft power initiative - which borrows the Japanese word for peace and harmony.

Some 20 billion yen (S$245 million) has been promised until 2020 to the project, which marks its third anniversary this month.

While Mr Watanabe, who is on a 10-month posting, is only the second "Nihongo (Japanese language) partner" to be sent to Singapore, more than 500 others have gone to other Asean countries, including high schools in Indonesia.

Tokyo sees cultural exchange as vital to solidifying its ties with Asean beyond diplomacy and the economy, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kentaro Sonoura said yesterday at a luncheon for Asean ambassadors to Japan.

Mr Sonoura said more than one million students across Asean are studying Japanese. This makes up 30 per cent of the 3.65 million students worldwide studying the language for financial year 2015, according to The Japan Foundation.

Japan hopes to deploy more than 3,000 "Nihongo partners" by 2020, Mr Sonoura added.

Since the launch of the Wa Project, more than 540 events in areas such as art, film, music, dance and sports have been held, including a programme where Asean children trained with professional footballers from Japan's J-League.

Professor Heng Yee Kuang from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy said the project is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's broader diplomatic emphasis in Asean.

"It emphasises mutual acceptance and understanding. In doing so, Tokyo hopes to present itself as a benevolent partner to Asean rather than imposing itself as a non- Asean member," he said.

"The notion of creating and expanding 'wa' circles of harmony and peace in Asia can be said to reinforce Japan's image as a peace-loving nation," he added.

As for Mr Watanabe, he said one memorable interaction was when he explained to students why slurping is culturally acceptable when eating ramen in Japan.

"I needed to explain that spoons were missing from tables for several centuries before Japan opened up. And so slurping was good manners in Japan and still it continues," he added.

He said forging people-to-people ties is a forward-looking approach, as Japan may have to lean on Asean in future as its society ages. "It is important to increase the number of people who like Japan."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline Slurping noodles is one way retiree promotes Japan's culture. Subscribe