Cultural Attraction, 'Soft Power' and Proximity: The Popularity of Japanese Language in Hong Kong since the 1980s

Article excerpt

This paper discusses the cultural attraction, 'soft power', and importance of cultural proximity to the popularity of the Japanese language in Hong Kong over the last three decades. Exploration of both primary and secondary sources constitutes the main research methodology employed. Email surveys and face-to-face interviews were undertaken to ascertain the nature and degree of the cultural attraction that stimulates local people's interest in learning Japanese language and culture. The paper concludes that Japan's 'soft power', i.e., popular culture and cultural products, are the most influential driving forces behind the popularity of Japanese language in Hong Kong. Also, the Japanese cultural proximity to the Chinese is another factor that excites local people's interest in learning Japanese as a foreign language. In the Hong Kong context, geopolitical and national identity factors do not seem to detract from the popularity of the Japanese language.

Keywords: Japanese language learning; cultural attraction; popular culture; cultural products; cultural proximity; Hong Kong

Introduction

Japanese has been one of the most popular languages in Hong Kong after Chinese and English since the 1980s (Humphreys and Miyazoe-Wong 2007; Humphreys and Spratt 2008; Leung 2006; Shih 1996; Yue 1995). As a result, learning the Japanese language has not only become a cultural phenomenon, but has created a particular cultural landscape in Hong Kong. Table 1, which is based upon surveys undertaken by the Japan Foundation, shows that the numbers of Japanese-language learners in Hong Kong--in both the academic and non-academic education sectors--grew considerably during the thirty year period from 1979 to 2009. In comparison with the learner numbers in 1979, more than six times as many people chose to learn Japanese in 2009. The numbers were even higher in 2006 with 8.1 times more Hong Kong locals opting to learn the language. We must point out that the result of the 2009 Survey in Table 1 does not reflect the real situation because the large educational institutions chose not to provide the relevant data in 2009. However, according to The Japan Foundation (2011, p. 4): "It has been otherwise ascertained that the actual number of Japanese-language students in Hong Kong did not change much'.

The growing popularity of the Japanese language in Hong Kong is also demonstrated by the increasing number of applications for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). In 1984, the test, which was held in Hong Kong for the first time, attracted 1,200 applicants. Five years later, in 1989, the test attracted 2,113 applicants. In more recent times, the number of applicants has risen sharply from 4,018 in 1999 to 20,637 in 2009 (The Japan Foundation 2010). In order to meet the strong demand in Hong Kong, levels 1 and 2 (the two most advanced proficiencies) of JLPT have been held twice a year since 2009, as opposed to once a year in other parts of the world (The Japan Foundation 2010).

Language is a component of culture. Its reflection of people's values and tangible artifacts renders it the most important carrier of any individual culture. Cultural geography, for example, recognizes the crucial role of language in the making of place. As Tuan (1991, p. 684) points out: '... without speech humans cannot even begin to formulate ideas, discuss them, and translate them into action that culminates in a built place'. Within the context of the broader cultural landscape, language is not simply one of the basic elements of cultural identity; rather, it is a major feature reflecting a region's uniqueness.

Carcia-Ramon argues that language not only reflects the external world; it also embodies it, for in its role as much more than simply a communicative tool for exchanging ideas, 'it also represents a way of thinking and a framework for expressing our own experiences and realities' (2003, p. 2). Furthermore, language popularity is considered both a cause and consequence of cultural development and influence. …