David Blecken
Sep 9, 2016

'Simple Japanese': Dentsu sees 'blue ocean' in language students

A controversial initiative to promote the use of simplified Japanese when interacting with tourists points to a new opportunity for marketers.

The project will begin in Yanagawa, Fukuoka
The project will begin in Yanagawa, Fukuoka

TOKYO - For most non-Japanese people, the notion of an advertising agency initiating a change in the way people communicate is unusual to say the least. It’s hard to imagine government bodies in the West working with an Ogilvy or a McCann, say, to create what is essentially an education programme. But where Dentsu is concerned, things are often somewhat different.

The agency recently announced that it would lead a project under the banner of ‘Yasashii Nihongo’ (literally ‘Simple Japanese’) to encourage people in regional areas of Japan to address visiting foreigners in easy-to-understand language. The initiative does not include Tokyo and instead aims to boost tourism, and in particular repeat visits, to more rural areas, by enhancing interaction between visitors and locals.

Taiwan focus

It’s the brainchild of Akira Yoshikai, a business development manager in Dentsu’s media services division and Regional Innovation Center. Starting in Yoshikai’s hometown of Yanagawa in Fukuoka, local people will have the option of learning how to refine their language for visitors via Human Academy, an outfit that runs a course in teaching Japanese to foreigners, and is supporting and jointly funding the project. The national government is also supporting it financially on condition that Dentsu will help disseminate the method to other cities and towns across the country.

The project will initially focus on improving the experience of Taiwanese visitors. Locals and tourists who have decided to participate—that is, tourists who are keen to speak Japanese and locals who have agreed to speak a simpler form of their language—show their intent by wearing different coloured badges. Yoshikai says the simplified Japanese will omit the language’s notoriously complex honorific terms, local dialects and lesser-known vocabulary.

Badges are used to identify Japanese-speaking visitors and participating locals

‘Foreign’ doesn’t just mean ‘English’

Language is a personal passion for Yoshikai, who has managed a Japanese study community on Facebook for two years and amassed a following of around 20,000. His interest stems in part from his mother’s experience. “She is a very loving person but feels she can’t take care of foreign tourists because she can’t speak English,” he explains.

Despite Japan’s famously low levels of English ability, most people feel speaking English is the only way to address foreigners. That is a mistake. A survey Dentsu conducted in Taiwan found that nearly 2 million Taiwanese are currently learning Japanese—10 times more than government statistics indicate. It also found that nearly 42 percent of Taiwanese speak Japanese to some extent. Japan’s existing statistics are an approximation of those studying overseas at schools and universities and are not accumulative. For Dentsu, the findings are something of a revelation.

“Japanese people don’t realise there are a number of people in the world learning Japanese as a hobby,” Yoshikai says. “For many of us, who are forced to study English, it’s hard to imagine that some people learn language as a hobby.”

Let's not get carried away. Tomoyuki Akiyama, a Tokyo-based communications professional with a background in linguistics who has taught Japanese, is doubtful that many who take up Japanese progress beyond the most basic stage. He is positive that the scheme can work in terms of Japanese people being willing to adapt their language, but fears that the number of people who will be able to understand even the simplified form will still be very limited. The number of learners is likely to be considerably smaller in countries other than Taiwan, which is perhaps the closest to Japan culturally, and on a large scale, Akiyama still sees more value in using basic English and Chinese when addressing tourists.

But the key lesson, says Yoshikai, is that students want to enjoy practicing what they’ve learnt when they visit Japan. Many do not actually speak English. Being addressed in broken English by shop or restaurant staff, then, is deeply unsatisfying. But being addressed in overly formal, complicated Japanese can be equally disheartening. Yoshikai aims to change both defaults among Japanese people.

“You might feel you’re being polite, but the learners will probably feel uneasy because what you’re saying is incomprehensible,” he says. “So give up speaking in a complex way.”

Not everyone is with him. An American industry observer in Japan expressed dismay at the idea of changing speaking styles, perceiving it as a form of cultural dilution at best, and “something from Chairman Mao’s playbook” at worst. Yoshikai says another person told him angrily: “We don’t need to control our vocabulary for foreigners. There can be no negotiation. You [foreigners] learn Japanese, speak like us.”

An important thing to remind these critics, though, is that the entire programme is optional. Yoshikai stresses that no one will be forced to speak simplified Japanese against their will, just as tourists will not be corrected or forced to speak Japanese at all, if they do not wish to. Akiyama thinks the negative response is an example of elitism that “keeps Japan from going international, and consequently makes it even more difficult for people around the world to understand Japan”.

To be effective, the scheme will certainly require a change in mindset, and to that end Yoshikai is using his wide social-media network and PR activities. Dentsu is not running any advertising, but Yoshikai says targeted Facebook ads could be helpful in raising awareness of the initiative among potential visitors to Japan.

Distinct consumer segment

“My idea is to let people figure out if it’s beneficial for them or not,” Yoshikai says. But he is in no doubt that it will be. Understanding the needs and desires of language learners—who are likely to be more attuned to Japanese culture than the average tourist—and responding appropriately, is “a blue ocean from a marketing point of view”, he says. Marketers stand to learn a lot by treating them as a separate group from regular sightseers and shoppers.

As a country brand, Yoshikai thinks Japan also stands to raise inbound tourism by marketing specifically to language students. While a popular destination, its 20 million visitors are still a relatively small number compared to France’s 80 million. He sees a similarity between the two countries in that many visitors to France also learn French for personal enjoyment. Given the disdain of many French people for English, visitors like himself have little trouble practicing their French, he notes, adding: “Language is an asset of tourism”.

He sees using language as a hook and as a chance to breathe new life into failed attempts by local municipalities to promote themselves as places to visit. “If they focus on tourists who can speak or want to speak Japanese, they can make them happy with no additional facilities,” he says. Higashikawa in Hokkaido is an example of a town that has proven popular with Japanese language students from around Asia.

Realistically, given the level of difficulty of learning Japanese, the language is unlikely to ever become as popular as French, and linguistic tourists will remain a niche group. But recognising the distinction of this segment from regular visitors could nonetheless prove valuable in the long term.

For anyone wondering how a pet project like this was able to come to fruition as a large-scale initiative, Kazunori Nagasawa, a company spokesperson, describes Dentsu more as a “collection of mom-and-pop stores” than a single entity, with individuals encouraged to pursue their own interests.

Other recent non-advertising related schemes Dentsu has led include the ‘Tech-Noh Project’, which aims to update Noh theatre by making it more accessible through technology; the development of a study centre for ‘active learning’; a satellite monitoring service to identify forest fires; and perhaps most improbably, the development of a space laboratory.  

Read this article in Japanese on Campaign Japan: 日本語学習者はブルーオーシャンか - 電通の新たな試み

Campaign Japan

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