Moshi Moshi, konichiwa doushitan desu ka,” Mhaalini inquires, looking at Kanya. Pat comes the reply: “ Hai, konichiwa watashi 101 no Kanya desu. Heya no air-con ga sukanain desu ga. ” The two girls are speaking animatedly in Japanese before a large screen depicting the subject of their conversation: that the air-conditioner in Kanya’s room is not working. This situational chat in Japanese is part of their class, taught by Tadao Tanaka. The teacher watches his wards benignly as they converse, correcting them once they are done. Not a word of English is spoken — all the students listening in have attained a good deal of proficiency in spoken Japanese.

You’d think this Japanese class was being taught in one of India’s large cities where foreign language centres are proliferating. Actually, this class is taking place in a college in the small steel-and-textile town of Salem, Tamil Nadu.

There’s nothing incongruous about it, says Chocko Valliappa, Vice-Chairman, Sona College of Technology, part of a large group of educational institutions in this town. Unlike French and German language courses, which are usually taught in big Indian metros, Japan has taken the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) to regional centres, making it easier for students to write certification exams. Salem is the eighth centre in India (others are in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities) authorised by the Japan Foundation to conduct the JLPT.

Opening doors to immigrants

On December 1, around 800 students wrote the JLPT at Sona College, including many from Kerala. It’s a well-reasoned choice as graying Japan, with its declining birth rates, has signalled its intention to welcome over five lakh skilled foreign workers into the country by 2025.

“We stumbled upon this opportunity through our professor, who had done his post-doctoral work in nano-tech in Japan; he said learning Japanese is a good opportunity for our students. Japanese and Tamil are quite grammatically correlated so it’s been easy for our kids to pick it up,” explains Valliappa, in an interview on the sylvan Sona campus.

Proficiency a must

Sona also wanted to find different job opportunities for students by tapping its global industry connections. Valliappa led a small team to Japan a couple of years ago and discussed opportunities for Indian students with recruiters. He says that while they are happy with the technical knowledge of Indian students, learning Japanese was the imperative. Japanese companies require their hires to be proficient, at least up to the N3 level of speaking Japanese, with N5 being the lowest grade.

Prof S Saravanan, head of the nanotech research centre, who has studied and worked in Japan for 12 years and is fluent in Japanese, says Sona’s intent was clear: hire Japanese teachers for the students so that apart from the language, they pick up soft skills, a bit of Japanese culture and learn how to deal with everyday life, accents et al. “The gap between foreigners and the Japanese increases because of the language gap. Now, before landing in Japan, our students can be familiar with the geography, language, customs; this is very important,” he says. Two teachers — Hiromi Shibayama and Tanaka — have been in Salem for 1-3 years, teaching the Sona students. Now, 700 students from the first year have enrolled to learn Japanese and they get an additional credit for this proficiency.

Walking the talk

Six students from Sona, who graduated in 2019, are already in Japan, having secured jobs in the IT industry there. A newly qualified engineer with felicity in Japanese can expect to earn between ₹18-20 lakh a year. And with the organisation paying a part of the house rent as well, they can save at least 40-50 per cent of their income, which is perhaps way more than what many can expect to earn and save in a job here.

TM Shanmathi, who graduated in electronics and communication engineering from Sona in 2018, has been working in Hamamatsu, a city in the western Shizuoka Prefecture, as a network security engineer in a top corporation since last January. While she says she finds working in Japan safe, and the people helpful, learning the language from a Japanese teacher was very useful. “To learn Japanese efficiently from my teacher I first followed the class notes and then started learning the difficult kanji script (one of three Japanese scripts) by understanding the meaning of each and every stroke from YouTube and then discussing with the teacher,” she says.

Sivashankar Yuvaraj, who has been working as a modular consultant since July 2019 in Osaka, says learning Japanese grammar was easy as it is pretty similar to Tamil grammar. In a call from Osaka, Yuvaraj says that with the slowdown in India, getting a good job was proving a challenge; but by learning Japanese, he was able to land a good job in Japan, which allowed him to save at least 50 per cent of his salary.

R Aravindan, a graduate in mechanical engineering from Sona, says he was an average student. He decided to enrol in a Japanese language school in Japan on the advice of his Japanese tutor and worked part-time at a burger outlet, till he achieved N2 level proficiency in the language. Now, he works in the design department of a company manufacturing polishing machines in Wakayama. “My life has changed by studying Japanese and moving here,” he says on a call from Japan.

The next batch of 20 students is now getting set to head there, having received offer letters for IT jobs. While the recruiters are happy with their technical skills, the Japanese process is slow, says Valliappa. But little by little, Salem is doing its bit to prepare more Indians for life in Japan. So, next time you’re in this sleepy little town in Tamil Nadu, and decide to hold the door open for a lady, don’t be surprised if you hear her say: “Arigato gozaimasu!”