Abe's father set strong ties
Today's scheduled visit to the Thai-Nichi Institute of Technology (TNI) by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is meant not only to enhance Thai-Japanese relations. The trip is personally important to Abe as it marks his determination to continue on with a mission of his late father.Set up six years ago, the TNI symbolises the longstanding relations between Thailand and Japan.
It was established by the Technology Promotion Association (Thailand-Japan), or TPA, which was set up in the mid-1970s as Japanese investors began to make their presence felt in Thailand.
Prime Minister Abe has personal connections to both the TNI and the TPA.
According to TNI president Associate Professor Dr Krisada Visavateeranon, Abe's late father, Shintaro Abe - a former International Trade and Industry minister - was active in raising funds from Japanese associations in Thailand to support the promotional work of the TPA in the 1980s.
The money was used to construct a TPA building to house Japanese-language courses and technical training. Shintaro Abe also helped organise Japanese trainers to conduct courses at the TPA for Thai technicians to support the flow of Japanese investment from the mid-1970s.
The TPA was set up when Japan was the rising sun of Asia. At that time, the Japanese language was popular not only because of the J-pop influence, but also because of the influx of Japanese investment here. Many Thais learned Japanese and got good jobs with Japanese companies in Thailand.
Prime Minister Abe has been active in continuing the worthy mission of his father. He was instrumental in promoting the TNI, which offered four-year college degrees for Thai technical students as part of Tokyo's effort to develop the human resources needed to support industrial progress in Thailand.
Abe played a key role in persuading Toyota to support the TNI, according to Krisada. Abe once expressed his wish to see the TNI become a highly recognised technical college. To date, the TNI has produced two classes of graduates. Half now work in Japan, the other half are with Japanese companies in Thailand.
Shinzo Abe places high importance on education. In his capacity as a member of the Japanese MP club promoting education in Asia, Abe came to Thailand to open a school in Chiang Mai in December 2009. Makoto Konishi, a Japanese who witnessed the 2009 event, said, "Mr Abe and other Japanese MPs had to travel to the school in remote Omkoi district in four-wheel-drive vehicles, but Mr Abe said he felt refreshed after seeing the students." Konishi added that, "With Mr Abe's visit this week, I think that Thai-Japanese relations will become stronger."
Premier Abe has visited Thailand many times before. And during those visits, he enjoyed walking in the footsteps of his father. According to Krisada, during Abe's previous trip to Thailand a few years ago, he visited the TPA to see a pine tree his father planted in 1982 when Shintaro Abe brought the Japanese delegates to help Indochinese refugees in Thailand.
Shinzo Abe's mother also once visited the TPA to see the pine tree that her husband had planted. Shinzo Abe's wife also came to the TPA a few years back as part of her charitable mission to help the hill-tribe people in Thailand.
Abe will not have time to visit the TPA during this trip to Thailand, but the TNI has prepared a jackfruit tree for him to plant at the TNI campus to mark the prime minister's historic visit to Thailand. Prime Minister Abe will plant the jackfruit because of its auspicious meaning in Thai. Jackfruit is pronounced "khanoon" and means "to support".
"The jackfruit [is a good symbol] as the TNI is a product of the nurtured relationship between Thailand and Japan," said Krisada.
The TNI has prepared three main locations to receive Abe - an auditorium, the library and the area to grow jackfruit.
Although J-pop and the Japanese language may be challenged by the new wave of K-pop and Chinese influence these days, Dr Sucharit Koontanakulvong, TPA secretary-general, said the interest in Japanese language remains strong, although not as strong as in the past. Sixty per cent of TPA classes are Japanese courses, the rest are Chinese and Korean.
Sucharit attributed the continuing popularity of the Japanese to the high number - around 10,000 - of Japanese firms in Thailand. More than half the investment through the Board of Investment of Thailand is from Japan. "The presence of South Korea is more on the cultural side and in the service sector, not a manufacturing base. The depth of their relationship is not as strong as Japanese. Therefore, many Thais still prefer to study Japanese because it would enable them to get good jobs."
In addition, Japanese corporate culture is highly valued. For instance, Thai students on two-month training courses in Japan often come back with a better attitude. They become more disciplined and punctual, he added.
Panarat Akagi, a Thai language teacher who has been living in Japan for 10 years, said Japanese have a good attitude to Thailand and many choose it as a tourist destination or the foreign country they most want to live in.
"Japanese see Thailand as a country of kind people who can always smile. Japanese TV viewers who saw news reports about the flood crisis in Thailand were impressed that the victims could still smile," she said.