I am pleased to say that, in my mid-fifties, I am engaged in overseas research for the first time in my life. And I do not mean to make you envious but, believe it or not, I am actually living in a World Heritage Site in Belgium. Everything (my research, for the most part) is enjoyable. It is good to be alive.
Recently, I have noticed something for which I feel I must apologize to all Belgians. All I knew about their country was chocolate, waffles, beer, the Mannelen Pis statue, Nello and Patrasche, and football. I ask them to forgive the shallow knowledge of this typical Japanese who had never even visited Belgium before.
I feel the need to tell everyone in Japan about the real Belgium (or, to be more precise, the Kingdom of Belgium.)
Firstly, you should know that Belgium, which has an area approximately the size of Kyushu, is made up of a Dutch-speaking community in nearly all of its northern half (nearly all of the Flemish Region), a French-speaking community in nearly all of its southern half (nearly all of the Walloon Region), and a German-speaking community in a small eastern area (part of the Walloon Region), while in the Brussels-Capital Region, located within the Flemish Region, both French and Dutch are spoken. If you still can’t understand what I have written, it may be quicker for you to Google it.
Secondly, Belgium has a food self-sufficiency ratio of more than 70%. And everything here tastes really good. It is just like the food I used to eat in my childhood. The reason must be that free-range livestock is raised and vegetables are grown with organic fertilizer in the suburbs of Brussels.
Third, I am indebted to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (officially abbreviated as KU Leuven) located in the town of Leuven, about 30 kilometers from Brussels. For those of you unfamiliar with this university, it would be quicker for you to look it up online rather than listen to me. When you do, you will find that it is a world-renowned university that is consistently placed in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education rankings. Covered in flagstones and lined with medieval buildings, central Leuven is home to the famous and elaborately decorated Leuven Town Hall and St. Peter’s Church as well as a scattering of elegant facilities belonging to the university, all enclosed within an orbital motorway about two kilometers across. Look southward and outside the loop road, Kasteel van Arenberg is dramatically revealed just like Harry Potter’s schoolhouse (a somewhat trite analogy, I know, but it will convey an accurate mental picture for Japanese readers), around which the campus with its blend of water and greenery extends.
Which brings me to the main subject, at last, which is that the people of Leuven can, believe it or not, speak “normally” in not only Dutch but also French, German and English!  However, men and women seem to have an almost psychic ability to be able to recognize from other people’s appearance what language they speak, in about 80% of cases. As evidence of this, café employees nearly always address their tourist customers for the first time in the right language just by looking at their faces.
I used to think that Leuven’s multilingual nature was the result of it being a university town, but apparently this is not the case. As a foreign researcher, I had no intention of going around sightseeing just because I had come to such an attractive place, but I did not want to be thought of as uncultured either, so on weekends, when rail fares were half price, I headed off to do some tentative research in the western port town of Oostende, the eastern town of Liege near the borders with the Netherlands and Germany, and to the ubiquitous tourist destinations, for Japanese, of Antwerp, Ghent, and the nearby town of Diest with its fairy tale atmosphere. But wherever I went, the local people seemed adept at handling multiple languages.
Even if schools in Japan taught Japanese, English and several other languages at the same time, would they really cultivate such multilingual “global human resources”? I doubt things would go so well. Belgians master multiple languages because they are brought up from birth in an environment where they need to.
I briefly muttered in conversation once that Japanese were no good at languages. But a local person told me, “What are you worried about? When I visited Japan, I found it attractive that so many kind people tried to help me somehow, even in their broken English. If all Japanese were fluent in English, many people wouldn’t want to go to the mysterious country that is Japan.”
That was it! I felt I had gained a glimpse into why the Belgians, who have mastered the creation of diversity, are so strong.