Passion for education: Saha Group chairman’s story (26)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 26 of a 30-part series.

To this day, Saha Group and I have worked to strengthen our bond with Japan. As I wanted to let Thais know more about Japan, I have engaged in work to mediate between the two countries. Education is part of this endeavor.

It started in the mid-1990s, when a plan was suggested to develop 3.2 sq. kilometers of land we owned in Sriracha, southeast of Bangkok, where we had developed an industrial park. I came up with the idea of building an international school there. International schools were few and far between in Thailand back then.

I first took the proposal to Keio University through a referral by an executive of Lion who was close to me, but it was turned down. Next, I visited Takayasu Okushima, who was then president of Waseda University, through an introduction by an acquaintance at Wacoal. In April 1997, I gave Okushima-san a tour of the site. Unfortunately, however, the Asian financial crisis broke out three months later and the plan was shelved.

It restarted in 2002, when I took the proposal to Katsuhiko Shirai, Okushima-san’s successor. But the timing was not ideal, as Waseda had just invested in a Japanese private high school in Singapore. After some talks, Waseda said a school that taught Japanese would be acceptable. Waseda Education Thailand was thus set up as a joint venture in an office building in central Bangkok, rather than the originally planned location.

Back then, Thailand lacked an adequate environment for students to intensively study Japanese. My hope was to offer such a school for young Thais. Waseda cooperated by providing curricula and dispatching teachers to the school. I think part of their aim was to attract students to study in Japan.

At the time, Thais had to obtain a visa to visit Japan, even for tourism. The idea of learning Japanese presented a high hurdle to Thais and the school did not attract many students at first.

“Don’t worry about the financial situation. Just concentrate on providing high quality education,” I would encourage the teachers.

Instead of lowering tuition to boost enrollment, we chose to set the fee rather high, seeking to attract highly motivated individuals. The school’s goal was to offer “a level of Japanese language education that is higher than the level available in Japan.” My children learned Japanese at the school.

As the school’s reputation gradually grew, we opened a branch in Sriracha in 2011 and another in Chiang Mai in 2015. The schools had more than 20 native Japanese teachers in all and were constantly attended by some 1,000 students before the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools have turned out more than 30,000 graduates with Japanese language skills.

In 2005, we opened a branch of Bunka Fashion College, Japan’s oldest fashion school, in Bangkok, aiming to produce designers locally. It was established under Bunka’s “chain school” system, which is comparable to a franchise. Saha entirely owning the school, it used Bunka’s curriculum and on the other hand dispatched Thai teachers to Japan for training.

I have been asked why we went to Japan [for assistance], rather than Italy or France.

My answer is that it was mere luck that our joint venture partner brought the idea about. Itokin, a major Japanese apparel company, advised us, saying, “You need to go into education if you want to raise the level of Thailand’s fashion industry,” and I thought they were exactly right. Itokin’s assistance made it possible for us to enlist the prestigious school that produced many globally known designers, including Yohji Yamamoto and Kenzo Takada.

In those days Thailand had design programs only at a few universities and the only choice for Thais aspiring to receive a complete education was to study abroad. The arrival of Bunka opened up opportunities for young, enthusiastic designers in Thailand. An added advantage was that the pattern-drawing technique that Japanese have developed over the years was readily adaptable to Thais because the two peoples share a similar physique.

There have been many students who have learned the basics in Bangkok and then moved on to study at Bunka’s main school in Yoyogi, located at Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. In the 16 years since its establishment, nearly 10,000 students have graduated from our school. I am proud of its contribution to Thailand’s fashion industry.

This column is part of The Nikkei’s “My Personal History” (“Watashi no Rirekisho”) series of autobiographies. The series first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication.


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