Thin Aye Aye Ko

The town in Myanmar, where Thin Aye Aye Ko was born and raised, was a fierce battlefield during the Pacific War. After the war, many Japanese people began to visit to collect the remains of the fallen and so she grew up surrounded by pagodas and memorial services for former Japanese soldiers.

Thin Aye Aye Ko, who runs a job introduction business for people of Myanmar in Kobe, recalls, “There were many people around me who were interested in Japan because of such connections.” In the 1980s, when she was a student at Mandalay University, she began learning Japanese at her father’s suggestion. Her father, a doctor, would go to hotels to examine Japanese people who had fallen ill while visiting to collect the remains of the war dead. As she accompanied him as an interpreter, she got to know many Japanese people.

Her study in Japan also came about through these connections. A family living in Kobe agreed to take her in for homestay, and so she came to a city she had never heard of before. After attending a Japanese language school, she became a research student in the Faculty of Letters at Kobe University.

“I wanted to study linguistics, and when I visited Kobe University, I was told about Professor NISHIMITSU Yoshihiro. So, without an appointment, I went to see the professor, and he accepted me,” she says.

She started as a research student in April 1994. However, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake struck on January 17 of the following year.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake took away her compatriot friends

At the time of the earthquake, she had moved to a dormitory for international students in Amagasaki City. It was a time when she was desperately studying for the entrance exam for graduate school.  

Fortunately, the dormitory was not seriously damaged, but a few days later, she received news of the deaths of two research students from Myanmar who were studying at Kobe University, Khin Thet Swe, then 36, and Wai Moe Lwin, then 35. She had worked part-time with both at the same supermarket. Even before her part-time job, she often stopped by the apartment where they lived and was treated to Myanmar cuisine.

“Khin was quiet and showed a lot of compassion for her parents. Lwin was quite the chatterbox, always there to lend a hand when I had problems at work. When I was feeling down, sharing a meal of Myanmar cuisine with them would pick me up. They were both like sisters to me, and my emotional support.”

Among the Myanmar students at Kobe University, there was a woman who was buried alive for several hours and suffered serious injuries. She was a friend who also worked part-time at the same supermarket. Thin Aye Aye Ko rushed to the hospital where she was taken to help with the surgery procedures and stayed by her side.

After the earthquake, Thin Aye Aye Ko wrote about her feelings for the two deceased in an account of the international students’ experiences. “It is really hard to be in a place where I have memories of them. I want to run away somewhere. But I have a responsibility. They didn’t get to fulfill their dreams. I have to work hard enough for them, too.”

The “Kobe University Victims Joint Memorial Service” held two months after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. The portraits of two female research students from Myanmar, who were in the Faculty of Intercultural Studies, were displayed. March 17, 1995, Kobe University (held by the University Archives)

Amid the chaos after the earthquake, Thin Aye Aye Ko managed to pass the entrance exam for graduate school. She continued her research in linguistics in the master’s and doctoral programs, earning her Ph.D. in the spring of 2003. During her studies, she won the Myanmar National Literature Award for her translation of the Japanese children’s book “Burmese Earrings.” She married a Myanmar man she met in Japan and gave birth to a daughter.

A Japanese language school in Myanmar and a business in Kobe

After completing her Ph.D. and working as a research associate at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, she decided to start her own business in her home country. “I thought about how I could apply the results of my research to society. My daughter was about to start elementary school and I wanted her to learn the Myanmar language, so I decided to return home,” she says.

In 2005, she established a Japanese language school in Myanmar and in 2019, she also established a company called “Myanmar No. 1” to connect Myanmar jobseekers with Japanese companies and the nursing care industry. In addition to human resources development, she has expanded her business to include the development, translation, and publishing of Japanese language learning materials, which are now widely used in Myanmar.

“I wasn’t going to go back to Japan,” she says, but as the employment of staff from overseas in Japan expanded, she moved her base to Kobe in earnest in 2023. She currently has an office for “Myanmar No. 1” in Chuo Ward, where she acts as a bridge between Myanmar human resources and Japanese companies, providing job placement and support for people of Myanmar working in Japan.

“The starting point is not money, but the desire to support people from Myanmar who want to work in Japan,” says Thin Aye Aye Ko. Because of the unstable political situation in her home country due to political upheaval, many young people want to go to Japan. She tells these young people about her own experiences and explains about Japanese society and culture. She hopes that they will gain a deeper understanding not only of the Japanese language, but also of the ideas behind the language.

“It is important to convey the idea of consideration for others. If you think only of yourself, your life will be distorted. Thinking about this also leads to the creation of a peaceful society,” she says.

The importance of compassion and helping one another was imprinted on her heart in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.  “Regardless of nationality, everyone was united,” she recalls. She, too, volunteered to help international students and disaster victims. Based on that experience, she has continued to vigorously support students from both countries.

Her favorite Japanese phrases are “ichigo ichie” and “ishin denshin.”  “Ichigo ichie” means “every moment is a once-in-a-lifetime event.” It’s a reminder that each encounter or experience is unique and cannot be exactly repeated, so we should cherish each moment. “Ishin-denshin” refers to a kind of telepathy or intuitive understanding. It’s when you can understand someone’s feelings or thoughts without them having to say anything out loud. It’s like having a silent conversation with someone just by understanding their facial expressions or gestures.

With the encounters she has accumulated in Kobe and the will she has inherited from her deceased friends who were unable to realize their dreams, she continues to walk as a bridge between the two countries.


Thin Aye Aye Ko was born in 1967 in Myanmar. In 1994, she became a research student in the Faculty of Letters of Kobe University. In March 2003, she completed the Ph.D. program in the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2003 to 2005, she was a research associate in the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2005, she founded the “Thin Myanmar Language Center,” a Japanese language school in Myanmar.  She is the president of the “Myanmar Kobe University Alumni Association,” which was established in 2011. She is currently the representative of Myanmar No. 1, Co., Ltd. (a fee-charging job placement and registration support service for foreign nationals working under the “specified skills” program)


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