Why English Is Tough in Japan
Image Credit: Jennifer Feuchter

Why English Is Tough in Japan


In accordance with changes in Ministry of Education standards made back in 2008, Japanese students in the fifth and sixth grade last month began mandatory weekly English lessons. The objective of the programme, dubbed Gaikokugo Katsudo or Foreign Language Activities, is to foster an interest in other languages and cultures generally, although English remains the priority.

But the programme is also a response to international and domestic factors. For one, there's TOEFL score data from 2004-2005, which placed Japan second to last in Asia in terms of English language skills with 191 points—only one point higher than North Korea. There's also the fact that other countries in the region have introduced mandatory English lessons in their elementary schools, and Japan is therefore keen not to be left behind. The programme even has the support of top business federation Nippon Keidanren, which sees it as a means of increasing the competitiveness of future Japanese knowledge workers internationally.

Yet looking at the specifics of the programme, and some of the critiques it has received, the effort strikes me as a little superficial, and gives the impression that the Ministry is treating learning English as an end in itself.

The reality is that raw English ability alone is unlikely to produce any significant change, even assuming that Japanese students go on to have basic conversational skills in English (which is often not the case anyway). The problem for many Japanese doesn't necessarily stem from the English lessons themselves, nor the lack of opportunities to use English in Japan (though this does exacerbate the situation). The big problem is often the significant cultural barriers.

Japan's collectivist ideals necessarily arose to allow the nation's large population to live comfortably together in a comparatively small archipelago. This has given rise to some commendable traits, such as an appearance of agreeableness among Japanese. But it has also led the Japanese to eschew disagreement and argumentation, even though these can be extremely beneficial forms of social interaction. Simply put, Japanese culture and etiquette doesn’t groom people to become confident communicators in English.

The Ministry certainly deserves credit for changing the system, however incremental the steps have been. But if the government wants to foster a new generation of internationally viable and competitive Japanese, they would do well to reassess current measures.

For one, the Ministry could address the appalling lack of English discussion in classes in Japan—from elementary to high school, there exists a rigidly structured course that leaves few opportunities for students to apply the English they’ve learned in a practical way. Without such opportunities, Japanese English learners don’t develop vital debate and persuasion skills that are the cornerstone of communication in English. Instead, the English curriculum largely consists of teaching to tests, which is why you’ll see word count guidelines such as ‘1,000 words to be learned during junior high school.’

Modern English, at least in professional settings, is frequently employed in a direct, straightforward manner. This isn't done to trigger confrontation, but simply out of a desire for efficiency. English isn't as encumbered with many of the genteel honorifics of Japanese, nor does it rely so heavily on implication. Providing students with more opportunities to study rhetoric as opposed to memorizing vocabulary would therefore go a long way toward producing a new generation of Japanese who are productive—and confident—with English.

poudel pradeep
February 5, 2014 at 00:16

thanks for your feed back

January 17, 2012 at 12:27

I suspect Japan’s best and brightest will be pushing to learn English and Mandarin Chinese in the future — to move overseas.

The problem right now is that the population is aging rapidly, the society is getting staid, and even if there are an abundance of opportunities, they are generally in things younger people don’t seem terribly interested in. (Being a home-care nurse isn’t terribly interesting to most people.) In the region I’m in, most of the kids want to move away to the big city, and the kids attending English school are either being forced to by parents or (for the smart ones) view it as a move to get out of where they are. I expect “brain drain” to be a major problem in Japan in the near future. The _interesting_ opportunities are overseas.

That means, of course, that the best and brightest may be gone and the rest will cheerfully grind along, possibly leading more strongly to the inward turn that Mr. Fukushima was talking about — and out of being a first-world technological innovator.

May 19, 2011 at 17:47

According to the most recent TOEFL data for 2010, Japan ranks 135th in the world with an average TOEFL score of 70 as compared to the international average of 80. Among the 30 Asian nations with reported average scores, Japan ranks higher only than Laos, Tajikistan and Cambodia, whereas Singapore ranks 3rd in the world. Japan’s ranking is lower than all its neighbors, including South Korea (80th), North Korea (96th) and China (105th).

No doubt the lackluster level of English competency in Japan is due to various cultural and institutional factors, as pointed out in Hiroki Ogawa’s article. It is also related to the trend of growing insularity and declining interest in studying abroad of the Japanese: the number of Japanese studying in the US has fallen from 46,497 in 2000 to 24,842 in 2009. According to Glen Fukushima, a former high ranking trade official in the US government, “Japan has apparently become so safe, secure and comfortable that there is little incentive to go abroad, where one has to speak foreign languages, deal with peoples of other cultures and often engage in difficult negotiations or unfamiliar and competitive situations.” It is indeed paradoxical that Japan, one of the most advanced societies and biggest global actors in the world, is turning inward.

References: “TOEFL: Singapore Third Worldwide In English Proficiency Test, Top In Asia” ; Mizuho Aoki, “Japan far behind in global language of business” ; Glen S. Fukushima, “Reverse Japan’s insularity” .

May 16, 2011 at 03:39

From my experience teaching in a technical high school, I would suggest one of the largest problems is a misguided requirement that ALL students study English till age 18. This often means teaching classes of 40 largely vocationally minded 16/17/18 years old who are aiming to go into trades with very little need for English ability… they justifiably see continuing studying English as a waste of their time, and consequently fail to engage. These are kids who have been learning English for 7 years or and can barely string a sentence together! Yes, this may be as a result of bad educational method, but its also surely as a result of their lack of enthusiasm for learning English in the first place. There may be a few students within the class a with real passion and aptitude for learning, but they are unlikely to make progress in such a classroom. Whereas if English were made optional after age 14 or 15, you’d have much smaller classes of willing students, meaning a much better classroom atmosphere and much faster progress. Surely its better to aim to produce smaller numbers of dedicated, fluent English speakers rather than enforcing the language on every kid and ending up with universal mediocrity.

May 14, 2011 at 10:59

Is the single minded focus on English correct? How about simply making the requirement for some foreign language proficiency? Maybe this would be a comfortable enough route for the government to decrease some of their oversight and the “1,000 word” like dictates.

May 14, 2011 at 10:11

I think attributing Japan’s low English scores to any single factor is a mistake. Japan’s poor performance in English is related to many, many factors and this is only one of them — and a small one at that, given that it rests on two sweeping cultural generalizations that aren’t necessarily universal or even that strong (i.e. that English speakers are direct and confrontational communicators and that Japanese people are not).

There are more issues at work here. One is that, with the economy wallowing in post-Bubble lethargy, young people see little potential reward in excelling at any of their studies beyond the immediate goal of not getting chewed out for bad grades or test scores. Even a high-paying job promises a lifetime of unrewarded overtime and being chained to a desk over weekends with few chances for leisure or family time. The teachers I work with all complain that their students have no dreams anymore; well, there aren’t any realistic dreams to be had anymore. Want a creative career? Have fun selling your copyright for a pittance and then living on piddling royalties. Want to take care of people? Hope you like ever-shrinking wages for emotionally and physically stressful work. Open your own business? Good luck not going into debt. English ends up being the least rewarding of school subjects since international travel and work is an even more distant goal than having a rewarding career at all. So the goal for the kids is: pass the test, get on with my life.

Another factor is that aside from token English words and phrases in advertising and signage, English isn’t used in Japan even between people who speak English. The attitude is, why bother speaking English if we can both speak Japanese? or, English conversation requires at least one person in the conversation be a “native speaker”. Students greet their teachers in the hallway: to the native speaker, they say “Hello”, but to the Japanese English teachers, they say “Konnichiwa” and this is normal.

Learning 1000 words in junior high school is not that problematic of an educational goal in isolation. What makes it problematic in practice is that, at least in some of the junior high school textbooks, those 1,000 words are taught alongside a staggering mound of grammar. The mismatch is catastrophic: how can you use twenty or thirty different grammar points if you’re only confident with fifteen or twenty verbs? How can you learn to make sentences if your inventory of nouns barely covers the things in your immediate vicinity? I make a habit of hauling out dictionaries with nearly every activity I teach, but few of my coteachers are enthusiastic about using more vocabulary. Why? I’m a language learner myself, and the one thing I and fellow learners always craved was words, words, words. And words are the easiest part of language to learn and, in my opinion as a teacher, the easiest to teach. Instead, the textbooks overload grammar to the point where, having been taught twenty different ways to use a verb, the kids can use almost none of those ways. You can see this also in commercial English study materials. Books that collect the “1000 most useful English vocabulary words” list words with ONE translation and maybe two or three example sentences that all use the word in the same way. So you learn how to use a thousand words one way, instead of (as native language users do) one word in a thousand ways.

In my opinion, the first thing Japan needs to do to fix its English difficulties is to lower its expectations. Slow down. Instead of racing through grammar point after grammar point year after year in junior high school and high school, focus on the complete mastery of fewer grammar points while churning through as much vocabulary as possible. Learn many, many possible ways of using a verb form before moving on to the next. The other thing Japan needs to discard is the pathological preoccupation with “native English”. Up to and possibly more than 1 billion people on this planet speak English, and only a third of those speak it natively, and of those native speakers there are many distinct dialects, yet Japan believes that there is one “native English” and if they can’t achieve that level, then what’s the point? Then the “Japanese Ingurisshu” inferiority complex sets in and the mental block alone is enough to retard a student’s progress by years.

Or, conversely, people resort to the attitudes in the article above: Oh, the Japanese are too different to learn English properly. Our cultures clash too much. I think it’s ridiculous. English is difficult for Japanese speakers mainly because Japanese speakers believe it is, but then more realistically because the English phonemic inventory has many sounds absent from Japanese, and English phonology permits consonant clusters that are difficult for the Japanese-speaking mouth to form. Frankly, at the level of English most Japanese are working at, semantic and pragmatic aspects like culture don’t even enter the picture, because they’re still struggling at the level of phonology and morphology.

May 14, 2011 at 08:14

Why does the “TOEFL score data” link in the second paragraph point to an article that doesn’t contain the slightest bit of information about Japan’s TOEFL scores?

May 14, 2011 at 00:35

I agree that English may provide opportunities to engage in dialecticI that do not seem to abound in Japanese, bu in my experience, some more advanced Japanese English learners take the idea that “it’s OK to be direct in English” a little too far. The fact that English does not really have a rigidly formal equivalent to ‘keigo’ can actually make it a more difficult language to be polite in.

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