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.