The State of English Language Learning in Japan

Last year it was announced that Tokyo would be the host of the 2020 Olympics.  With a string of recent hardships, mainly the 2011 earthquake/tsunami and the fall out it caused in Fukushima, the announcement gave Japanese something to take pride in.  And since then, the government and news outlets have been playing the Tokyo candidate city victory clip over and over again to distract everyone from the very real problems the country would rather sweep under the rug.

I admit I felt disappointment when Tokyo made the cut.  In my opinion it seems irresponsible to host such a costly event with Fukushima still in dire condition and an impending rise in sales tax due to debt incurred by previous inept government spending.  Even looking beyond those major issues, I don’t believe Japan is ready to accept the amount of foreigners that will arrive at its shores in either attitude, disability/elderly citizen assistance (most public places, even in Tokyo, only offer squat toilets or stairs as options for getting around), nor adequate English language skills.

Recently Japan has proposed to do something about that last point, outlined in an article featured in  The Japan Times.  Like the author, I’ve been an English language teacher here for a number of years.  During my time as an instructor, I was there to preview Eigo Note before it became implemented at elementary school grades 5 and 6 nationwide.  More recently, I witnessed a new addendum to English conversation classes in public high schools that lessons must be taught completely in English, despite the fact that this method rarely produces results for children past 8 years of age due to how the brain develops psychologically.  And overall, I can tell you straight up that this new reform will do as little for English education as these past reforms have done.

I think the author of the article mades a great point about Japanese being afraid to make mistakes and some teachers not allowing for them or swooping in the moment trouble arrises.  In reality, I think many teachers aren’t so complicit in their roles as a crutch.  Lax disciplinary measures (both in grading and behavior) combined with parents who have delegated teachers with the role of raising their children are just as much to blame.  Even if teachers were able to encourage more critical thinking skills in the classroom, there’s still a few other elephants in the room that Japan needs to tackle first; issues that start becoming towering walls the longer you stay on as an instructor.

  1. Discipline 
    I grew up with an image of Japanese schools that are long outdated- throwing chalk at disruptive students or forcing them to hold heavy buckets and other physical punishments to make up for infractions.  Imagine my surprise when I started teaching and found out that school discipline here is pretty much nonexistent.  A few years into my teaching stint I was told the current generation of parents decided that to counteract how extreme old disciplinary practices were, they decided to just forgo discipline altogether.  If a student is disruptive or rude, they can’t be thrown out of the room as it would go against their legal right to an education, even if their bad behavior is preventing other students from exercising their same right.  Therefore kids act up and are often disrespectful from the get-go, without any system in place to handle them.
  2. Grading
    In my high school’s English conversation course, a failing mark is anything below 30%.  This is the same grading scale for many other subjects, too.  We have to be so generous with the grades that it’s seriously hard to score that low unless a student never shows up or writes nothing but his or her name on every exam.  In the event that they do manage to fail, they are almost always given short remedial lectures during holiday breaks and then bumped up to passing, with little regard to if they actually show any progress during these lectures.  There is no system of holding children back.  This means that a poor student will continue to advance despite not having the necessary foundation for upper level study.  Every year I have a mix of high schoolers who can’t read their textbooks, let alone write their ABCs, in the same class with kids who are beginners, have conversational skills, or are bilingual/fluent.  It’s sometimes hard to believe they’ve all received three years or more of previous English education.
  3. Katakana
    Katakana is one of the three written versions of Japanese, usually to signify foreign words, loan words, or really emphasize a point.  Too many students rely on it so heavily that the only way they can relate to English is through katakana pronunciation or spelling.  It would be a like a foreigner learning Japanese, but always writing and needing everything written in rōmaji, or roman letters.  That’s awful enough, but at least rōmaji still retains the same pronunciation as Japanese.  Katakana, on the other hand, retains the same pronunciation as Japanese and is thus limited in available sounds.  In katakana, words like “blew”, “blue”, and “brew” are all the same.  Even if a Japanese person knows a lot of English, half the time you can’t understand what they’re saying because the pronunciation is completely katakana-ized.
  4. Japanese English teachers who can’t speak English
    I’d say I’ve worked with around 20-30 JTEs at numerous public schools around the area.  Out of this number, only 1 was fluent.  Another was not fluent, but was almost fluent.  The rest fell somewhere between not being able to hold down any conversation past “How are you?” and minimal conversational skills.  In other words, despite having no certification or qualifications to even think about teaching Japanese here, I still speak Japanese better than almost every other certified Japanese English teacher I’ve come across can speak English.  They say those that cannot do, teach.  I’ve never held much faith in this statement, but Japan sure seems to.  It gets even worse in elementary schools, where homeroom teachers who have very little or no background at all in English are the ones mainly teaching the Eigo Note curriculum mandated by the Ministry of Education.  How do you teach children to become conversant in English if the teachers haven’t achieved this goal first?  Maybe with an awesome set of teaching skills, there might be a glimmer of hope! But that leads us to…
  5. Most Japanese teachers don’t have a proper set of teaching skills
    I know it’s such an easy thing to scapegoat teachers, but it’s important to note that most teachers are only using the set of skills they have or haven’t been given.  Teachers in Japan, even if they’ve mastered their subject (in this case, English), are very rarely taught how to teach in an effective way.  Since before the war and after, Japan has depended almost completely on the rote memorization method of learning.  This means teachers are taught to lecture, lecture, lecture and students listen, listen, listen without much real practical application.  However, with disciplinary action and the fear of failing taken out of the picture, students don’t have much motivation to do all that listening.  So the traditional approach no longer works and nothing is being done by the Ministry of Education to allow teachers to adapt the current system.  Not to mention the teaching materials and textbooks provided by the Ministry are some of the worst and most outdated I’ve ever seen.  So you have new teachers being trained by old teachers who are set in their rote memorization ways using awful materials, who eventually become set in these same ways using the same (newest version of these) awful materials.  There are a few associations who are pushing for better teaching skill sets and education reform, especially when it comes to English, but they are mostly grassroots-type movements.  Which leads us to…
  6. Japanese people are not really seriously motivated to learn English
    Although in a recession, the Japanese economy is still strong enough that Japanese don’t feel their way of living is impacted by not knowing English.  Additionally, the population is still 98% ethnically Japanese so there’s not enough English-speaking foreign residents to put pressure on adapting it for use in everyday life.  In fact, Japanese are still somewhat at odds with how to act around foreigners or the idea of more foreigners coming to make Japan their permanent home.  High school and university exams might have an English component to them, but it’s just written grammar and vocabulary memorization and nothing oral so there’s not much of an educational reason to learn it, either.  Mainly people pursue English as a hobby or a skill they would like their kids to have if it’s easily or effortlessly attainable but isn’t something they feel is absolutely necessary.

Is it really that necessary for Japanese people to learn English?  Many think not, but I think the government is starting to realize that unless Japanese people start having more babies (another can of worms in itself) and find other ways to resuscitate the economy internally, the only other option is to become more internationalized where Japan is trailing far behind other first world countries.  I feel like the J-government knows these changes and reforms are inevitable, but fear Japan will losing some of what makes it so “unique” in the process.  Either way, these few and far between policies for English acquisition are not set up to meet their accompanying goals without many other major overhauls, both societal and educational, in the process.


I hope if you’re reading this because you would like to teach here someday you don’t find what I’ve said too intimidating.  Even though it’s true you may not be reaching as many students as you might aspire to, I still feel it’s a rewarding venture for the few that do enjoy learning and have a serious interest in English- not to mention Japan is a beautiful country to live in.  Big change is always made of a number of smaller changes. Though the real English education movement is still stumbling and trying to find its feet so it can take off, you can still be apart of those baby steps that will help lead to bigger steps someday.  Just that someday probably isn’t coming anywhere near in time for the 2020 Olympics.

– J

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