Thursday, January 27

The English Education Debacle in Japan

Yeah, try reading the Japanese.

          Japan spends a lot of time pushing students to learn English and setting the standards high.Why is English so important in Japan? Well, Japan wants to keep up in the world economy, and the best way to do that would be to follow America. This may have recently become even more crucial considering China surpassed Japan in the global race. So what might Japan’s reaction be? Pushing students to study harder to pass high school and college entrance exams that focus on only written English. And how does a JET like me react to this? We complain and try to stress verbal English, conversational English, native pronunciation, etc. 

Us JETs meet with brick walls when first confronting Japan’s rote-memorization educational style. Opinions are not welcomed in the classroom and even with the recent stress on group work, teachers seek correct answers, not creative thought processes. Also, in groups, I find that students are as speechless as before because of such a drastic change in environment. How does a student maintain interest in something if his opinion isn’t valued—if he has nothing to add, nothing to stimulate his thought processes. Students will lose interest or revert to rote-memorization if they are silenced. I know for me, that I have trouble learning Japanese words and phrases that don’t relate to my life. But, man, was it so easy to learn to talk about music, skateboarding and food—my current interests.

            Anyway, this detrimental cycle turns round and round again, and we are left with educated adults that can only mutter broken English phrases (and any other mis-phrases learned from television) despite their years of hard work copying English sentences and also despite the government money spent on such undertakings. So, unless a student has great preservation, interest in English, and the right teachers, connections, and native English resources the student will blossom into an adult with the average English comprehension the current education guidelines should be steering away from. 

An English cram school poster
            A quick-fix to this problem is something I realized recently after attending a JET conference. If most students will forget most of their English after graduation, why don’t we focus more on culture? After all, isn’t culture equally as dividing as language to a country seeking globalization? I think back to my Spanish, German and French classes since Jr. High School. What do I remember besides “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” the real pronunciation for “Volkswagen”, and “Un, deux, trios…”? Well, all the culture, of course. We learned about different attitudes toward punctuality, different foods in each country, holidays, clothes, etc. These interesting pieces of cultural knowledge have been more beneficial to me than learning, “Hay uno gato en mis pantalones,” or foreign curse words I learned from my friends. My Japanese students might not remember how to use the past subjunctive tense, but they will surely remember big American pizzas, the long 3-month summer break in the states, and the Christmas spirit their JET teacher exuded every year. If English teachers aren’t keeping the students interested, they are not following one of the most important English education guidelines covering elementary to high school.

Spanish people have accents in America, but we generally understand them. But then there is the issue of racism and pigeonholing immigrants of certain ethnicities into low wage jobs, no medical coverage, and any other way companies can make a buck. French people have accents in America, and we generally understand them. We don’t necessarily have a bias against the French in America, and so generally a French person can be hired according to his skills and English ability—with no glass ceiling. 

So, for the not-so-quick fix, I suggest the government pave the way for young English students rather than bringing out the whips. Ultimately, their goal is to be able to communicate with English speaking cultures. So why don’t they take some money from their diminishing foreign language funds and throw it ahead of students instead of behind them. The possibilities here are endless, but what about helping Japanese culture flourish in America? Promote cultural centers, and foot the bill for the American public. This kind of thing is happening now but only on a very small scale. 

Also, maybe they can buy some sort of media space or air time to speak English with a Japanese accent. I’m not talking about promotional commercials. I’m talking about some sort of informative cartoon series about Japan. Send it to America for free. Give Japan a voice. Think of the influence America has on Japan through TV. Spongebob, 24, House, not to mention Harry Potter and most of our cinema hits. Then, think about the absence of popular and influential Japanese programming in America. Power Rangers, Pokemon, Godzilla, MXC—some of these may be popular but they are definitely not an influential, “cool” image of Japan. If we can easier understand the thick Japanese accents, then the burden of education would be lifted off the current round-peg-in-square-hole system. Japanese students would have a more positive attitude toward English if using it in a foreign country stopped seeming like an impossibility. 

The general internet community's image of Japan, Exhibit A

Exhibit B
Exhibit C
I know, as an average American, I was unaware of the importance of such a country as Japan. Concerning Japan, I think most of America thinks, “Yeah, it’s really far away and the language is really hard. Don’t they have like a million letters? Oh, they have really weird pornography, too.” This sounds funny even for me to write, but these are the current avenues through which Japan is reaching America. I’m sure this isn’t the message Japan wants to send. Why not mend the image. If Japan’s image seemed more important, more culturally diverse, more interested in America, then their image would shine a lot more than current result of being the butt-end of a few ignorant jokes.

But like I said, the confidence in English education is dropping off. The JET program is on the chopping block, while smaller, cheaper, yet less supportive English teaching programs are becoming more popular. The strong support, network, and knowledge of a program like JET is just what Japan needs to foster culture exchange—even if the direction is from the English teach in Japan back to his home country.  The large JET community in America is working wonders for Japan’s image, through conferences, books, education, and even just conversation. (Most JETs are stand-out members of society so the impact of their message is that much stronger.)

America has global power; Japan has health.
So, why should Japan invest in an area that has been failing for years? Maybe the real problem is not the students’ interest in English, but the government’s interest in English. In this case, we have reached Solution #3. Let English education fall by the wayside to meet changing budgets. Japan won’t have to worry about English anymore, but they also won’t have to worry about being important in the global sphere (unless creating some form of massive global demand for Japan and/or its products). 

Well that’s it. The answers seem so simple, so clear. Maybe I have oversimplified the problem. What are your thoughts?


  1. dan, that exhibit A picture is terrifying. ok, the end!

  2. Good perspective. I especially like your ideas about focusing on culture over language, and throwing money in front, rather than behind them.

    There were a couple things i wanted to mention. One is that JET's main "competition" as it were, Interac, has been taking a lot of fire for illegal contracts and many prefectures are slowly catching on, voiding contracts (DOZENS at a time) and switching back to JET. Even in Hiroshima, there are occasionally new JET positions that open up. JET is not on the chopping block (at least for the foreseeable future), and it may be about to grow, even as it transforms to be more economical.

    Loved the pic of the American and Japanese chicks, while of course it's not a one-for-one, you definitely notice the difference in the amount of healthy and bloated people when you go back to the states! Not that Japan's health and healthcare are without their drawbacks.

  3. Hey greg, what have you discovered to be the drawbacks of Japan's healthcare?


You should probably engage in some conversation.