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4 Uncomfortable Truths About Teaching English in Japan

Japan Travel
by Turner Wright Mar 26, 2015

1. The overall English proficiency of Japanese is far worse than many realize.

According to the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI), Japan currently scores #26 out of 63 countries measured, directly under South Korea and India. While this is categorized as “moderate proficiency,” and it’s difficult to determine the language ability of an entire population, Japan’s score isn’t exactly a good benchmark for fluency; according to English First’s own report, “…in the past six years, Japanese adults have not improved their English,” citing lecturing by teachers, little emphasis on oral communication, and lack of exposure to English outside the classroom as causes. A better measure, the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), has Japan ranked 40th out of 48 countries. For the Test of English as a Foreign Language Exam, Japanese scored as some of the poorest English speakers in Asia.

2. Japan spends more on English education than European countries, yet their approach has proved ineffective.

The results as stated above are not representative of the costs: The Japanese government pays over 4,400 participants of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) over three million yen annually, totaling $130 million in salaries alone. In addition, many parents send their children to juku (cram schools), tutoring, and eikaiwa (private English conversation schools), all on the belief that if you continue throwing money into English education, their children will speak as naturally as New Englanders. However, many are arguing the education system as a whole would be far better bringing in certified teachers with years of experience teaching in their respective countries. As of now, this is, as so many job postings famously state, “preferred but not required.”

Among the thousands of teachers in public schools from the JET Program and those working in eikaiwa are some who are properly trained and genuinely try to make a difference in the classroom by encouraging English conversation. However, the majority of Japanese education, with or without English, is focused on entrance examinations. Over 500,000 students take the university entrance exam every year, and as a result, the English taught in classrooms is focused on grammar and multiple-choice questions rather than communication.

Native speakers who work in public schools as assistants have to work within this system, which means their most valuable skills — pronunciation, conversation, and explaining expressions and idioms — are rarely utilized, placing some in the awkward position of being a human tape recorder (i.e. “listen and repeat”) or standing to the sidelines so as not to draw awareness to their co-teachers lack of English skills. Indeed, there have been many attempts to reform the education system by properly training Japanese teachers of English.

3. There is still a very strong “us versus them“ mentality in Japan.

Japan’s Supreme Court recent passed a ruling that foreigners with permanent residency status would not be guaranteed to receive welfare. Although this decision has more of an impact on Chinese and Korean long-term residents, who make up approximately half of the 2.5 million foreigners in Japan, its importance for the future of all in the Japanese workforce cannot be overstated: the number of people in Japan shrank by 268,000 last year, the product of a low birth rate and aging population.

The current demands of an aging workforce seems to require immigrants to make up this gap. Unfortunately, foreign workers are viewed primarily as transient, not respectable members of Japanese society; each year their government grants asylum to fewer foreign refugees. In the English-teaching spectrum, many instructors stay between 1-3 years before realizing they can’t advance beyond the role of teacher; some stay with their eikaiwa and move into recruiting or minor management roles, others choose to take lateral positions with public schools or start their own if they plan to stay in the country. Those that do stay teachers for years on end earn considerably less than their Japanese counterparts without the job security… a fresh stream of university graduates is always available.

The foreign population has increased in recent years, but official policy seems to be encouraging foreign residents to leave once their time is up. In 2008, only 11,000 of the 130,000 foreign students in Japanese universities found jobs in Japan, and most companies remain ethnically homogeneous, perhaps by design.

4. At the end of the day, many just don’t appreciate the need for English.

The demand to study English is quite high: It’s a significant portion of entrance exams, and recently the Liberal Democratic Party proposed that all university applicants be required to take the TOEFL test. Campaigns from private language schools, the government, and the culture itself promote the idea that learning English = a step towards prosperity, leading to parents fervently pushing children to study harder and longer.

However, this seems to have had the opposite effect. By catering the approach in English education strictly to exams, the government seems to make students shy away from learning the language outside the classroom and into their adult lives.

Why else would it still be big news when a major Japanese company adopts English? Bridgestone made the leap in 2013, the same year a 71-year sued the broadcasting station NHK for using too many English words. Rakuten Inc. has recognized the the problems facing a shrinking and aging workforce and started using English for all company communications. Yet even these actions are considered controversial in-country, almost a betrayal of their Japanese identity. Until that changes, the motivation to become truly fluent will certainly be stymied.

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