A new challenge: Changes to elementary school English education in Japan for 2020

By Liam Carrigan

For many people in Japan, both in their work and personal lives, April is often seen as a time of new beginnings, and of transition.

This year, I am part of this process of rebirth and reinvention, as well.

After five years in Osaka, I was offered a very attractive position in Nagano Prefecture, which — having spent a lot of time in Nagano previously and familiarized myself with the place and the people — I decided to accept.

This position, however, is a pretty major departure from my previous work. Whereas before, my primary focus was private sector junior and senior high school students, my new job sees me taking on a public school position and — for the first time in my teaching career — being based exclusively at elementary school.

Now, those who know me and my teaching style, will know that I am not a song and dance man. Indeed, I’ve often said that those people willing to reduce themselves to the role of a mere entertainer or clown do the rest of us teachers a great disservice. With such an attitude, many veterans would say I may not be the right kind of teacher for elementary schools in Japan. But things are not as they once were.

Thankfully, after decades of hubris and mere token efforts, it finally seems that the education ministry is taking elementary school English seriously.

What’s happening?

Big changes are afoot and these will bring with them many new opportunities and, no doubt, plenty of new challenges to be overcome.

From 2020, English will become an official subject for fifth and sixth grade students. Previously, English was categorized as gaikokukatsudo (foreign culture activities).

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"As long as people keep believing this then English language or any language education in Japan will be doomed to failure."

Well, what I wanted to explain in my last comment: I just wanted to Japan overcome English language to all Japanese people understand how to use well English as communication tool. I know that "tsunami" is a word that is worldly known, in contrast nobody will understand what is "sontaku" or "kioku ni arimasen" even interpreted to foreigners understand, but really not understandable for culture differences. So, should Japanese stop using those languages to be simplified in English? I find this the most difficult task. I hope that Japanese people find ways to explain those Japanese vocabularies in English and finally used as English, sontaku is sontaku, can't be altered to another language.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I don't like Japanese to lose their identity in Japanese language to easily find ways in English.

There is absolutely no reason or evidence that learning a second language would dilute someone’s Japaneseness. Whatever that is! As long as people keep believing this then English language or any language education in Japan will be doomed to failure.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Japan will never going to be like Singapore where I consider the center of English business in Asia. Well, are we living to use only English expressions to show what is business? if it's right the easier way to know English will be to English spoken side to win(?)...Hmm, I don't think so. Basically, English is a tool of communication. If it will be in future more skills to represent English I think it's a real goal, sorry for some but it's my deep feeling I don't like Japanese to lose their identity in Japanese language to easily find ways in English.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Scrap all this ALT nonsense. As a substantial taxpayer I resent my tax money going to kids to have a long holiday. Only foreign teachers with Masters degrees in teaching English must be employed and they to be given very good salaries.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Its not so much the fault of the ALTs as it is the BOE and teachers that make little to no use of them. Most are just a simple repeat after me tool.

One positive result of the whole thing is it makes English schools more money and business. Which many ALTs end up working for after work or on weekends. Keep up the good work Japan.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

What's needed is an English language curriculum that teaches aural comprehension, speech, sentence composition, reading and writing that IS EFFECTIVE.

The current one is not.

ALTs haven't made a blind bit of difference.

A curriculum is needed that practices active production of English, speaking, discussion, writing AS WELL AS  passive listening and reading. Most High School lessons I've observed mostly consist of a teacher droning on and on about some point of vocabulary or grammar in JAPANESE. With little or no chance for the students to actually practice and master any of the points the teacher brings up.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I know several people working as ALTs who made their degree certificate on the Internet, and then printed it out. They have been working here for years. It's a complete farce.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Making English an official subject won't make a bit of difference at all. The BOE will still use dispatch companies to fill positions at the lowest possible cost. Dispatch companies will still keep hiring anyone who applies and the cycle will continue. The funny thing is degrees, licenses, and certificates are easy to print and make yourself, as companies don't even check if they are authentic or not. It's easy work meaning it's going to be low pay. If people don't like the pay there is always someone else willing to take the job.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I can live with NET. I had a devil of a time getting them to keep from calling me "Native Speaker." My 8 year old niece is a native speaker, but I wouldn't have her teach English here in Japan. It took me quite a while, but I jumped through all the hoops and have a teacher's license now (even if it is rinji) so I teach my own classes.

3 ( +3 / -0 )


I cannot argue with anything you have said. You have made some great points. I myself am directly hired by my school and my title is NET (Native English Teacher) which I am more than happy with. The money is better than average, but we could all do with a little more right? ;)

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The true change will be when we stop using ALT as a job title. It's insulting since most Japanese use it as a generic label for the foreign worker. Most foreign teacher that are in the public school system are highly educated and come from good institutions in their home countries.

School boards need (more so) to hire teachers directly and actually commit to their investment rather than throwing it away after 5 or 10 year contracts have expired. Institutions like JET and the staffing companies like Interac are a disservice to those of us that have built a career here in education. They keep the foreign worker's image as a transient or temp. As along as the foreign teacher is called an ALT there will be no pay raises, bonuses, respect, or full-committal jobs.

The government probably will never do this on a mass scale, since they are typically opposed to foreign workers having some say in their public institutions. They like to keep us at arms-length and with as many hoops to jump through as possible. I do think there are some really good Japanese English teachers out there, but overall there are far too many just taking up space. The whole English dilemma would be solved if they just opened up the jobs to foreign staff to control English curricula - at least there would be more confident speakers.

Just my two cents...

10 ( +10 / -0 )

Any improvement is good but it seems like it's always too late-they should've done this years ago. It seems like just a knee-jerk reaction because of the Olympics. Anyway, are they going to train the home room teachers how to teach English? If so, when will they have time? They are busy enough already. I expect in most cases the ALT's will be doing most of the teaching (which is not a bad thing).

6 ( +6 / -0 )

kawabegawa198Today  08:51 am JST

Until Japan starts getting serious about English teaching (e.g. only importing teachers who have a recognized licence back in their home country)

Given that we can't expect Japanese institutions to accurately assess foreign licensing institutions and given that prefectures in Japan already offer special licenses, this is a bit extreme of a suggestion. All anyone needs is for Japanese institutions to evaluate their teachers on merit. Which means to stop paying Japanese teachers more just for being older and to stop firing foreign teachers just for being older.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Agreed on the salary increase but I know many unlicenced teachers (ALT's) who are very good at their job and are popular with staff and students alike. I can't see many licenced teachers coming to Japan from back home. As you said, the money ain't no good and they would perhaps want to focus on their own career path. Teaching in Japan is for many a stop-gap option.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Until Japan starts getting serious about English teaching (e.g. only importing teachers who have a recognized licence back in their home country), nothing will change. Also, the pay needs to change. Expecting someone to live happily on 240,000yen per month before taxes is ridiculous.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

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