Yuki Wachi and her husband cannot speak English, but they send their five-year-old daughter Tamami to a preschool where English is the primary language of instruction. Once Tamami finishes kindergarten and enters the Japanese public school system, Wachi and her husband will commit an additional ¥100,000 per month to after school English lessons for their daughter.
“The ability to communicate in English is more important these days,” says Wachi. “We don’t want our daughter to miss out on her future just because she can’t speak English.”
The Wachis’ focus on English reflects Japan’s growing concern about its population’s ability — or lack thereof — to communicate in a language widely regarded as the international business world’s lingua franca. The Shinzo Abe government announced in 2013 a major educational reform program aimed at improving the English proficiency of Japanese students by 2020, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. Japanese companies — such as Nissan, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo) and Rakuten — are investing millions to teach their employees English — and making proficiency a term of employment. International schools, such as Tamami’s preschool, are also in high demand by parents who believe that learning English is the key to ensuring their children are successful in the global economy.
“Without English, it’s very difficult to compete on a global level,” said Hiroshi Mikitani, co-founder and CEO of Rakuten, during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in 2012. Mikitani, who coined the term “Englishisation” when he ordered his firm to adopt English as its company language, added, “Lack of English communication skills really prevented us [Japan] from being a global leader, so we really need to wake up and open our eyes.”
It is not for lack of trying that even white-collar workers in Japan struggle with English. The language has preoccupied Japan almost ever since it first opened its doors to the United States a century and a half ago.
Shigeki Takeo, dean of Meiji Gakuin University’s Faculty of International Studies, traces Japan’s difficulty with English to after the Meiji Restoration of the late-19th century, when the Japanese were able to adopt Western culture while maintaining their native language. Because the Japanese no longer need an adequate command of English to appreciate a Hollywood film or purchase a McDonald’s burger — effectively domesticating Western culture — they “cannot easily acquire the motivation to learn English,” says Takeo.
As a result, Japanese students tend to score comparatively low on English-language tests. According to an official summary of scores on TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in 2009, out of 30 Asian countries Japan (67) ranked second from the bottom in mean score, behind China (76), North Korea (75) and South Korea (81).
Even as Japan’s quarter-century economic recession has hastened a tide of xenophobic nationalism — spurred by fears that neighbouring rivals, China and South Korea, are surpassing it — Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has tried three times in the past 15 years to revise its English-language curriculum for the elementary through high school levels.
MEXT’s most recent attempt centres on three fundamental changes to the existing curriculum, said Takashi Katsuragi, who began working on the government’s education reform program in 2014.
First, elementary school students will be introduced to English earlier, in the third grade instead of the fifth grade. Second, students from the fifth grade onward will be subjected to frequent evaluations based on a combination of objective and subjective criteria, such as scores on EIKEN (Test in Practical English Proficiency) and GTEC (Global Test of English Communication), as well as teacher assessments of students. And third, middle and high school students will be expected to practice using English in “simple information exchanges” and “high-level linguistic activities [presentations, debates, negotiations]” designed for them to achieve fluency by the time of graduation.
The learning experience, often a tedious process, must be interactive and enjoyable for any subject — whether mathematics, science, history or English — to be comprehensible, according to Saburo Kagei, headmaster of St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo.
“Learning is a whole lot easier when it’s fun,” says Kagei. “Many teachers will call it the hook, and you’ve got to have a hook if you want to lure in your students.”
Japan’s attempts to improve its people’s understanding of English extend far beyond the country’s public sector; the private sector is also making efforts, albeit with mixed results. Rakuten may be the most well-known example. But Nissan, owing to its 15-year alliance with the French car manufacturer Renault, has long demanded of its senior employees a fixed level of English proficiency, too.
“We want to continue raising the average TOEIC [Test of English for International Communication] score of our Japanese employees from 600 — where it is now — to 700, 750, and finally 800, which we feel is a good enough score to work in Nissan’s global business,” says Hirokazu Takebata, a manager in the automobile giant’s human resources division. To this end, Nissan offers employees who are underperforming on TOEIC a variety of English-language training courses and specialised seminars on cultural diversity.
MEXT, like Nissan, has made the promotion of cultural exchange a priority in its efforts to prevent Japan from lagging behind in today’s globalised world.
“One of the main reasons to study English is to explain and exchange ideas,” adds Katsuragi. “If Japanese people can speak English more fluently, they will have more opportunities for work abroad.”
Takebata is of the same mind.
“Before entering Nissan, Japanese workers should have a lot of cross-cultural experience using English,” he says “Cross-cultural — or cross-company —business will be expanding in the future so … our employees will need to be comfortable communicating with people from other parts of the world.”© Japan Today