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Singer-songwriter teaches Japanese kids the fun of learning English

31 Comments
By Chris Betros

Anyone with young children trying to learn English will no doubt be familiar with the face and voice of Eric Jacobsen, a singer-songwriter who has appeared on NHK Channel 3’s morning program “Eigo de Asobo” for the past 11 years. Jacobsen’s theme song “What Do You Like to Do?” has become so well known among the viewing public that children often break into a rendition of the song when they see him.

Born in New York, Jacobsen, 45, says he was always into music. “We had a lot of folk music experience in our house. I got my first guitar when I was 8.” He first came to Japan in 1981 as an exchange student in Yamanashi Prefecture. “I didn’t know anything about Japan. For the first three months, I couldn’t talk to anybody, so I started writing songs. I didn’t think about a musical career in Japan.”

He returned to the U.S. and, after majoring in Japanese language and literature at the University of Colorado, he came back to Japan in 1986 and stayed for about 3 years. “I taught English for a year, then just played music by myself and in two bands. Most of my income came from street music. I usually played in Shinjuku outside the east exit from 10 at night to 1 or 2 in the morning.”

By the early 1990s, Jacobsen was working with production companies making content for NHK before landing the job on NHK (he started off as the voice of a stuffed animal). “Eigo de Asobo” -- aimed at kids 2-5 -- is on weekdays from 7:50 a.m. and again in the afternoons from 5:10. “I have a corner in which I go out to a park or other interesting place with kids, and we play together and sing songs. The whole idea is to make up a song about whatever we happen to be doing on the spot and sing it in English together.”

Jacobsen has become so popular that he is in demand to perform in public halls, schools and kindergartens, playing for anywhere between 300 and 1,200 fans. Many of the songs are original ones he created for the mobile English lesson site Native Eigojuku (www.eigojuku.jp). “If I have a thought, it will usually come out rhythmically,” he says of his style. “I compose songs that people can relate to in everyday life.”

Last year, Jacobsen formed a band, E-JAM. “We play about once a month. The concerts are like kids’ rock shows with an English education slant. We just made a CD which is available only at live events. However, we’re talking with record labels about releasing it for general sale and we are also shooting for a tour.”

In addition to his NHK and E-JAM activities, Jacobsen keeps busy producing music and content for TV shows, commercials and educational materials. He also performs with his “adult” band at clubs in Tokyo. “I work some pretty long days,” he says. “I get up early to see my kids off for school, then often go back to sleep. I have a studio at home, so I get a lot of work done late at night.” Over the years, Jacobsen says he has accumulated about 12 guitars as well as mandolins and banjos, making for a very musical household.

When he is not working, Jacobsen likes to ride his bicycle around Tokyo, but no longer plays his guitar in the park as much as he used to. “If I do that now, one or two kids will recognize me, and then more will come. I love playing for kids, but it can get out of hand.”

E-JAM will perform in the Harajuku-Omotesando Halloween festivities at Quest hall on Oct 26 at 11:45 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 5 p.m. The band will also give two Christmas concerts at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay hotel on Dec 21. For further information on Eric and E-JAM, visit www.e-jam.jp.

© Japan Today

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31 Comments
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Great profile and fascinating story. More like these please, JT.

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My kids love him.

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How many variants of 'Old McDonald had a farm' can you sing, which is what all his songs sound like? The guy is musically totally talent less.

Like most NHK programs concerned with teaching or presenting English to their viewers, the hidden agenda is puzzle them with quotations that bear no resemblance to reality or graded structure.

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He makes them up as he goes along?

Thank god for that! I thought he had lots of time to "improve" them and failed dismally!

Still, my 1 year old likes the show - along with all the others at that sort of time - so it's useful to keep him from grabbing my legs while I clear up after breakfast. Not much use for anything else though in my opinion, but then I don't need to learn English.

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Dogdog - take your hate and pack yourself up.

My daughter loved this guy when she was younger and was one of the reasons she likes to study music now. His efforts go way beyond just teaching little snippets of English to kids.

I'm just really, really jealous because he has more hair than me even though he is 3 years my senior and he plays guitar better than I can.

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I hate Eric and his stupid songs. If he could share his views/research as to why his songs are any better than other methods, I'm all ears.

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can you feeeel the loooooove tonight? leave him alone

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Good for him,but I have tried too many gimmicks to run into the usual brickwall that is English language in Japan.Kids do love singing in English,but whether that really helps them learn a language is arguable.They do have a lot of fun though and that is the key perhaps.

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Indeed so much hate. I have now come to the sad realization that this site is filled with people who love to hate, period, whether a country, nationality, or plain nice joes like Mr. Jacobsen, who has done nothing but bring joy to other cultures. I know he will read this so he can rest assured that these bitter souls do not speak for the majority of the people who are genuinely interested in Japanese culture and news who come to JT. I commend him for doing what he does and being very good at it, and teaching kids in a fun and enlightening way. Great for him.

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I've met Eric and he is a nice guy and is extremely popular with his viewers. I saw him once performing at a hall and he had the kids having a ball. Sure, to some adults, his antics on the NHK show might look silly, but kids love it and he brings them joy.

Readers like Dogdog have too much bile inside to appreciate talent.

Eric 1 Dogdog 0

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I have not seen any of his shows but I think it is a great tool for learning a foreign language. I wish there was similar show for English speaking kids who are studying Japanese.

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This guy makes Mr Rogers exciting.

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I take that back and I tell this guy, "More power to you due! You've got your act together. You're the real Joe." My little boy can only catch a snippet of you on his way out to day care and he goes off like one little happy camper... appreciate it.

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As popular as this guy and his show are there is very little academic or language value to his program. Kids may be entertained, but they don't learn anything.

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So his lesson to us all. Give up your English teaching jobs and become a Shinjuku station street artist to really make something of your life.

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So his lesson to us all. Give up your English teaching jobs and become a Shinjuku station street artist to really make something of your life.

Or, framed another way: Work at what you love doing, and everything else will follow.

Kids may be entertained, but they don't learn anything.

I wouldn't be too sure about that. I recall listening to a really great album of French children's songs when I was a kid, and most of what smattering French I could muster through the years that followed owed a lot to those songs. Many decades later, I still remember some of them.

After I get to the fluency level I want with Japanese, French will be next.

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Like Smartacus, I have met Eric, and he performed for my daughters 5th birthday party a few years ago. Offering to pay him for his show he refused and instead accepted dinner for payment.

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I cant speak french but I can sing Frere Jaques and Sue le Pont D'Avignon. there must be something to it

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He seems like a decent fellow. I think his songs are lame and he can barely carry a tune but thats okay too. People are allowed to like and hate his guts. Quit trying to invalidate someone elses opinion just because its different from yours. If you like him, Say so! If you think he is a Tool, by all means say so! its an opinion board.

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Offering to pay him for his show he refused and instead accepted dinner for payment.

You've just made me a BIG fan of this guy!

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rjd - I take it you have frequently seen his shows on morning TV here in Japan? If not, you wouldn't understand why people hate him.

I very rarely yell expletives at the TV (most are saved for Pakkun or Suzanta) but he gets quite a few.

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I asked the guy who sold me my guitar where he learned English. He said "from the Beatles." Interesting response. I guess for some, music can really help make learning English more interesting. I`ve never heard this guy though...

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You know how they still publish the lyrics on the cover books for Japanese CDs - reading whilst listening, great way to learn Japanese/kanji. Although pity the lyrics are usually nothing special. So I can see why music might help. But I see him as more of a children's entertainer (Wiggles style) rather than an educator.

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soldave eric gets big raves in our house from the kids. maybe youre just not part of the target audience. turn it off if you dont like it. yelling at the tv. need to find a hobby, me thinks.

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I think his great!

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he's great even...!

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What ever happened to Sesame Street?

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And where do Japanese students continue to languish in the world of English language proficiency in Asia ? Yep... damn near at the bottom ! Still !

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GOOOOOOOOOOD Luck, Bcz. I never got one.

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Hey, if Sesame Street can do it....

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So many non jobs around.

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