E is for English (Part Two)

So a long time ago, when even smartphones were in black and white, I talked a bit about the problems with English Education in Japan. You can find that post here. In today’s post, we’ll look at Japan’s relationship with English as a whole, not just the education system.

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs that this economic powerhouse full of creative and intelligent people is one of the weakest countries for English proficiency in Asia. And while that may sound a little bit self-important and preachy when a native English speaker says it, there is no doubting that English is the language of the world. Having lived in a non-English speaking country for a few years now, I’m still amazed at how much English there is here. And make no mistake: it’s not like Japan at large is strong-armed into using English. Take a walk around any Japanese shopping mall and see the ratio of Japanese fashion using English printed onto fabric against any other language (including English). Japan actively wants to use English.

So what’s the problem? It’s a question that’s confounded a lot of experts in the field, one that doesn’t have a single direct answer but is more like an interconnecting web of wide-reaching problems, like a game of Spelunk. I’ll try to summarize it in two broad categories: Attitude and Approach.


Japanese students do not learn English in the same way you or I learned a foreign language when we were at school. For one thing, the sheer mass of English media in Japan is vast: movies show subtitled versions alongside the dubbed version; commercials use music in English; and brands and signage use English alongside the Japanese itself, or sometimes alone. It blows my mind when I’m watching a TV show that for a third of the time uses English in some way. I can’t even imagine a ten seconds of French on British TV, and I’m including baking shows in that estimate.

First we will add the pomme de terres to the croque madame, en flambe, and then cordon bleu c’est la vie.

With that, you’d think Japanese students with be at an enormous advantage with all of the English around. And it would be, were it not for the manner in which the English is used. You see, most of the casual English around Japan isn’t really used as a true language, but as decoration. You know how we sometimes use French in English to give it a certain je ne sais quoi? Imagine that on a much bigger level. Due to all of the movies, music and exciting world events involving English, using English on T-shirts and posters gives it a sense of excitement, drama and emphasis. It’s not really there to communicate anything beyond a ‘feel’. It’s the reason why many band names in Japan are in English, except they are nonsensical names like ‘Flumpool’ and ‘Machine Gun Elephant’.

Because of this attitude to English as being decorative and exciting, this puts it firmly opposite the Japanese language, which is supposed to be the genteel and ‘serious’ language. The culture ties itself very firmly to the language in that regard, so there is something very un-Japanese about English. Go to Tokyo Disney Resort, and you’ll see that the dominant language is English, with Japanese in the footnotes. Why? Because Disney Resort is not Japan, and to use Japanese overtly would break that illusion.

So when it comes to Japanese folk who can actually speak decent English, don’t be surprised if they are little bit embarrassed about it. A high skill in English may be viewed with a surface level of admiration, but beneath the veneer there is a lingering suspicion of such people, as though they are the harbingers of change who will disturb the 1000 years of uninterrupted ‘wa’.

Especially disrupting the ‘Zen’, that most Japanese of things. Wait…


Now, as I said earlier, Japan is a country that has a good haul of creative and intelligent folk in its midst, so even if the things mentioned in attitude are at play, they’re likely just subconscious, and when the time comes to really speak English proper (either as a student or as a learned adult) they will stand up, open their mouths, and…immediately give up.

You see, when it comes to language the Japanese are hardwired to be perfectionists. When you get a moment, do an image search for ‘kanji stroke order’. See that very particular method for writing a kanji? You can’t deviate from that. At all. Should a Japanese person spot you write a kanji that looks right but you do the strokes in a different order, they won’t say “gee, that’s an interesting way of writing that,” or even, “You wrote that kanji wrong.” They will just flat out not recognise the kanji. If you wrote it wrong, it is null and void. Speaking is likewise demanding of perfection. Watch a TV variety show and you’ll notice that half of the comedy comes from people speaking Japanese in wacky (ie. wrong) ways.

This approach of perfection to language means that would-be Japanese speakers of English are doomed from the start. Speaking and learning a foreign language is by nature trial and error, and English is notoriously irregular and full of shortcuts and multiple ways of saying the same thing. And yet within Japan there still seems to be this insistence that there could only ever be one correct way to say something, with absolutely no flexibility. The correct way to answer “How are you?” is “I’m fine thank you and you?” how could it possibly be anything else?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Japanese person who is trying to speak to you didn’t even have a supportive English curriculum. He or she ran the gauntlet of overstuffed lists of obscure words for rote memorisation intense scrutiny of minor grammar. They will dig into this vast, dust-filled archive of words and sentence structures to try and recall what that perfect response to “where is the nearest ATM?” is.


Which is, of course, impossible. And the Japanese person would rather say nothing than simply ‘have a go’, because that would risk making mistakes. And so they will agonize over saying things right rather than saying things imperfectly while being comprehensible. The number of times that I have told students that it’s OK to make mistakes, that if you’re stuck then you can skip grammar and just string together the nouns and verbs to get the main point across, is utterly lost on them because there are so many other voices in society that demand they do things right.

If Japan really, truly wants to bolster its English program, it needs to look at not just the content but also the social context in which English is used and applied. Asking the country as a whole to suspend their own social and cultural mores when it comes to English is impossible, but I honestly think that if these problems with attitude and approach outlined here are laid out frankly before the people, it’s the first step. After all, the first step to improving is to face the problems head on.



  1. This really highlights many of the problems that Japanese people have with English, but these same problems can also be attributed to other Asian countries with a strong history of holding onto traditions, and not wanting to let go.

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