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TOEIC no turkey at 30

Once-struggling test flying high in Japan as corporate partners take on larger role

by James Mccrostie

The Test of English for International Communication turns 30 this year. In three decades it has risen from humble beginnings to become one of the best-known tests in Japan. In December 1979, 3,000 people sat the first TOEIC. In 2008, people in Japan took it 1.7 million times. Many were repeat customers; about one-third of Japanese examinees have taken the test three or more times.

In a 1999 newsletter, the Institute for International Business Communication (IIBC), the nonprofit public-interest corporation in charge of administering the TOEIC in Japan, attributed the test’s birth and growth to the sweeping impersonal forces of history, including rises in the yen’s strength, the price of oil, Japan’s economic power, and communicative language teaching methods. This official history ignores the actions of individuals who made history by getting the test off the ground.

IIBC’s public relations department manager, Atsuko Yoshida, says that a man named Yasuo Kitaoka deserves most of the credit. “Mr. Kitaoka was the idea man. He gave birth to the concept of TOEIC.”

Having worked 20 years for Time magazine, Kitaoka had firsthand knowledge of the troubles many Japanese experience when communicating in English. After retiring, he started a firm called International Communications Inc. He also wanted to reform English education in Japan and believed a new exam would get Japanese speaking English.

Another key figure was a university professor and former colleague of Kitaoka’s named Yukio Saegusa. “They were both interested in English education, and they wanted to create some textbooks together,” explains Yoshida. “So from the beginning Mr. Saegusa was playing a major role in cooperating with Mr. Kitaoka to realize Mr. Kitaoka’s dream.” When Kitaoka focused on creating an English test, Saegusa recommended working with the U.S. nonprofit Educational Testing Service.

In the 1970s, Kitaoka began negotiating with ETS to create a new test of English communication for use in Japan. ETS responded that they required a nonprofit organization to work with as their partner.

Kitaoka tried to enlist the help of the Ministry of Education, but their bureaucrats actively obstructed his efforts. They didn’t see the need for a new test to compete with the STEP Eiken, an English test already backed by the ministry.

To overcome this opposition, Kitaoka received help from a friend named Yaeji Watanabe. Watanabe’s influence as a retired high-ranking bureaucrat from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (renamed the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, or METI) proved crucial to TOEIC’s establishment.

Watanabe had remained in contact with his old ministry while working on the board of directors for the World Economic Information Services (WEIS) and as chairman of the Japan-China Economic Association, both public-interest corporations operating under MITI. Watanabe declined an interview request, but his memoirs describe how he overcame Ministry of Education opposition to the TOEIC by taking cover “behind the ministry of trade shield.”

Watanabe convinced his old ministry it should play the lead role in establishing a new English test, and formed a TOEIC Steering Committee under the WEIS umbrella. Members of the committee included other retired MITI bureaucrats and influential business leaders.

Government support secured, ETS began developing the test in 1977. In 1979, English learners in Japan filled in the first of many TOEIC multiple-choice answer forms.

Initially the new test attracted fewer than the expected number of people, resulting in serious financial straits for the TOEIC Steering Committee. Watanabe’s memoirs describe a situation so dire that he repeatedly prayed to God for help. Watanabe’s prayers were answered with the introduction of a second version of the TOEIC in 1981.

This new TOEIC Institutional Program (IP) test could be offered at a company’s convenience for a slightly cheaper price, unlike the TOEIC Secure Program (SP) test, which is offered only at fixed times of the year in official test centers. The year after its introduction, the TOEIC IP surpassed the SP in terms of the number of test-takers and has remained the more popular of the two ever since.

The TOEIC IP proved such a hit that in 1983 the IIBC gave the company International Communications School the contract to sell the test to new customers.

“International Communications School was established purely for the purpose of promoting TOEIC business,” says Yoshida, who declined to speculate on why the nonprofit TOEIC Steering Committee needed a for-profit partner.

In 1986, the annual number of test takers in Japan broke the 100,000 mark and Watanabe became chairman of the newly formed IIBC. Created under MITI authority, the IIBC took over responsibility for administering TOEIC in Japan. Today, 92 years young, Watanabe continues as chairman.

Yoshida denies that Watanabe holds an amakudari position with the IIBC. Literally meaning “descent from heaven,” amakudari refers to the practice of providing bureaucrats with jobs at organizations or firms operating in areas they supervised before retiring from the civil service. “He’s not an amakudari,” Yoshida says. “Yes, he used to be MITI staff, but it was a very long time ago.”

Susan Carpenter, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Business School and author of a book on amakudari called “Why Japan Can’t Reform: Inside the System,” disagrees that amakudari has a statute of limitations. “I would consider that amakudari. It’s amakudari because he’s using these postretirement positions for a salary,” says Carpenter.

Yoshida also rejects any suggestion that Watanabe became involved in the TOEIC for anything other than altruistic reasons. She says Kitaoka “mentioned just a little bit about the concept of the proficiency test of English to him and Mr. Watanabe said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea, and by the way, I used to work for the Ministry of Industry and Trade. I may be able to help you.’ That is how the connection between Mr. Kitaoka and Mr. Watanabe started. So it’s not like he was trying to benefit from the test by creating a test that’s controlled under the ministry of trade per se.”

Kitaoka’s efforts didn’t go uncompensated. He became IIBC vice-chair, and his firm, International Communications Inc., won contracts to administer the test’s Japanese fan club, publish its magazine, and establish an online application system for the TOEIC. Kitaoka died in 1997 and, according to Yoshida, International Communications Inc. “had to close after Mr. Kitaoka passed away.” Archived company Web pages, however, show International Communications Inc. operated until 2003. It then changed its name to T.F. Communications, which closed in 2004.

While originally demanding to work with nonprofit partners when creating the TOEIC, ETS underwent a volte-face. From 1994 until 1999, International Communications Inc. subsidiaries worked to expand the TOEIC in North America.

For-profit companies now administer the test in many of the countries where it is offered. ETS licenses the right to use the TOEIC to all its vendors, including the IIBC, in exchange for a per-test royalty fee.

In 1999, ETS went a step further and transferred TOEIC control to its own for-profit subsidiary. From 1999 to 2004 a company called The Chauncey Group International oversaw the test.

According to an ETS report on its future as a nonprofit, it handed TOEIC operations over to Chauncey in order to continue generating revenue from the test without threatening its tax-exempt status. ETS had decided that the TOEIC fell outside its U.S.- based educational mission. Thus the growth of the TOEIC in Japan and Korea meant the test was making too much money.

ETS representatives failed to respond to repeated interview requests to comment on the test’s history.

A complex series of mergers and acquisitions involving The Chauncey Group and other for-profit testing companies brought the TOEIC back under direct ETS control in 2004. ETS remains a nonprofit but having grown into a more than $1 billion dollar a year organization means the percentage of total ETS revenue generated by the TOEIC is no longer high enough to threaten ETS’ tax-exempt status.

Today, people in more than 90 countries take the TOEIC about 5 million times a year. South Korea is the only other country sharing Japan’s enthusiasm for the test. About 80 percent of TOEIC test-takers live in Japan or South Korea. Elsewhere it remains largely unknown. For example, a recent survey showed that the TOEIC was the least known test of English proficiency in Germany, with only 2.8 percent of schoolteachers having even heard of it.

Yoshida was unable to speculate on TOEIC’s future in Japan, but the IIBC chairman’s blog provides a clue. Watanabe believes that every junior and senior high school should adopt the test for the good of the nation, writing, “Just imagine what it would be like if TOEIC spread to junior high and high schools all over Japan. The results would astonish people around the world. Japan would rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and Japanese women and men would begin to play more important roles on the international stage.”

Next week: Where does all the money go? Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp