In Japan, studying English is, and has long been, a perpetual mission for many people, and there is no shortage of books, DVDs and schools touting newer, better, quicker and easier ways to master the global language.
Takehiko Kikuchi, a 52-year-old English teacher who occasionally pops up on TV variety shows as a sort of nerdy — but earnest — English expert, has carved out a niche in this crowded industry with a new English-learning method referred to as hikikomori ryugaku (studying English while leading a reclusive life).
The odd term, which Kikuchi says was coined by his managers, not him, means that it’s not necessary to travel to distant time zones or to have a particularly outgoing personality to attain communicative levels of English.
In fact, Kikuchi’s biggest selling point is that, despite having never traveled overseas, he has not once — but 27 times — scored the maximum of 990 points in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), an international English test for non-native speakers.
He also makes a point of telling anyone who might be feeling a bit guilty because they hadn’t started learning English sooner, that it’s never too late to learn a new language: Kikuchi himself didn’t start studying English seriously until he was 34.
“Age doesn’t matter,” Kikuchi, looking smart in a striped shirt, said during a recent interview in Tokyo. “Whether you are 13, 31, 51 or 91, the moment you find it enjoyable, it’s the right time for you.”
But asking Kikuchi how he got into all this opens the floodgates on a life story that makes clear how unique and special he’s been in many ways from early on.
Kikuchi made a decision few of his peers would have made after he entered high school in his native Aomori City, when he chose to stay on there and live in a boarding house even though the rest of his family moved to Kyushu because of his father’s job.
Back then, as he found it too bothersome to bathe and change daily, the young Kikuchi decided to see how long he could go without taking shower or changing his underwear. He managed to not shower for three months and didn’t change his underwear for a month — a record later beaten by his mate in the same lodgings, he says with a grin.
But it wasn’t until he went to the prestigious Hokkaido University in Sapporo that Kikuchi discovered his linguistic genius — though not in English. Majoring in Russian history there, he says he was fascinated by the grammatical complexity and regularity of the Russian language.
“In Russian, as an adjective is declined it changes into 24 different forms,” he explains with excitement. He studied the language so passionately that he says his speaking ability in Russian back then surpassed his English-speaking ability now.
After he graduated, he got a job as a salesman for a company that markets books and other academic materials in English. He says that the job did not suit him, but because he couldn’t come up with anything better to do, he stuck with the company for about 12 years.
However, the job progressively took a mounting toll on him. He says he became mentally and physically exhausted from constantly failing to meet the sales targets, and he started feeling guilty for co-workers who had to work more to make up for his dismal performance.
Finally, at the age of 34, he called it quits and withdrew to his six-tatami (about 10-sq.-meter) rented apartment with a broken bath in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, where he was last based for work.
For a year, Kikuchi says he just watched TV, notably the long-running daytime talk show “Waratte Iitomo” (“You Can Have a Laugh”), featuring a veteran small-screen personality named Tamori. Then, just around the time the boredom of doing nothing but channel-surfing was becoming unbearable, he came across something that changed his life: an English conversation book.
Though the slim volume he’d stumbled across at a bookstore was an entry-level textbook covering very basic phrases, it was enough to get him excited. When he was finished with that book — after just three days — he says he then set himself a bigger challenge: reading international magazines such as Time and Newsweek. That was when he realized he didn’t know almost half the words he found in those journals.
Jobless and friendless at that point, Kikuchi says he started spending up to 12 hours tackling the magazines, using a secondhand pocket-size English-Japanese dictionary he’d bought for ¥500. Back then, Kikuchi says, he seldom left his tiny apartment and often didn’t even get up. Instead, he’d just lie around on his futon, which he never put away, and read the magazines there.
At first, he says, he had to look up 50 English words or so per page, and would often come across ones not listed in his pocket-size dictionary. He didn’t have money to buy a bigger dictionary, so he would sometimes go to a Kinokuniya bookstore, where — overcoming his feelings of shame and guilt for “knowledge shoplifting” — he would leaf through a hefty English-Japanese dictionary containing 260,000 words to look up all the words whose meanings he was craving to learn.
Looking back now, Kikuchi believes that those covert checks actually helped him memorize the words quickly.
“Take the word ‘hypothalamus,’ for example,”‘ he said, suddenly dialling up his memory of looking that word up at the bookstore. “You wouldn’t be able to memorize a word like that at home even if you had a dictionary and looked it up 100 or 200 times. But when you are in a bookstore, feeling guilty and imagining the store clerks might be thinking, ‘Oh no, that middle-age guy is back again!’ you can memorize it the moment you find it in the dictionary.”
During that period of his life, as he continued his English study in near seclusion from the rest of society, Kikuchi says his reading speed picked up tremendously. In fact, he was able to read a page in Newsweek in 10 minutes — and as his skill improved dramatically, he could sometimes read an entire magazine and know every word in it.
Eventually, though, Kikuchi’s savings were almost gone and his seven-year stretch as a hikikomori (recluse) came to an end when he moved back in with his parents, who were then living in Tokyo.
It wasn’t long after that, in September 2001, that he took his first TOEIC test. Though he says he didn’t prepare much for it, he still scored an impressive 970 points — only 20 less than the maximum possible.
Kikuchi says he “couldn’t believe” how easy the test was — consisting as it does of just reading and listening questions. He has since taken TOEIC tests more than 50 times — without ever scoring less than that first 970 — and he says he “wondered at first if the test operators made it easier just for me.”
But why take the test more than 50 times? Isn’t having one full score good enough?
With consummate modesty, Kikuchi says that the TOEIC scores are the only “weapon” that sets him apart from the myriad “elite” English-language teachers in Japan.
“Compared with those professionals who studied English at Sophia (University in Tokyo) or Todai (the University of Tokyo) and went on to New York or London to study further in their 20s, I have nothing to boast about apart from this,” says Kikuchi.
Although he says he admires such elite learners, Kikuchi concedes that he doesn’t have enough “administrative skill” to arrange a trip overseas. “I have never been abroad, let alone studied abroad. So to keep my resume from being rejected at the first stage of job screenings, I could only rely on my TOEIC scores.”
But this super-student the media likes to dub as the “English Monster” says he now realizes that having no overseas experience is a tremendous impediment to his teaching career — no matter how many times he gets full marks in TOEIC tests.
However, he believes he has other qualities that many late, struggling learners of English can perhaps relate to. As such, he tells how when he taught a group of company workers in Tokyo, he met a man in his 50s who, “with an embarrassed look on his face,” said: “You think it’s pointless to learn English at my age, right?”
Kikuchi says he replied, “No, no, you should be happy about being interested now.”
Then he added: “I admire those who went to Sophia or Todai and studied abroad in their youth, and I sometimes wish I were like them. But my words can carry a lot of weight for people like that man, as I myself was a complete amateur (in English learning) until the age of 34.”
Takehiko Kikuchi’s latest book, “Ingurisshu Monsuta no Shin TOEIC Tesuto Saikyo Benkyo Ho” (“The English Monster’s Most Powerful Method to Study for the New TOEIC Test”), was published by Earth Star Entertainment last month, priced at ¥1,260.