Too many inward-looking students

The hope for Japan to internationalize appeared less likely than ever in a survey carried out in March by the Institute for a Global Society, a Tokyo-based cram school for elementary, junior high and high school students who seek to study abroad.

Of the students surveyed, 50 percent of high school students and 55 percent of university students said they felt, “It’s too late for me to become a globally active person even if I start receiving education now for dealing with a globalizing world.”

Those results are a discouraging indication of Japanese students’ current attitudes toward their future prospects and a lack of confidence in their language ability, not to mention toward the potential of education to open students’ minds to the world.

Their reluctance to strive for a position in a globalizing world is very disappointing; however, it is no surprise. Students pick the attitude up from their environment — from parents, teachers, media, and society.

The recent turn of Japanese students toward being more inward-looking, afraid to try new things, uneasy with communication, and nervous about English is not inevitable. The survey also found that 30 percent of university students and 40 percent of high school students said they did want to become an active person in a global society. They just do not know how to do it.

If the central government, businesses and educators, as well as parents, can lead students toward a more open frame of mind, junior high and high school students, as well as university students, are still flexible enough to change.

Parents have the primary responsibility for shaping their children’s attitudes from an early age. Twenty-four percent of parents, who were also surveyed, have given up on their children engaging in work activities overseas, but that leaves 76 percent who still have hope.

To help shift attitudes, the central government needs to spend more on programs that help students to internationalize. Facilitating study abroad, funding school study trips and setting up exchange programs online require both budget and organization. Those types of programs, as well as volunteer opportunities, are greatly needed for junior high and high school students.

Moving in a global direction would not mean canceling trips to Kyoto, but adding another aspect to what students learn.

Educators must establish the importance of knowing about the larger world from an early age. English classes, often by default, help engage students with topics outside of Japan. English textbooks regularly contain material that not only improves English skills but also fosters an understanding of the larger world.

But all too often, the pressure to pass the increased number of English components on entrance exams steers classes toward testable, not communicative, English. Other classes need global components, too.

The education ministry has made tentative steps toward globalizing university campuses, but much remains to be done. Some schools have established global-oriented institutions inside their campuses or exchange programs that introduce international elements into the curriculum.

However, those programs and institutions need consistent development and expansion if Japanese universities are going to ever start appearing on the lists of top schools in the world. A few universities are already requiring all their students to study abroad at some point during their four years. From an educational point of view, Japan is only just beginning to globalize.

Unfortunately, even when the curriculum is globalized and when broadening experiences like study abroad are undertaken, the teaching methods at most universities, as well as secondary schools, remain mired in one-way, teacher-centered approaches that do not help students acquire confidence, communication skills or a broader understanding that they need for engaging in international situations.

Confidence, communication and understanding are all attitudes that can be learned, and should be.

Businesses bear a huge responsibility to help in shifting attitudes, too. More businesses of all kinds need to hire students with an international mind-set and high linguistic abilities. Some businesses may classify themselves as noninternational, and surely some are; however, retreating into strategies that fall back on inward-looking positions will not set the next stage for opening to the world.

Recently, too few companies have wanted to hire genuinely global-minded employees. That should change.

Ironically, the nation’s cram schools now have an opening to help create global-minded citizens. Already, many cram schools have built up a study curriculum to help students get into schools overseas after improving their English, developing a global mind-set and learning more about the world outside Japan.

Those cram schools, such as the one conducting the survey mentioned, are surely well-intentioned. However, cram schools cannot change a broader section of Japanese young people. They can only influence those students who can afford cram school fees.

Only by concerted effort from all the institutions and adults who have contact with young people will any change start to take place. Young people’s attitudes need to be reoriented toward the reality that Japanese society needs a broader base of global-minded people who can play an active role in international society.

  • kyushuphil

    Write more.

    Beginning in high school, if students learn to express things in writing, they will be replacing the passivity-&-cram regime that’s already reigned too long.

    If students learn most basic writing skills — first to narrate in chronological order, to summarize a plot, to describe characters in books, films, or real life — they will be beginning to establish their own voices. From there, additional rhetorical arts can let them better see other voices around them. Life will open up — or will “be born” as Natsume Sōseki famously put it in opening his great novel, “Kusamakura.”

    It could be an exciting time coming in Japanese ed.

    • Ben Snyder

      I certainly concur with the “write more” sentiment. As written, this editorial could have been published essentially verbatim any time within the last 15 years, even 20 with a little massaging. For anyone needing a historical primer on the stagnation of Japanese education this is still fairly vague, and this level of analysis doesn’t bring anything new to the table, so it’s hard to tell what audience this is intended for.

  • gatesballs

    That’s probably a better number than most countries… other than the US that suffers from terminal hubris.

  • jr_hkkdo

    I think this survey is useful, but incomplete. For instance, how do the survey statistics compare with young people of other countries. My instinct tells me that many other countries would have similar or even lower statistics. I am from the US and I think this survey’s statistics are quite good. Don’t look at how many students are negative, look at how many are POSITIVE! That is a large number also. Not everyone can or wants to study abroad. It is expensive and would only appeal to more intelligent students, I think. Not everyone is of higher intelligence.

    It is good that Japan is interested in this topic and wants to make improvements, but don’t be too discouraged. Continue to make improvements, aggressively. And remind yourselves that there is still a LARGE number of students who are interested and willing to seize opportunities in world globalization.

  • Nancy Snow

    I taught at a Japanese university as a Fulbright professor in 2012. The problem was not written communication in English, but verbal. The Japanese students I encountered had competence to excellence in English writing skills but trying to get one or two to answer a question I posed verbally was futile. Of course I know that some of this was cultural. I have also discovered that the way most Japanese students learn English is through a strong emphasis on English grammar and writing. No wonder many don’t find the study of English very entertaining or worth their while. They should be conversing with each other in English. Japan will never help fully globalize unless oral communication skills are utilized in the K-12 school years. Globalization is all about face-to-face interaction and the ability to communicate in conversation. Written English is actually secondary to success in international business and intercultural communication. Even the Internet, which is a majority English environment, emphasizes a lot more interaction and conversation through social media technologies. I love Japan and hope that the efforts to globalize will be successful. Dr. Nancy Snow

    • Ron NJ

      It all comes back to “the test” – if they focus on speaking then they’re going to have to neglect one of the aspects of the language they actually ARE tested on (or give up even more of the scant few hours of sleep they get). Considering that so few students will ever actually make serious use of English anyways – lamentable though that is – it makes sense that their speaking would suffer.
      As usual it all comes back to the myriad entrance exams that test on all the wrong things.

      • Nancy Snow

        That’s a very good point, Ron. I’m no expert on this matter but just wanted to offer up my suggestion for more conversation based on my experience in the classroom. Thanks for reminding me about those entrance exams that test their writing skills.

    • Roan Suda

      With all due respect to Dr. Snow, I cannot help wondering in which Japan and in which parallel universe she was a Fulbright teacher. Having spent some 35 years teaching at the university level in the only Japan I know, I can testify that Japanese writing skills, in both Japanese and foreign languages, including English, are abysmal. She is, alas, perpetuating a longstanding myth that Japanese students have mastered English grammar and vocabulary and only need to loosen up and talk. That is simply untrue…How many of her compatriots who have grown up more or less monolingual and learned a foreign language only in school have “excellent” skills in it, esp. in one quite different from their native tongue? It is utterly unrealistic to think that with a little fun-filled eikaiwa Japanese kids will do any better, even if one assumes the neo-colonialist mentality that hides behind so much of the “globalist” talk.

      • Nancy Snow

        Hi Roan. My teaching experience at Sophia University did not match your experience. I’m not an English teacher but a political communications specialist who was asked to teach students in English who were taking courses in American foreign policy and American culture. I don’t have the 35 years of teaching at the university level, but I do have over 20 years of both undergraduate and graduate teaching at the university level. I’m not at the level of your Japan expertise but I’m not trying to be. I’m just sharing my observation with you that the English writing at Sophia University in my two classes was very good. I am not perpetuating any myths. Don’t be so defensive. I made an observation that Japanese students should emphasize more English conversation while they study English in the lower grades of high school and junior high school. The reference to a neocolonialist mentality doesn’t apply here, if what you are implying is that I’m a neocolonialist academic promoting cultural imperialism or unfettered, exploitative capitalist globalization. That’s poppycock.