Mindset trumps English ability

In his Sept. 23 article, “The communication skills for vying in the world,” Sadaaki Numata expressed concern about Japan’s ability to hold its own in international forums and negotiations.

I believe he identified the problem incorrectly. His focus on language study and language proficiency is too narrow. He mentions entrance-examination hell as the reason Japanese students hate English grammar and vocabulary.

The Japanese have a perfectly good language of their own. It’s beautiful, expressive, with a rich literary tradition, and it’s wonderfully adaptive. Japanese students have good reasons to resist learning dry facts about English. But English, as it happens, is the language that has the greatest access to what Numata calls the “global mindset.” How this came about is a story that need not be recounted here except to say that the English were energetic colonizers and their writers (Shakespeare, Keats, Donne, Pope, etc.) created a legacy that endures to this day. Then came the Americans who, after World War II, effectively captured the world’s imagination with their uniquely entertaining popular culture: Hollywood movies, hard-boiled mysteries, blockbuster best-sellers, television sit-coms, and “music, music, music.”

Today’s global mindset is not Kenichi Ohmae’s “Beyond National Borders.” The global mindset is a mental construct; it can be altered at the speed of the Internet, instantaneously. We have no way of predicting how it will evolve or what its next mutation might be.

Japanese officialdom needs to gain confidence in dealing with the global mindset, which values both sushi and burgers, manga and “The Matrix,” Harry Potter and Ponyo. Our global culture confuses and dismays us as much as it provides delight and mental sustenance. It is not prescripted; much of it is spontaneous. Conventional wisdom often is just the mental flavor of the month.

The highly credentialed men and woman who discuss and negotiate on Japan’s behalf on the international stage will have to be confident in this culture of spontaneity and continual mythologizing. Of course, they will need English-language skills. More important, they must think, feel and act in the new way. They must be reflective and performance-oriented at the same time.

Numata says that his country does not need to raise the English-language proficiency of the “average Japanese.” But in a democratic society, isn’t it precisely the nonelite segments that should receive the greatest attention? He proposes that “immediate priority” be placed on “those at the forefront of interaction with the outside world, such as politicians, senior officials, international businessmen, journalists, university professors and researchers.”

Instead of singling out members of government, business and academe for special training in English, it might be strategically advantageous to make the global mindset a prerequisite for promotion in Japan’s future meritocracy.

More than English proficiency, Japanese officials will have to know how their mindsets interact with the global mindset. They will have to be clear about what’s really in their country’s interest. They will have to learn to say no, call a spade a spade, and, when confronted with it, call out the “bullpucky.”

warren iwasa
honolulu

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.