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Early English education is the key to improving the overall English skills of Japanese.
Early English education is the key to improving the overall English skills of Japanese. | KYODO

English offers more opportunities on global stage


Special to the Japan Times

With English being a major international language today, English newspapers and language schools in Japan have provided content and education in an effort to help Japanese people be better prepared to participate in the global community.

Sayuri Daimon (left), executive officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, and Yoshikazu Miyake, president of Aeon Corp.
Sayuri Daimon (left), executive officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, and Yoshikazu Miyake, president of Aeon Corp. | HIROSHI MISHIMA

The Japan Times, the oldest English-language newspaper in the country, has released news and information on Japan since 1897.

English language school chain Aeon Corp. has been one of the largest private educational institutes of its kind for four decades, with current student enrollment standing at more than 75,000 in about 250 schools nationwide.

While the importance of English is increasing in this era of advanced globalization, newspapers and schools have been affected by social changes, including the rise of information technology.

Sharing the mission to deliver voices from Japan to the world, Yoshikazu Miyake, president of Aeon Corp., and Sayuri Daimon, executive officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, spoke about the future of the English-language media and education, where the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are rapidly developing. Excerpts of the dialogue follow.

Daimon (D): Starting as a paper for a small foreign community in Yokohama 120 years ago, The Japan Times now reaches people from all over the world, thanks to the internet. Rather than focusing on delivering news from Japan one way, we are working to provide a platform for interactive communication via the internet, where ever-changing social trends are immediately delivered worldwide.

Miyake (M): Since our inauguration in 1973, our main focus has been to help Japanese adults and children improve their conversational English ability to enable them to broaden their horizons. In January, we entered into an agreement with the Japan Rugby Football Union to support the national team members in language training. Most recently, we partnered with the city of Yokohama to better accommodate more visitors to Japan by training relevant business operators in the city.

D: It’s important to prepare for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Meanwhile, how are you responding to the new curriculum guidelines drafted by the education ministry?

M: Under the draft, exposure to English will start when students are in the third grade of elementary school and English as an official subject will start from the fifth grade. When students reach junior high school, English classes will be taught in English in principle. Language schools will lose their significance unless they provide English education with a clearer focus on learning and practice. Our new textbooks for elementary school students include many unfamiliar words so that students can break away from the idea that they must understand the whole text. Also, we provide them with opportunities to make presentations. It’s amazing to see young students speak in English without fear.

How do you see the impact of information technology on the media?

D: There is great potential in these technologies. Our recent example is that a video of kidnapped Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda posted on Facebook enabled a JT staff member to contact a Syrian journalist via Twitter with the help of English-Arabic machine translation. Inviting in an Arabic interpreter, we conducted a Skype interview with the Syrian man while taking notes in a shared Google document, which was simultaneously edited into an article. In this way, without sending a correspondent, we succeeded in communicating with a person on the other side of the world, even though we didn’t understand his language.

M: It really demonstrates the usefulness of technology. All we have to do is to make good use of it. There are also plenty of digital tools to learn English.

D: What do you think about the possibility of “AI teachers” at language schools?

M: On one hand, it will become possible to learn basic expressions and practice patterned phrases with AI teachers. On the other hand, flesh-and-blood teachers will be required to have more skills in expression and presentation.

D: One of the strengths of AI is its capacity for bulk data analysis, as seen in the fact that MogIA, developed by an Indian start-up, has taken 20 million data points from public platforms and social networking services and predicted the last four U.S. presidential elections.

M: That’s an advantage of AI. It might give students more objective advice based on massive collections of data, rather than relying on subjective human judgment. However, an essential part of counseling is to understand the feelings behind students’ words, something that largely depends on teachers’ experiences. I don’t think that level of understanding is possible for AI.

Sayuri Daimon (left), executive officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, and Yoshikazu Miyake, president of Aeon Corp.
Sayuri Daimon (left), executive officer and managing editor of The Japan Times, and Yoshikazu Miyake, president of Aeon Corp. | HIROSHI MISHIMA

D: The Associated Press has already been running financial reports written by AI “writers” since 2014. Initially, there was some anxiety about personnel cuts, but the reality was that the company assigned the redundant personnel to more investigative reporting. It’s good to use AI to allow human reporters to focus on more difficult work such as interviews with close-lipped people who would not easily share their thoughts. We should consider the division of roles between AI and humans, as I believe only humans can provide in-depth coverage.

M: And I think the depth of articles depends on the human capacity to hear and understand the true feelings of the people involved. Since nearly everything that happens in the world is related to people, there are wills and sentiments behind newsworthy events. In-depth stories are only possible through human interaction when people can be open and talk to each other.

D: Some say that the advances in machine translation using AI will make learning English unnecessary. What do you think?

M: For those who advocate this, it should be unnecessary to learn English right now even prior to improvements in AI translation. I admit the benefit of technological advancement, yet you can’t afford to use AI translation when you need to respond quickly and flexibly during discussions in English or in presentations with question and answer sessions. I believe that English-language ability will remain important in the future. So we continue to provide education focused on the four basic skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

D: The same argument is targeted at English-language newspapers, too. Although machine translation is practical, our writers always think about which term best fits in a certain context. It goes beyond simple translation.

M: Reading is very important to learning English, as reading is directly connected to thinking.

D: It’s not enough just to read through and feel like there’s understanding. You can’t write in your own words unless you have a viewpoint informed by what you read. Today, there is so much internet media and anyone can disseminate information to the world. We can’t help questioning ourselves anew what journalism is all about. We need to deliver articles based on firsthand information and investigation from the perspectives of skilled reporters and experienced editors. If our articles don’t provide readers with original viewpoints of Japan and the world, there is no point in reading The Japan Times. Readers also need to use their own judgment about reliable information from multiple sources.

M: And without having your own viewpoint, you can’t begin a conversation. In this sense, it’s important to read quality text whether in English or Japanese and think about the content.

D: With the further advancement of IoT and AI, the global media shift to the internet is inevitable. But I believe that conventional newspapers remain as the recorders of history. The Japan Times archives the data of all the news pages that record the history of Japan written in English for 120 years. Although there was a period of censorship, it is also very interesting to see how the paper presented the news in those days. Today, via the internet, the vast data archive is accessible from overseas as well.

M: That’s fantastic. How about offering an e-learning course with Aeon to study 120 years of Japanese history in English?

D: In the era of the internet, it’s a challenge to survive as an English media outlet. But at the same time, it’s exciting to expand our ability by making the best use of technology.

M: And there remain things that can be done only by humans. English skills help Japanese have firsthand communication with people around the world. I believe that revitalizes Japan and enhances world peace.

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