Shame over poor English level lies with education ministry

To the minister of education:

Recently the education ministry announced that it would require high school students to memorize 1,800 words instead of the 1,300 they currently have to remember. As an English teacher here in Japan, I couldn’t help but read this in disgust. This so-called change is just more of the same. It is well known that students in Japan do not need to cram a bunch more words into their heads that they forget soon after a test, but to actually practice speaking and listening in the classroom.

You may argue, “But the ministry of education hires thousands of native English speakers to teach English communication to the kids.” This may be true, but because of the all-important entrance exams, which stress grammar and reading, even if there were time for communicative practice, the students and parents want teachers to focus on what is going to be on the next exam because it will determine the child’s future school and most likely the child’s future career.

The weight given to the entrance exams — and the system of clearly dividing schools into separate academic levels and allowing little room for a student to change his/her school/eventual career path — have created an out-of-touch bureaucracy and a cultural attitude of hopelessness.

I often hear other teachers say, “Those people in the ministry have no idea what it’s like in the public sector or how to solve problems in state schools because they all went to the best private schools in Japan.” This fundamental problem means that the ministry of education lacks understanding of what the public wants students to be taught, as well as how to teach students effectively.

Why don’t the Japanese people complain or write to you more often? Besides being brought up not to express their opinions and to endure — or gaman — their situation even if they are suffering, Japanese people learn to be hopeless through the school system. I remember teaching a class after Barack Obama got elected, explaining how this fulfilled the American idea that anyone can become President of the United States. Soon after explaining this, the Japanese English teacher looked at the students and said, “Isn’t that great? Too bad that is impossible in Japan.” And unfortunately, all of the students understood what she meant. There is no point in dreaming of becoming a prime minister or education minister in Japan because those jobs are reserved for the kids whose parents can afford to send them to schools that specialize in producing future bureaucrats.

This learned hopelessness continues on into adulthood, where adults do not think they can do anything to change the system. When speaking to Japanese teachers about the problems with the education system, they are usually quite vocal and have well thought out arguments. However, after discussing, if you ask, “Why don’t you do something about it?” they lower their heads in defeat and say, “Muzukashii ne (it’s difficult).” Japanese people think it’s not their place to tell the ministry how to change the education system, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The teachers and parents are the ones who know the most about the school system and they need to be the ones who decide what needs to be changed.

I often hear Japanese people say with shame, “I studied English for 6 years, but can’t speak.” This shame is completely misplaced. The ministry of education should publicly apologize for wasting students’ time and energy on teaching methods that have proven time and again to fail to produce proficient English speakers.

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp