Read up on ways that can help us learn English

Public libraries are important community resources across Japan, but while English is taught from fifth grade, those hoping to find a ready stash of English-language reading material may be disappointed. Thanks to the efforts of two men passionate about the power and potential of books, however, Iwakura Public Library in Kyoto boasts a collection that would be the envy of libraries twice its size. The small library, located in Sakyo-ku on the northern side of the city, has a total of 57,000 books, more than 1,500 of which are in English.

Things weren’t always like this. When Australian Matthew Claflin, an associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, started visiting the library with his young son five years ago, he was disappointed with the English offerings. “All they had were a few reference books and some ancient children’s readers from (British publisher) Ladybird.”

Considering that children and their parents make up a large proportion of library patrons, Claflin was surprised at this state of affairs. “Libraries have a good selection of material for math, science, social studies and the other subjects children study at school in Japan. So why not English books?”

With no agenda other than boosting the supply, he worked with the library to select and purchase a range of appropriate books, which were an instant hit. Quickly realizing the range available was completely inadequate, he sorted through several hundred readers that his own son had outgrown.

“I had actually offered them to my son’s school first, thinking they could be a good resource for the English classes, but they turned me down. They told me the emphasis was on speaking and listening, not on reading. So then I thought of the library, which gladly accepted them.”

When Claflin initially approached the Iwakura library, he simply showed up and spoke to the first person he saw at the counter. Fortunately, that just happened to be the head librarian, Yoshiaki Nakata. With a keen personal interest in language learning and foreign culture, Nakata enthusiastically accepted Claflin’s offer to help select books and implement English activities at the library.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the staff at Japanese libraries are not specialists. Rather, as public servants they are cycled through the various city-run institutions and departments. After the library, their next posting could well be in the sewerage department!” says Claflin. “It was lucky I connected with someone who was a career librarian and who understood what I wanted to do.”

Acknowledging the value of Claflin and Nakata’s activities, the main branch of the Kyoto City Library system later gave them a grant to buy more books to further boost the Iwakura Public Library’s gradually expanding collection.

“Broadly speaking, we have three main target groups for the books: Children and students, older people who want to have another try at learning English and businesspeople who want to use English for their work,” says Nakata.

Claflin adds that the collection is highly appreciated by returnees from abroad and bicultural families such as his own.

The books were initially shelved in the conventional manner, according to the author’s last name, but Claflin proposed a different method: “My idea was to shelve them by level of difficulty, so that people can quickly and easily find something that suits them. This is in line with the concept of ‘extensive reading’, or tadoku as it is known in Japanese.”

“The idea behind tadoku is to read as widely as possible at a level where you are not struggling to understand in the target language — English in this case.” Claflin goes on to explain. “When presented with a wide range of material to choose from, language learners will naturally select something that suits their abilities and interests. The more they read, the more their skills develop.”

According to Claflin, it’s essentially the same as native English-speaking children reading widely when they are starting out. Many Japanese learners of English think they must plough through books that are too challenging, and then they give up. “They often have to be trained that it is OK to read easy material,” he says.

The tadoku concept was made popular in Japan by educators such as Akio Furukawa, the president of SEG juku in Tokyo, who has published several books on the benefits of the system, but Kyoto Sangyo University’s English department has been practicing and promoting it in the Kansai area for more than 30 years.

“It isn’t a revolutionary idea,” Claflin says. “My colleague Dr. Thomas Robb pioneered extensive reading as a learning tool. We currently have 3,000 students on campus using it.”

The university also hosted the inaugural World Congress on Extensive Reading in 2011.

Although it took some persuasion on Claflin’s part, he convinced the Iwakura library staff to arrange the books by reading level. “For this, we follow the Yomiyasusa recommendations by the SSS Group. The books are rated on a scale from 0.0 to 9.9, with different bands within each grade,” he says. The Yomiyasusa (Readability) system, was developed by Furukawa to complement tadoku programs in Japan.

These efforts paid off when there was a considerable rise in the lending rate for the English books, which are now among the most popular books at the Iwakura library. On average, over half the books are lent out at any given time.

Nakata says the innovative approach to shelving the books has struck a chord with library patrons: “I wasn’t expecting too much at first. But the concepts behind the tadoku approach, such as ‘don’t use a dictionary when you read’ and ‘if one book becomes boring, just put it down and try another,’ have proved popular.”

Library users come from all over Kyoto to borrow the English books. “We’ve even had people from outside the city requesting books via inter-library loans,” says Nakata.

Claflin leads a team of volunteers in running regular children’s reading sessions at the library, and has also presented seminars about the importance of exposure to a wide range of books for both children and adults. “As a teacher and a parent,” he says. “I feel there is a lot of value in what we are trying to do. The enthusiasm of the local community has been wonderful.”

Although other libraries in the Kansai region have shown interest in what Iwakura has achieved, to Claflin’s knowledge, Iwakura is currently the only one offering such an extensive English library. He says the logistics of purchasing, cataloging and grading non-Japanese books is one of the biggest hurdles for other institutions: “Japanese public libraries select their books from catalogues published by the Toshokan Ryutsu Center (TRC), a company that provides all the data used on the books for the library system. If a book doesn’t come from TRC, then data has to be entered manually, so extra time and work is involved.”

Claflin believes other libraries should follow Iwakura’s lead to better serve the public with English resources and to help Japanese people catch up with their Asian neighbors.

“Kids will soon start learning English from third grade, with reading being introduced in the upper grades of elementary school,” he explains, and it isn’t only children who can benefit, either. “The concept of lifelong learning hasn’t really taken root yet here, but with the aging population, there are likely to be more older people interested in English. Libraries can fulfill a need on many levels.”

For more information on Iwakura library, visit

Coronavirus banner