Three ways to jump-start English abilities in time for 2020

Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,

Although most people know a great deal about your “Abenomics” project by now, one of its most important goals is not well known or appreciated: to increase English proficiency in the country. The main plank of the plan is to increase the number of English teachers and assistant language teachers (ALTs) in Japan, a move that should help the country greatly.

However, you should be aware that many people in Tokyo already speak reasonably good English. The real problem is that they are afraid of making mistakes, which is why they decline to speak it.

I have worked for eight years at a company in Tokyo but speak only halting Japanese. Some of my colleagues speak very good English while others don’t — or at least I supposed they didn’t. During one internal seminar, however, one of the co-workers that I thought did not speak English was asked a question in the language and, to my great surprise, he responded in perfect English. This is an extreme example, but I often find that if I speak slowly and am willing to pause for an answer, Japanese people will speak to me in English. It’s all about increasing the comfort level to the point that people are unafraid to try.

Your government and the Japanese people are of course eager to deliver a successful Olympics, and part of this will depend on how well you communicate in the most common language spoken among the visitors. Thus, there will likely be many further efforts made to encourage English in the run-up to the games. You, Prime Minister, and your Liberal Democratic Party have a number of ideas about how to boost English levels in schools, and this is a good long-term strategic goal. Other plans could be adopted that would address the same issue among the workforce that will interact with foreigners through 2020.

It is difficult to force people to learn English, and thus, programs such as those outlined below would encourage this effort, while at the same time providing jobs for English teachers and ALTs:

1. Corporate English-speaking days: Already, several Japanese companies, such as Bridgestone, Fast Retailing and Rakuten, have made English their official language at work. At the very least, you should suggest that most Tokyo-based companies begin designating two workdays per month as English-speaking days. This would not need to be strictly enforced, but, coupled with other efforts along the same lines, it should increase the comfort with speaking English among a wide array of professionals.

2. “Let’s Try English” lapel buttons could be worn by taxi drivers and other workers that foreigners are likely to encounter. Of course, this would be voluntary, but it would encourage foreigners (and likely some Japanese as well) to make the crucial first step in striking up conversation and thereby boosting fluency. After five years of wearing these buttons, English could be a second language for a great many more Tokyoites.

3. English-speaking high school and college students should be encouraged to volunteer two hours a week to tutor Tokyo adults via Skype or phone. Foreign workers should also be encouraged to spend some time each week tutoring voluntarily. Simple educational material could be provided by the government on the Internet, and conversations could be free-flowing.

These plans would greatly assist Japan. The country should not become too Western, but supporting the Olympics and increasing the competitiveness of Japan, both in international markets and as a tourist destination, are worthy goals.


Chief Global Strategist, Nikko Asset Management Co., Ltd., Tokyo

Send comments or submissions (500-700 words, addressed to politicians, officials, ministries or other authorities) here: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Chandrakant Kulkarni

    I learned German in my college days (exactly 50 years back) with the help of the great textbook : ‘Deutsche Sprachlehre fur Auslander’, written by Schult – Griesbach. That textbook was so fascinating that learning German by studying it was a pleasure!
    Similar textbook for Japanese English-learners may be published for popularizing English.
    Few days back, I ‘listened’ to the audio version of my historic textbook on my PC. It was indeed a thrilling experience to listen to those ‘Abschnit..’ from my favorite German textbook once again…

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Most tourists who come to Japan have Korean or some dialect of Chinese as their first language, not English.

    • alain

      Yes maybe, but those who speak English are maybe reluctant to go to Japan because communication with Japanese might be difficult. This said, Japanese are very very friendly and eager to help in any case. Arigatou gozaimasu

  • kyushuphil

    I regret seeing John Vail limit himself to 2020 Olympics incentives.

    Japan has more serious, deep, long-lasting problems which changes in English instruction could go a long way towards curing

    If Japanese high schools gave more time for students in Japanese first to write essays, and then through discussions and revisions to put them in English, these essays could go as batches to schools in other parts of Asia where the Japanese have historically bad relations. Students everywhere could get better at seeing themselves in their modern cultural contexts — maybe in traditional contexts as well — and they could get better in English talking with others near and far.

    The 2020 Olympics will be over, but Jajpan’s needs for better relationships will remain.

  • kyushuphil

    True you are as to seeing lots that could positively be done.

    A bit more off you are in guessing why.

    You’ve two guesses. First, or “a,” as you call it, you guess many avoid needed reforms in English ed due to the fear of an “imposition of Japanese culture as ideology,” and, second, or “b,” as you have it, the parallel fear that “by acquiring English skills, Japanese will lose part of their essential Japaneseness.”

    As to the first, or “a,” older Japanese culture could never be imposed as any one monolithic ideology, because it had built into it great awareness of the weaknesses, cowardice, and hypocrisies of people. Zen understood well how the material world could be a massive fraud. Many were Japan’s great writers and poets who inveighed against the perennial weaknesses, cowardice, and hypocrisies of people.

    Too many Japanese now have no idea as to what should be their cultural debts to the great poets and writers. Too many, as you might otherwise put it in your guess number two, or “be,” needn’t fear losing “their essential Japaneseness” — they’ve long since lost it.

    Car culture. Nuke culture. TV culture. Cell-phone-smart-phone culture. Advertising culture. Shopping mall culture. Fast food culture. Millions, tens of millions live not in anything remotely Japanese culture. But all the imported consumerism has triumphed. In the schools no one asks any questions. So that light bulb by which you conclude? Probably ain’t ever, never gonna wanna change.

  • Very 念houghtful 研esearch and 析nalysis, John. I look-forward to 頒hare more of your 脳ntellectual work. 賛gree with you that 学earning 英nglish is an uphill 戦attle. Its rather 難ifficult for Japanese to 吸bsorb 英nglish coz the Japanese 語anguage has 無othing in 共ommon with 英nglish, unlike for a 仏rench 学tudying 英nglish: its the 同ame Roman alphabet and 欧estern 文iterature. 何hat would be 助elpful is an experimental 書riting 制ystem very much 英nglish in 両oth 形orm and 資ubstance, taking 利dvantage of their 親ntimate 慣amiliarity with 漢anji 字haracters, 何hich 彼hey 知now from 幼hildhood. 全ll the 最est to your 勝uccess and 喜appiness.

  • Dan K

    “Hey Mr. Japanese on the street which way to Gotanda Station?”Uh, ano, uh, ano, so desu ne, “Ieee doun’to know u”