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Springtime in Japan brings the sadness of the eikaiwa exodus

by Charles Lewis

Contributing Writer

Being from Southern California with its mild climate, I’ve never been much of a fan of Japan’s beloved four seasons. I could do without the summer heat, fall typhoons and winter ice. But it’s spring I dread the most — though this has nothing to do with the weather.

I welcome warmer temperatures and cherry blossoms as much as the next man, but spring is the time of year when most sixth-graders in my English classes stop coming because they will be too busy with school clubs when they start junior high in April.

The economic hit I take during this annual exodus is tough, and it’s sad to say goodbye to kids I’ve watched grow up. But the worst part is the feeling that I’ve lost the chance to help these youngsters become competent English speakers, equipped with a useful skill they would have for the rest of their lives.

Many of these kids will have been studying English since kindergarten or early elementary school, and most of them have been making good progress: Their speaking, reading and writing is improving, they ask how to say things in English and, most importantly, they really enjoy English and like speaking it.

But very few of these students will continue their English lessons — or any other extracurricular activities, like dance or swimming — after they enter junior high, because club activities, and to a lesser extent cram schools, will take up what’s left of their free time.

While not mandatory at most schools, a majority of kids, encouraged by parents and teachers, join clubs when they start junior high school. According to a 2014 survey by the National Institution for Youth Education, some 89 percent of second-year junior high school students are involved in club activities, or bukatsu. Changing clubs is rare, and students usually stay in the same one throughout junior high.

Sports clubs are popular, as the spirit of ganbaru — “Do your best and stick at it!” — is deeply ingrained in Japanese society. Parents are eager to see their children play sports as they believe it will build up a competitive spirit, not to mention physical strength. According to Atsushi Nakazawa, assistant professor at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Social Sciences, the author of a book on school club activities, some 70 percent of junior high school students choose to join a sports club.

The amount of time many junior high students spend in club activities can be mind-boggling. Many sports clubs, and sometimes music clubs, have practice in the morning before school starts several days a week, after school most days and on weekends.

A recent survey of club activities by the Japan Sports Agency found that at 52 percent of schools questioned, clubs had practice on all five consecutive weekdays; 69 percent held practice every Saturday and 32 percent did so every Sunday. Practice times can be longer and more intense if the club places well in interschool competitions or if the teacher in charge of the club is particularly enthusiastic.

I hold out a kernel of hope that the English speaking ability of these kids leaving my classes will continue to improve, but I also realize that the odds are stacked against them considering the sad state of English education in Japanese schools and the English speaking ability of most Japanese people around them.

International studies repeatedly bear out the fact that on average, Japanese struggle with speaking English compared to their international peers, and the causes of this language deficiency and what to do about it have been debated for decades. Some commonly cited factors are the way English is “taught to test” at Japanese schools, poorly written textbooks, teachers’ inadequate English ability and poorly paid and undertrained assistant language teachers.

The benefits of being able to speak English in this era of globalization should be self-evident. Parents here would seem to think so, and many, even if they do not know it by name, are subscribers to the critical period hypothesis — the widely held theory that language acquisition is linked to age, the younger the better. This is why parents sometimes put their young children in eikaiwa (“English conversation” classes) when they are still babies. But what’s the use when most of these students will be yanked away from extracurricular English before they hit their teens?

I’ve seen it far too often: Every spring, most parents who came to me with high hopes for their little ones to become competent English speakers six or seven years earlier tell me that they are thankful for the efforts I’ve made, that their kids enjoy English and want to keep studying, but that they just can’t come anymore because of club activities at junior high next year.

I fear that these students will join the ranks of Japanese with mediocre English speaking skills, any love for the language pounded out of them by the monotony of rote learning in junior and senior high schools. For sure, kids that have been taking classes for such a long time will retain some of what they’ve studied, but at only 12 years old they still have so much to learn.

If only they would continue their lessons, they might turn out like the few students I have who were able to keep studying after they started junior high — usually because they didn’t join overly competitive clubs.

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved with students such as Yuho, a 24-year-old postgraduate I’ve been teaching since he was 5, and who joined the “train club” in junior high. He has a good grasp of the English language and can easily hold a conversation with a native speaker, writes essays in English and travels to other countries on his own.

Another student named Sera, an 11th-grader who has studied since he was 7 and was in the archery club in junior high, speaks English much better than the average high school student, reads and writes the language well and easily communicates with foreign exchange students.

The fact that they didn’t participate in intense competition in clubs doesn’t seem to have adversely affected either of these young men. Yuho’s hobbies include restoring classic cars and motorcycles, and he has a full-time job lined up in April. Sera is well-balanced, articulate and thoughtful.

Every spring after saying goodbye to most of my sixth-graders, I anticipate meeting the next crop of fresh-faced young students. I look forward to singing songs, playing games and working in textbooks with these kids, most of whom will enjoy coming to their lessons and make good progress learning to speak English.

I do my best to help these eager young learners, but in the back of my mind I can’t help thinking that, with few exceptions, most of them will be gone at the end of sixth grade.

So yes, for eikaiwa teachers, spring is the hardest season, when even the transience of the cherry blossoms can seem like cruel reminders of the budding English-language talents swept away by the unforgiving winds of bukatsu.

Charles Lewis has lived in Japan since 1977, where he has worked as an editor, writer, teacher, carpenter, fisherman, importer, wholesaler and retailer.

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