Japan far behind in global language of business

by Mizuho Aoki

Last in a series

Keiko Suezaki in October began sending her 7-year-old daughter to an English school in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, once a week, hoping to give her more exposure to the de facto international language.

Although her daughter, Rina, has a 45-minute English activity class at her elementary school once every two weeks, Suezaki didn’t think it was enough.

“If you live in Europe, or maybe in India, you become conscious of the necessity of learning English, but it’s different in Japan. So I just want my daughter to know that there is an important language called English and it’s fun (to learn),” said Suezaki, a 38-year-old Tokyo resident. “Besides, I think there will be more chances to use English in business situations (in the future). When such a time comes, it’s better if one can use English.”

With the economy expected to shrink due to the low birthrate, Japan has no choice but to seek markets outside the country, which will mean working more with non-Japanese, experts say.

For a country without much in the way of natural resources, manpower will be key to future survival. Japan, however, appears to be falling behind its neighbors in nurturing personnel who can compete in a globalizing world.

According to an education ministry report released in December, the number of Japanese heading overseas to study fell in every one of the four years to 2008, dropping from 82,945 in 2004 to 66,833 in that period.

The decline is especially sharp in the number of Japanese studying in the United States, falling from 46,497 in 2000 to 24,842 in 2009, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

By contrast, Chinese students in the U.S. more than doubled from 59,939 in 2000 to 127,628 in 2009. As for South Korean students, the number grew from 45,685 in 2000 to 72,153 in 2009.

“While Japan has shifted from the phase of heated educational competition to a calmer, post-high-growth period, other East Asian nations’ interest in education has been escalating,” said Mariko Abumiya, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research who specializes in China’s education policy.

Reflecting the trend toward globalization, both China and South Korea are pouring huge efforts into fostering global human resources, especially in English-language education.

“China and South Korea are more aware of the importance and usefulness of English (as a tool) to present their countries to the world. But Japan’s awareness of that is low,” said Nobuyuki Honna, a professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University.

The nation, after long debate, will introduce “foreign-language activity” once a week in the curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders in fiscal 2011, taking up a total of 35 periods a year. South Korea, on the other hand, made English classes compulsory from the third grade in 1997. China did the same in 2001.

“In China, English is taught about four hours a week starting with the third grade,” Honna said. “In the case of Shanghai, English is taught five or six hours a week, in many cases from the first grade. That means they study English for about 1,000 hours in total before graduating from elementary school.”

Honna explained that in China’s eastern cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, where the education standard is high, English was taught in elementary schools years before it became official policy in 2001.

The situation is even more intense in South Korea, especially after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis that forced the country to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.

Taking the crisis to heart, many parents today are eager to get as much English education for their offspring as possible because their future depends not only on the name of the school from which they graduate but also on their English ability, experts say.

“Not only the leading companies such as Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc., but also small and medium-size companies give prospective employees English exams,” said Ito Kutsuzawa, manager of the Benesse Educational Research and Development Center. “Leading companies set the bar high for English ability. And there is a huge gap in salaries between the nation’s leading companies and the group ranked in the second tier.”

However, the hunger for English has created problems for schools.

“Some Japanese elementary schools are reportedly struggling with classroom disruptions by misbehaving students. But in South Korea, some schools are facing classroom dysfunction because many — sometimes about half the members of a class — take a month off to go abroad to study English,” said Kim Tae Hoon, an associate professor of education at Seisa University in Hokkaido.

According to a report in The Korea Times, the number of elementary school children studying abroad rose to 8,298 in 2007 from 2,453 in 2005.

Many mothers and their children move to nations where English is the native language, including Canada and the U.S., so their children will gain fluency in the language, while their fathers stay in South Korea, working hard to earn money to support this pursuit, according to Kim.

Backed by this kind of fervor, South Koreans’ overall English ability is getting better, experts say.

The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is one yardstick.

The average score for South Koreans jumped to 619 in 2009 from 561 in 1995, while Japanese marked an improvement of just 581 in 2009 from 572 in 1995, according to the Institute for International Business Communication.

The number of South Koreans taking the TOEIC surged to 2.05 million in 2009 from 421,704 in 1995, while Japanese takers increased to 1.68 million in 2009 from 565,000 in 1995.

Meanwhile, in Japan, with the government’s clear change in direction from its much criticized “yutori” (relaxed) education policy introduced in the 1970s, English education is expected to improve.

Apart from the official kickoff of “foreign-language activities” at elementary schools in April, the volume of vocabulary to be taught as well as hours spent in English class in junior high and high school will increase over the next couple of years.

For example, the vocabulary list for the junior high level will leap from the current 900 words to 1,200 starting in fiscal 2012 and English classes will increase from the current three a week to four, the education ministry said.

At elementary schools, textbooks will increase in size by about 24.5 percent on average from fiscal 2011.

The government has been making changes to boost children’s academic levels, especially after 2003’s disappointing results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development every three years since 2000.

In the 2003 testing, conducted among 15-year-old children in 41 countries and regions, Japan’s ranking in two of three subjects had dropped more than four places.

After putting in the effort to strengthen literacy, including introducing book-reading time in the morning, the latest 2009 PISA results showed improvement in Japanese students’ performance.

Although the data can’t simply be compared with previous PISA data because of differences in the number of participating countries, Japan’s ranking in reading comprehension rose from 15th place in 2006 to eighth in 2009.

In science literacy, it moved from sixth in 2006 to fifth in 2009, while math literacy improved to ninth in 2009, up from 10th place three years earlier.

Although Japan’s rankings are low when compared with other parts of East Asia, including first-time participant Shanghai, which stunned many by dominating the top in all three tests, Japan’s academic ability is first-class, said Hiroaki Mimizuka, vice president of Ochanomizu University.

“When looking at the size of participating countries and regions, Japan is the only country in the top 10 with a population of more than 100 hundred million,” Mimizuka said. “It depends on how you look at the results, but it can be said that it’s possible to force a country with a (population equivalent to that) of Tokyo (to raise its academic level) with a top-down method. But for a country with more than 100 hundred million people, it’s difficult to effect change with that approach.

“As such, we shouldn’t mimic other countries in setting the nation’s educational policy. We should seek our own way to achieve high academic ability.”

The biggest hurdle facing Japanese youth today is low aspirations, experts say.

Growing up in a relatively wealthy country with little competitive pressure due to the low fertility rate, many Japanese youth tend to think things will somehow work out and don’t push themselves much, Mimizuka said.

As shown in the falling interest in studying abroad, regardless of universities’ attempts to send more students overseas, many choose to stay in their comfort zones, experts say.

“There are limits to how much educational content and policy can change. . . . Other social sectors, including education, need to put in the effort and think about what they should do for Japan to survive as well as for the world to flourish,” Mimizuka said.