Enhanced English education sought in Japanese elementary schools


A governmental panel on education reform will propose enhancing English-language education in elementary schools by making it an official subject for fifth- and sixth-graders.

As a way of nurturing people who can play an active role amid intensifying international competition, the panel headed by Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata will suggest boosting English-language education in elementary schools, according to a draft proposal.

Teaching English in elementary schools has been mandatory for fifth- and sixth-graders since the 2011 school year. But English is not treated as an official subject and is taught only once a week, mostly by homeroom teachers who have not had proper training in the language.

Upgrading English to an official subject would require more training for elementary schools teachers, adopting a system to evaluate student achievement and preparing textbooks approved by the education ministry.

The education reform body will also call for English to be taught without any Japanese being spoken in some classes at junior high schools and increased student exchanges with non-Japanese through activities such as camping.

The group will propose establishing “special zones for international education,” in which local governments would invite prominent overseas universities to open branch campuses.

To increase the number of college students studying abroad, the panel will urge universities to give credits to students who intern at companies overseas, for the start of the academic year to be shifted from spring to fall, and for experience of studying abroad to be given weight in exams for national public service personnel.

The panel has already reported two sets of proposals on other educational reform issues to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The latest package on English education is set to be finalized by the end of this month.

  • kyushuphil

    They’re going to “up” 5th & 6th grade English to that of junior & senior highs?

    Maybe they better first provide funding for retraining of the junior & senior high English teachers, to know how and enthuse to teach English as a living language.

    Right now most Japanese teachers of English speak far more Japanese in clas than they do English, explaining the language, not using it. And if they’re using English, it’s usually to keep it reduced it to textbook mechanical drills.

    Provide funding to help English teachers travel to English-speaking ountries. Combine with universities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Ireland, or the U.S. so Japanese teachers of English can take some seminars in novels, stories,poetry, film, or theater in those countries. Or hold such courses here in Japan.

    Please — put some life into English teaching for the older kids, before inflicting the current moribund status quo on 5th & 6th graders, too.

  • Almuddaththir

    Japan should get English-speakers who actually live the language rather than mere degree-holders who speak English.

    • M G

      Correction: ‘who actually *have studied, spoken and understand* the language’ and the communicative language teaching methodology (and a good deal of linguistics’) … as I have. Two degrees in languages and linguistics, have personally studied four languages foreign to me, and was a trained EFL/ESL teacher in Canada before coming here.

      And I am often given the role of pronouncing a few textbook words while I ‘team teach’ with a so-called Japanese teacher of English, even though I could out-teach any of them and keep the students entertained and motivated any day.

  • SwedishreaderKristinehamn93

    I think it’s great that the Japanese government takes action to teach out English towards the elementary studens, but however isn’t the fifth- or sixth-grade to late to teach it. I know the Swedish educational system and there is English official language in the third-grade (3rd-grade) in elementary school. Even this makes it hard to get in to high school (gymnasium) or a university. If you travel to Sweden then you can talk to anyone and they understand you and believe me when I say those who just make it from failing in English classes in Sweden can make them understood by others.
    If you wounder how I know this then I say I was one of them last year on a one month travel to Germany and Austria (without knowing the German language) and those I spoked to understood me.

    • Emi Rowan

      Now I understand the Swedish English educational standard is much higher than Japan. I feel Swedish educational system itsself is totally different from our countrys, you know, more and more Japanese teachers in elementary schools give curious eyes on Swedish Educational system. That’s true. I think Japanese teachers should learn more about the European Educational systems. That is why European has more than second language as usual, and they speak them fluently.

  • yousan

    20-30 age japanese people have studied English for at least 7 years in junior high school and high school. but we cannot speak English. 7years i have studied!! i think the reason is the bad system of japanese education in English. we need good English teacher who can speak English. And we wish for children to have more time to be able to touch real English…
    otherwise, in the future our children will bother of their poor skills of English like me…

  • Teaching English from the fifth or sixth grade is too late. Government should start from the first year of elementary. It’s also time the government handed over the responsibility of putting together an English education system to someone else so something different can be done. Because time and time again the Japanese government has failed students in providing an adequate English Education system. I commend the government for trying to increase the amount of Jet teachers that will be in the country, but that is not the problem. The problem is how Japanese learn English. English is taught much like other subjects such as maths science etc etc, where as it should be treated totally different with a more relaxed and open feel to it. Every time I read sentences from university and high school text books I laugh because the sentences they use are not something they will use in the real world. Then when it comes to speaking this makes their language sound very tense and awkward, it also feels like they are putting up a brick wall much like Japanese do when they speak their own language. Speaking English like this is just not good for social interaction.
    Anyways I have soooo many complaints about Japans English education system, and many ideas to fix it. But I would be here all night writing a 10000 word essay and I don’t want to do that.

  • KenjiAd

    I seriously doubt that you can “teach” how to speak English fluently by tinkering with teaching curriculum alone. I think we would need to give the learners some proper incentives so that they start using spare time to self-teach.

    Here in China, such incentive is the prospect for attending a school in America. This incentive is strong enough so that, as far as I can tell, high-school or college students here generally speak much better English than Japanese counterparts do.

    Without this kind of incentive, I’m afraid most students won’t see much “point” improving their English beyond increasing the test score for college entrance exams.

  • itoshima2012

    You don’t necessarily need native speakers, a good and well trained japanese English teacher will do the job just fine. Also, to learn a language, grammar is very important and so are drills. There’s only so much a teacher can do. The students need to use the language in their freetime woch is easy with Internet etc – lazy students are to blame not teachers.

    • Simon Foston

      How many “good and well trained” Japanese English teachers are there?

  • linlan

    My son is a JET and goes to several schools in the community. He goes to the kindergarten too. I think it is a great program…and helps the students learn english. But he does say there is never enough time and not a high priority in most schools.

  • why not from first grade?

  • Anita Railing

    Don’t worry, they’re going to double the number of ALT’s, therefore they will
    double the amount of English learned, it is as simple as that.

    “special zones for international education,” This is MEXTspeak for the local izakaya nearest the ALT’s apartment.

    “and increased student exchanges with non-Japanese through activities such as camping.” Now this would be great, if it takes part IN NEW ZEALAND, arrgggghh

  • Teresa Wong

    I hope it will come true that overseas universities will set up branches in Japan.

  • English Education in Elementary Schools is never a good idea. If English were to be so important in Japan, it must be instructed very intensively. Training intensity is one of the most important variables if you want to learn a foreign language.

    No intensity, no learning. That is why Japan’s English education has been such a failure.

    • NiseiShonagon

      I fail to see your point, probably because it’s not at all clear what you mean by “intensity” or why you think it’s important.

      And English education in Japan is a failure because, with very few exceptions, it’s taught not as a living language but as a set of formulae, with tons of rote memorization and everything engineered towards cramming in information that will appear on a test, to be forgotten promptly afterward.

  • Bobdole

    One of the biggest problems facing English education –one that is not often addressed publicly– is the entrenched xenophobia that is reinforced by political and educational systems in Japan. Students will not take English seriously as a subject as long as they conform to the idea of shameful ‘otherness’ associated with it.

    • M G

      You hit the nail on the head there, for sure!

      The so-called ‘measures’ that end up being taken to ‘improve’ English education or proficiency in Japan, coming top-down from a government of old, often xenophobic/racist, conservative men and back-room bureaucrats, are never anything more than superficial gestures. They want to appear to care about the subject matter (in this case, English education) but scratch just below the surface and you’ll find nobody in power actually believes English is useful/necessary; in fact, they consider it an obstacle to preserving the culture and language of the Japanese (and, I feel, the imperialists still alive and well and in power in this country want Japanese to be spoken in other countries rather than having to use English, the world’s lingua franca for decades now [For proof of that, watch a Japanese ‘travel show’ and be amused by the fact they *never* speak English with locals in other countries, accompanied by Japanese subtitles; rather, they always make it seem that the Japanese can speak their native language anywhere they go in the world! Not to mention the fact that most Japanese travelers follow paths that their JTB agents arranged for them and meet up with fellow citizens in all the major tourist hotspots for Japanese, IN HORDES]).

      I’ve been working in the public education system in Japan, in classes from kindergarten to high school, for quite a few years now. It is upsetting on a good day, mind- and soul-crushing on bad days. There are even ‘new’ English teachers who are 10 years younger than me entering the education system and using a rote-learning ‘methodology’ (i.e., boring repetition of unnatural English), and textbooks like Sunshine which are littered with mistakes and, again, unnatural or outright incorrect English. These ‘new’ teachers pass the torch of ‘English is the worst class to take and completely useless in my life’ on to successive generations.

      I am inspired by the efforts of a minority of teachers, mostly younger, who are trying to use the communicative methodology in classes. However, even they are handcuffed by a system that focuses almost entirely on learning just enough English to pass written tests.

      In brief, the whole approach (indeed the entire worldview in Japan, to generalize things much more) is about subconsciously training young Japanese minds to be *closed off* to the world beyond the limits of the Japanese archipelago, as this country literally was for 200 years. Too much pride and rigidity (and BS), and surface lip-service about wanting to do ‘this and that’ when anyone here knows there is absolutely no REAL desire to improve English education. To do so would first involve allowing the minds of young people to be opened up completely to all the ideas and ideologies of the world, which is precisely the opposite of the Japanese public education system.

      The system is designed to instill fear and discipline in young minds and to teach them to obey their authority figures at all costs. Unfortunately, one of the costs is the opportunity to engage the outside world in a meaningful way, to learn foreign languages as they are most easily and naturally learned.

      If you are Japanese and living in Japan, and if you are reading this, my advice to you (if you want your child(ren) to really learn English): either pay a lot of money to have them educated at a high-quality, expensive international school or send/take them out of the country for a number of years, especially when they are young and haven’t been fully indoctrinated yet. Otherwise, just accept that they will waste an incredible amount of time and energy ‘studying’ English for years, just as you did, with the end result being a complete lack of any English proficiency and, quite likely, a hatred for the English language (which, if we’re honest, is the more honest goal of those in power than the ostensible desire for any advancement of English education in Japan).

  • mameha1977

    The proposal to improve English level is to start teaching English a bit more in elementary school? I cannot think of a more uninspired and unintelligent idea. Who is this guy…oh my god, he is president of Japan’s most prestigious university! And he has no lateral thinking ability!

    Alternative ideas:
    1) Increase immigration (this leads to increased motivation, as mentioned by KenjiAd below.)
    2) Use English to teach another subject. ie. teach maths, IT or PE or something in English. Why is it that Indians for example have good English? One reason is that they use English to teach other subjects.

    These halfwit academics should be looking at countries that have highly bilingual populations such as Scandanavian nations, India, etc to find ideas.

  • Emi Rowan

    I am a Japanese teacher but I had taught as an ALT at prefectual elementary schools for 6 years, I felt it was success!
    But when I started to teach English as a high school lecturer, I experienced strong system hierarchy in the high school society. Even in teaching oral-communication, I felt being exclusively refused by another Japanese English teachers in the high school, even if the most of the students liked to study with me. The high school still taught in the way of 50s teaching, I tried to change the way little by little. Finally I could get students attention, emotion, and their hearts! But I had to leave the school by the name of the contract.
    I really hope more and more Japanese children become bilingual and hold hands with children around the world in the future!!!! No more JUKU, no more 50s way’s entrance exam drills!!

    • NiseiShonagon

      Your story brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. I agree that what’s holding foreign-language learning back in schools is the behavior of these stuck-in-the-past teachers, not students. What a shame that their desire to remain in the ‘nurumayu’ of outdated methods that don’t work is depriving students of a good learning environment.

      I pity the school for having lost such a wonderful and dedicated teacher.

    • M G

      Absolutely! Thank you for saying so, as a Japanese teacher.

      The methodology, the whole education system in Japan is a relic from the 50s. You are so right.

    • leaf

      I realize now that my English teachers were pretty awesome. I was a returnee in a public school for both middle and high school about ten years ago but all my teachers were open-minded. They were eager to try new methods of teaching and were always open to opinions and questions. When they couldn’t answer something on the spot, they would take the question to a native speaker and report back to us. It was obvious that they weren’t trying to be know-it-alls and were, when given the chance, eager to try to learn something with their students. They seemed aware that a language is something that you can’t just learn and know forever, but you have to keep at. They could’ve chosen to hate me (a namaiki na kikokushijo) but they were accepting of me and treated me with the distance that I needed to feel comfortable in the classroom. I just want to thank those teachers as well as the ones out there that with the same mindset. Not all teachers are as bad as some of the other comments are making them out to be.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    I agree with KenjiAd. Most young Japanese have no desire to go abroad to study, and therefor learning English has become moot; the current “Lost Generation” is on coast mode – no one to inspire them and no dreams to chase. China is rising and young Chinese are motivated by the pursuit of wealth and economic opportunity – and they know English will be a invaluable tool in achieving this. Japan’s youth has become ever progressively inward facing over the decades as economic boom has lead to societal malaise – also, any studying abroad severely impacts their job hunting schedule. I doubt that only by improving the system, or pumping more qualified teachers into said system will make children embrace the language – they also need to see the benefit of learning English, and this is no longer self-evident to most Post-Bubble youth – it’s a chore.

    • doctorshankar

      why this obsession with English? do they teach Japanese/Chinese/any other foreign language to children in U.K.? Schools in USA don’t teach English. India is a different proposition because it was ruled by the British. why should English be taught to Japanese children?

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        As far as I know, schools in the US do teach English. I have lived in the British Commonwealth (or rather, countries that were heavily influenced by the British) and the US. Granted, the level of English taught in these countries does surpass that of America’s school system – which is rather poor. But this is beside the point. English is still the “World Language.” Anyone who wishes to conduct business on a global scale needs to know it. China is rising, and it would be prescient for us to learn Chinese, but still, most educated Chinese have a good grasp of the language as they know, in order to do business with the US and Europe and much of the rest of the world, English is key. And as you pointed out, Indians have a good grasp of it too. Japan on the other hand is very poor in terms of its population’s English ability – I lived there for 5 years. As the world continues to become more international, business hinges on being able to communicate across borders. Japan is the only country that speaks Japanese, and if it continues to go on as it does, it is putting itself at a disadvantage.