National / Media | Japan Pulse

Alarming results in literacy survey stir debate on social media in Japan

by Yukari Tanaka

Contributing Writer

A Feb. 16 report on the country’s literacy has been causing a stir on social media, prompting a number of users to warn of impending intellectual doom.

The report on Bunshun Online discussed a 2013 study compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that showed that around 50 percent of adults from developed countries were unable to read or comprehend simple sentences. The survey was conducted in an attempt to investigate the causes behind increasing unemployment rates in Europe.

The survey, conducted by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), measured respondents’ proficiency in information-processing skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments on around 157,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in 24 OECD countries.

Japan generally scored better than most nations worldwide, with approximately one-third of respondents showing an inability to comprehend basic Japanese.

Moreover, a third of the respondents in Japan appeared to have a numeracy level that would correspond to that possessed by a third- or fourth-grader and less than 10 percent were capable of completing basic tasks using a computer. The survey also showed that 1 in 3 respondents of working age didn’t know how to use a computer.

Cue the alarm bells.

Bunshun Online discussed the 2017 findings of Noriko Arai, a mathematician and the author of “AI vs. Children who can’t Read Textbooks.” Arai conducted a Reading Skill Test on 24,600 middle and high school students to measure their level of basic reading comprehension.

The results shocked the public, with 1 in 5 third-year middle school students and 1 in 13 third-year high school students being unable to identify either the subject or object of a sentence. The poor scores were initially believed to be a reflection of the declining standards in domestic education but, comparing these scores to the findings of the PIAAC survey, it could indicate wider social issues.

The surprises, however, didn’t end there.

Other OECD nations scored worse than Japanese respondents on most measures. On average, 48.8 percent of adults in developed countries lack basic comprehension skills, 52 percent have a numeracy level that is less than third or fourth grade and 5.8 percent know how to complete basic tasks using a computer.

The table of scores by country also showed that Japanese high school graduates have literacy skills comparable to those of Italian and Spanish college graduates.

When it comes to younger adults between the ages of 16 and 24, South Korea ranks fourth in literacy, fifth in numeracy and first in problem solving. Japan, on the other hand, drops to third place in numeracy (falling behind the Netherlands and Finland) and 14th place (significantly lower than the OECD average) in problem solving in technology-rich environments.

The reaction to Bunshun Online’s coverage of this issue was harsh.

“When I used to work in HR for a company, I did come across situations where I thought, ‘Seriously, you can’t read that? You’re a college graduate!’” Twitter user @toshi0104 wrote. “So these results might actually be true.”

Twitter user @yuki_20211 added that “there are even fewer people who can actually write.”

Tweeting under the handle @takapon_jp, entrepreneur Takafumi Horie also took pot shots at users of the social media platform, saying that “this is exactly why people get blamed on Twitter.”

In response, @ms_7670b3 said: “I honestly think Japanese is a difficult language. In addition to their lack of comprehension skills, I think there are plenty of people who have a hard time expressing themselves through writing.”

On the other hand, some expressed skepticism with the results.

“That a third of Japanese people cannot read Japanese is rather hard to believe,” Twitter user @pycl posted. “The literacy rate should be pretty high. The problem is perhaps whether one can read or write, and whether they have the skills to communicate through them.”

User @cristinmilites said, “I was surprised when I read this article but if this survey is trustworthy, then maybe it isn’t so weird to come across people who have no idea of what you’re trying to say.”

Others, however, refused to dwell on the negative aspects of the report.

“The article has a lot of surprising numbers,” Twitter user @sasakitoshinao wrote. “However, we can see that Japanese people still have potential despite the results.”

User @aozukinsan agreed.

“The increase in the number of people who don’t know how to use computers probably has something to do with the growing number of smartphones on the market, but to find out that less than 10 percent of people know how to complete a basic task on a computer is surprising. That said, apparently we’re in a better situation compared to other developed countries.”

If the results sound absurd to you, it may be because you’re probably working with highly skilled people on a daily basis. If that’s the case, you may have actually been the exception all this time.

As technology continues to evolve, demand for highly skilled people will also grow in the job market — a serious concern for those who could potentially be left behind.