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One thing that is almost certain not to change in the new century is Japan’s long love-hate relationship with the English language. What might change is the degree of interest in learning English among younger Japanese, eager to tap the wealth of information available on the Internet. In fact, much about Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s heralded information-technology revolution suggests that, if successful, it could serve as a breakthrough to help the Japanese learn practical, everyday English. Unfortunately, that possibility is not helped by the sometimes contradictory recommendations of government advisers or the disdain shown by senior government officials for colleagues who can use English freely.

People’s memories are short. Not much is heard these days about making English Japan’s second official language, an idea that was proposed at the beginning of this year by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Commission on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century. The idea still has supporters, although at the time it was attacked by defenders of the “purity” of the Japanese nation, race and language — and their numbers are not small. The critics were by no means limited to conservative politicians. Some leading academics and social commentators felt the same way. It is a pity that after the first flurry of media attention the subject failed to receive the sober ongoing debate it deserves.

It has to be acknowledged that Japan’s most serious shortcoming in dealings abroad, both official and private, is the inability of its people to communicate comfortably in English. The “average” Japanese student or business traveler is notorious for being barely able to convey even rudimentary information in English, despite years of classroom effort and considerable personal expenditure on conversation schools and a growing range of home-study materials.

Japanese families temporarily residing in English-speaking countries are invariably amazed at how quickly their youngest members pick up the local language, correct pronunciation and all. The capacity of children under 10 to effortlessly learn a new language has long been recognized by child psychologists and education experts. Seeking to take advantage of this, some private language schools here now have classes catering to children as young as 2, and a growing number of public elementary schools have introduced English as part of their general studies curricula.

Yet some advisers to the government find reasons to deny or ignore the obvious. Several members of the Council on National Language under Education Minister Nobutaka Machimura have just recommended against teaching English to children at an early age, advising instead that they concentrate on Japanese until they reach their teens. This is the group that has just recommended that Japanese names should be put in the Japanese order, with the family name first, when dealing with non-Japanese or in documents written in a foreign language, despite the confusion this can be expected to cause after so many years of reversing names to match the Western style.

Delaying the study of English for that long would mean the goal of national competency could never be reached. Fortunately, the panel’s complete report takes a much more welcome stance. It not only recommends that English education begin at the elementary-school level, it also calls for English to be taught to children in an enjoyable way, through the use of songs and games. The most startling of the group’s recommendations, and one that deserves more attention at every level of the education establishment, is for English to be taught in English. If that revolutionary but entirely realistic concept is to be implemented, many of Japan’s practicing English teachers will be out of jobs. In fact, Japan has already recruited some English teachers from Singapore and the Philippines to teach in public junior and senior high schools.

It has long been argued that not everyone in Japan needs to know English, but that is rapidly becoming untrue. “Globalization” is a word we may be tired of hearing, yet it accurately describes the revolution occurring in the fields of business, industry and information. Japan absolutely does need a better command of English in the coming century, not only to regain its competitive edge but in order that its citizens can receive the full benefits of these revolutions. That day will never come, however, without a large-scale government commitment to provide the necessary financial support — and until those Japanese who are competent in English are no longer subjected to the prejudices of those who are not and treated as somehow less than Japanese.

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