Commentary / Japan

Why Japan's English education is a fiasco

by Kuni Miyake

Researchers from more than 80 think tanks in Asia and rest of the world gathered in Bangkok this week. The event was called “Asia-Pacific Think Tank Summit” with the subtitle “Managing Transitions, Trade and Turmoil: The Role of Think Tanks.” It was co-organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), headquartered in Bangkok since 1949, and Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies.

One of 120 participants from 30-plus countries, I was lucky to chair a plenary session on the second day titled “The Future of Security and Prosperity of Asia Pacific.” The panelists were German, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Indian and South Korean foreign policy experts. Each of them discussed the region’s complicated security issues in fluent or in at least good English.

Unfortunately, the English proficiency of the Japanese participants was fair at best and sometimes less understandable than other participants. They were relatively quiet in the question and answer sessions, where they seldom raised their hands even if they seemed to have relevant questions.

What went wrong? Most of the Japanese participants are highly educated researchers or experts in international affairs. All of them have studied English at least for six years and many have studied abroad as well. Nonetheless, their English sounded inferior to that of their counterparts from other non-English speaking nations. How did this happen?

This reminded me of a terrifying news story I read on my way to Bangkok from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. According to the Jiji Press article, the English-language proficiency level for Japanese was ranked 53rd in an annual survey of 100 non-English speaking countries and regions by EF Education First, down from 49th place in last year’s survey.

EF Education First is an international education firm specialized in language training and cultural exchange. The Swedish  company was founded in 1965 by a scholar and has developed a standardized English test for non-native English speakers, including Japanese high school students. In the latest result, Japan lagged far behind other Asian countries. Singapore came in fifth, the Philippines 20th, South Korea 37th, Taiwan 38th, and China was 40th. Japan also fell below the world average along with Russia, Vietnam and Iran.

My grief doesn’t stop here. Remember the recent fiasco of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology? It shook the teachers and others involved in English education in Japan with its unbelievable decision to postpone the introduction of private-sector English tests in a new unified university entrance examination system from fiscal 2020.

The decision was triggered by a gaffe by education minister Koichi Hagiuda, who said that students should compete for university spots “in accordance with their (financial) standing.” The National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals requested that the use of the private-sector tests be delayed, arguing that they would be discriminatory.

The editorials of Tokyo’s major newspapers echoed the views of the principals. “The new system is defective (Mainichi)” and “its planning was poor” (Yomiuri). “This is the education ministry’s fiasco” (Nikkei), “English education should not rely on private-sector tests” (Sankei) and “Classes must be reformed before reforming exams” (Asahi).

I was appalled by the editorials. They don’t understand the vicious circle of English education in Japan. The private-sector tests didn’t exacerbate unfairness among Japanese students of English — that was done by their English teachers who cannot speak and communicate in English.

I know from experience that children will never become good English speakers if their teachers don’t speak English. Students won’t start speaking English until they have an English teacher who can speak English well. Japan has failed to introduce this kind of English education for the past century.

In this regard, the Nov. 9 Japan Times editorial, “Don’t freeze English education reform,” really hit the nail on the head. While criticizing the government for its administrative mess, the editorial defended the badly needed English education reform.

The editorial stated that this (decision) “will mean the shift to the new test system will be postponed until 2024, and hence the reform of English education will also be delayed. Since Japan already lags behind other countries in terms of English speaking and writing skills, it can’t waste any time in implementing English education reform. … If the government had stepped in to provide financial support or help private-test operators find test venues in different regions, it might have been possible to reduce these disparities. Before completely giving up on the new system, it should have considered whether it was really impossible to address these problems.” Well said!

I studied English in the United States but started speaking it in Japan. I also studied Chinese and Arabic abroad. This made me realize that students will never start speaking foreign languages unless their teachers can speak the languages. It’s clear what kind of reform is a prerequisite for improving Japan’s English education. To enable students to acquire practical communication skills, we must replace English teachers who cannot speak English with those who can. They do not have to be foreigners; Japanese teachers who can speak English are fine.

By postponing the private-sector English tests till 2024, the education ministry only secured fairness by making every student less skillful in English communication, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, or whether they live in the city or in rural regions.

What we must guarantee students of English is not fairness in results but fairness in opportunities. Even kids who live on remote islands can learn to speak English if their teachers can do so. A government-funded EF Standard English Test, for example, would be the first step toward accomplishing this goal.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.