Japan | Japan’s 'global education': Learning English is not a magic wand

Japan’s ‘global education’: Learning English is not a magic wand

February 20, 2016 8:44 AM (UTC+8)


“The nail that sticks up gets pounded down” — Japanese proverb

Japanese people don’t really have straight-forward opinions on things, do they?” I hear this very often from some of my non-Japanese friends or acquaintances living here. Believe me, I, too, as a Japanese feel frustrated at times. But why do they say this so often? 

Is it because we just don’t care about things? Maybe so for some people, but not for all obviously. Is it the culture? Japanese people stress “harmony” or getting long with one another and dislike confrontation arising from a clash of opinions. But that’s not all.

Japanese character for 'harmony'
Japanese character for “harmony”

My answer: People in Japan aren’t simply used to or have not been given enough of an opportunity from an early age to form personal opinions on various issues or say what they think on specific topics — either at home or at school.

While some note a lack of specificity in Japanese viewpoints, a nationwide campaign is underway to give Japanese youngsters a linguistic edge in the global economy. Japan’s government, led by the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is currently pushing for early English education in elementary schools to produce more “globally-minded, globally-communicative and globally-competitive” workforce to help revive the world’s third-largest economy.

Companies like Japan’s e-commerce site, Rakuten, and Fast Retailing Co., which owns of Asia’s largest clothing retailer Uniqlo, are setting the trend by switching their in-house languages from Japanese to English,  while many companies are also starting to hire employees of different nationalities with different backgrounds to add diversity to their workforce diversify and bolster their corporate identities.

English class in Japanese school
English class in Japanese school

There are people around me, such as parents, educators, and corporate executives who say that they just cannot live or do business in today’s world speaking Japanese only, and living just by the Japanese values and culture. Without English language skills and the ability to be more communicative, persuasive, expressive and sometimes assertive, getting a good job and being successful in one’s career might be risky, they say.

As a mother of two school-age children myself, I think it’s a great idea that children can start learning English early — no doubt about that. But how good is the government’s new educational initiative, if students here learn English without learning how to express themselves better and develop critical thinking and good communication skills in their own language?

English isn’t a magic wand that can make Japanese students or people more creative, communicative, proactive and globally-competitive human resources in the future. Students here first need to learn how to speak up, convey their points clearly and present their viewpoints in Japanese — their native language. If they can do that in their mother tongue, they will be able to handle another language such as English the same way.

An executive working at a multinational Internet company in Tokyo recently told me of the struggles she’s had in hiring new Japanese college graduates. According to her, a good command of English is definitely one thing that any multinational company like hers seeks in a hire. She says university graduates here lack the English language skill, but more importantly, they seem to lack critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.  She considers the presence or absence of these skills to be core elements in deciding whether to offer them a position.

Critical thinking gap?

“At a company like ours, a globally active one, people need English, no question about that. But what’s more important is the ability to be independent, self-determining, responsible, communicative, persuasive and multicultural in mind. A lot of the Japanese students I’ve interviewed were smart but many of them didn’t have what I was looking for,” she says. The executive in her company often flies to New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai and other parts of the world.

Japanese Goddess Amaterasu emerges from a cave
Japanese Goddess Amaterasu emerges from a cave and enters the world.

Another Japanese executive who heads a medium-sized firm in the machinery business says his communication skills got better only after he started working on the job. This is because he was forced to be more outspoken and had to clearly state his opinions. He now travels all around the world, including the US, England, China, South Korea, Indonesia to negotiate with his customers.

“I think my communication skills got much better after college and so did my English,” he said. “My English wouldn’t have gotten better if my skills to do presentations in Japanese hadn’t gotten better. How well one can handle his own language has a lot to do with how well he can use another language,” he said.

The executive adds the weakness of the Japanese people in communicating in general may also come from the fact that they aren’t physically exposed to having different groups of people around them — people from different races, backgrounds and values in their daily lives from early childhood.

He adds that the skills one needs in an international business environment definitely go beyond the language skills. “It’s how tough, quick-witted, and flexible you can be, and on top of that, how well you can negotiate using English,” he says.

Japanese educators and students are both yet to be exposed to an “active-learning” style of education in which students themselves take initiatives and work on certain projects. This, as opposed to teachers simply telling them what to do.  Students here often sit and listen but lack the ability to question, analyze or debate with each other.

Shift in college entrance criteria

Japan’s universities started to change the way they admit students only recently. Instead of relying solely on a one-time, high-stakes entrance examination, a number of universities are now starting to look at students based on their activities in high school, strengths, and what they want to pursue after getting into the university.

Kyoto University, an elite Japanese university, plans to allow applicant essays, interviews, and recommendation letters to be factors in the admissions process, according to some news reports. Tokyo University, the country’s top university, is also looking at recommendations to as a factor in admissions as a method of achieving more diversity in those admitted to the country’s No. 1 university.

As part of this push, the Japan Association of National Universities plans to raise the percentage of successful candidates through applications and recommendations for college admission to 30% of the total from a current nil by year 2021, according news reports.

I, too, ponder about what I can do at my own home. What can I do, where do I start with my own children, aged 7 and 1?  I’ll probably start with a small step. I will ask my 7-year old daughter what she wants to eat for dinner tonight and ask her why.

If she cannot tell me what she wants to eat and why, and can’t give me some good reasons  for that, I will just make a soup with leftover vegetables in the refrigerator, which she doesn’t like. I will ask her the same question again tomorrow night, and probably again the next day, until she can come up what she wants and why she wants it. 

Junko Ashida is a former Japanese journalist and currently works as a part-time English teacher.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.