The Japanese Today And English Teaching Today

June 28, 2010

I recently read The Japanese Today, a misleadingly titled book by Edwin O. Reischauer and Marius B. Jansen about, well, the Japanese today. Except it was originally published in the late 80s, detailing a pre-recession Japan and thus missing a lot of cultural points prominent in Japanese society nowadays that arose following the bursting of the bubble economy (Jansen provides an updated look at Japan, but only up to 1994). The Japanese Today starts as an excellent condensed history of the country, before becoming a fawning look at once-contemporary Japan. Reischauer occasionally slips up during these chapters, not for lack of information because of his tendency to slip into old-man mode, bemoaning trends embraced by the young (in particular, he knocks cartoons and manga. He also tells some kids to get off his lawn). Despite these lapses, it’s an incredibly informative book that sheds a lot of light on the country’s history and political system. A very good read.

The chapter striking the biggest chord with me came late in the book. It focuses on language in Japan and besides reminding me I shouldn’t beat myself up so much about not being a pro at Japanese…after championing nearly every facet of Japanese culture, Reischauer admits the Japanese language might be the most complicated language in the world…it also devotes a significant chunk to looking at how English is taught in Japan. Which…is what I do, of course I’m interested. It’s this portion of his book where the outdated-ness of the text serves as an illumination. Mostly to show that nothing has changed in nearly two decades in terms of teaching English in Japan.

Reischauer notes that the Japanese, “who have been so successful in most of their efforts to modernize their country,” have failed notably when it comes to foreign language learning, especially English. It wasn’t always that way – prompted by America’s arrival in Japan, the Japanese “rapidly mastered sufficient English to survive the crisis and start their climb to technological equality.” By the 20th century though, they started slipping – Reischauer says “it had become possible to learn all that seemed necessary about science and the outside world through Japanese books and translations,” thus erasing the demand for English speakers.

This shift led to the status of English teaching in the country today. Reischauer notes “the teaching of foreign languages froze into an antiquated system that students found boring in its emphasis on recondite points of grammar and classical texts. Conversation and possibly useful contemporary written English were all but ignored.” Despite Reischauer writing this in reference to pre-World War II Japan, that sentence sums up English teaching in the country today except “classical texts” have been replaced with a textbook featuring the story of Paul and Kumi learning about soft tennis. Conversational English skills remain deemphasized, the focus placed on memorizing grammar and dialogues. The idea English is actually incredibly flexible and can be used creativity rarely enters the picture, instead being treated like math – rigid and defined.
(At this point, I’ll note a lot of anecdotal evidence will pop up. I’m certainly no expert on all this, mostly just reinforcing points made by actual experts two decades ago. I’ll play the blog card here.)

American education grapples with the same issue responsible for this – teaching for a test. High schools and colleges in Japan require students to take entrance exams to see whether they are allowed to attend. This isn’t like the American university selection system, where a standardized test (SAT or ACT) plays just one part in a larger application. The test thus becomes EVERYTHING for Japanese students. And, as Reischauer observes throughout his book, the schools one goes to determines just how successful they’ll be in life. Naturally, students take this all very seriously, attending after-school school (juku or “cram school”) and generally going batshit crazy over it. Reischauer sums it up: “The pressures on the examination taker are tremendous, and the whole process is commonly referred to as the ‘examination hell.'”

They emphasize the grammatical side of English on these exams and, to give the students the best shot possible, schools focus on this in the classroom. I can’t blame them at all – considering just how much weight these tests carry, as long as the current system exists teachers should help students prepare for it. The result, though, is very few students actually learn much useful English. There are of course exceptions…I’ve encountered a handful of students with near-excellent grasps on the language, and anyone truly passionate about learning it can spend some time at outside conversation schools focusing solely on English…but for the most part it’s no different than how I used to cram for Intro To International Relations tests – learning a lot then promptly forgetting after I squeaked by on the test.

Reischauer wrote in the late 80s “the irony of the situation is that Japan has ready at hand all the necessary tools for language reform” before listing off points like young English speakers willing to teach in Japan for modest pay, access to study abroad programs and even “electronic gadgetry” that would aid in learning. The situation has definitely improved – I’ve met lots of people who spent some time studying abroad, people lug around electronic dictionaries or just upload one to their Nintendo DS and, yeah, Japan found a way to get all those young English speakers over. Around the time Reischauer’s book was first published, the JET Programme (yep, funny spelling and all) came into being, a program meant to bring English-speaking university graduates to Japan to work in schools, a sorta cultural exchange. It’s the program I’m currently on. This, combined with the rise in independent dispatch companies providing Assistant Language Teachers, has given Japanese students a wealth of resources to learn English.

Yet it’s still not working.

Reischauer notes “the meager results in language learning despite all these possibilities make on suspect that the real problem is a lack of interest on the part of the Japanese leadership and public.” Though he admits it seems “ridiculous,” I don’t think he’s off-base. Many online have speculated that JET came into being more to say “hey, look, we are trying to deal with this” instead of actually dealing with it. If the Japanese government wanted to truly improve English fluency, they’d make a lot of reforms to the entire process. First and foremost, they’d improve English training for Japanese English teachers…a point Reischauer takes some time exploring (I won’t dwell on it, but…though I work with some very good teachers, a few have admitted they didn’t really study to be English teachers. That’s probably not the preferred situation). They’d start teaching English earlier on…which, is happening, more on that later. Yet no major, sweeping reforms appear imminent. If Japan hopes to keep up in a rapidly globalizing world, becoming better at other languages is vital.

Which raises a very good question – does Japan even want to keep up? A lot has changed since Reischauer first tackled this subject…then, Japan was primarily dealing economically with America. Jansen’s supplemental chapter reveals that, by the mid-90s, the focus had shifted from dealing with the U.S. to other nations in Asia. And, as it becomes clear China will eventually leapfrog Japan to become the economic powerhouse of the region (hell, this might have happened already), dealing even more with Asian country’s makes sense. Many frequenting English-teachers-in-Japan message boards discuss this exact issue – why should Japanese students even learn English at all? Many argue they’d be better off being taught Mandarin or Korean in schools…or even Portuguese on account of Japan’s high Brazilian population…, while others just wish more choices were available to students like in America (a noble view, but given how difficult it is to teach just English, imagine trying to mobilize French or Spanish education). Both great ideas, but if Japan wants to remain a world economic power, learning English still remains vital.

But do they even want to remain a major player on the world scene? A recent poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun found that 65 percent of people polled would rather suffer a decline in economic vitality than accept more immigrants into the country. Japan has bigger issues to deal with anyway…their biggest problem is the rapidly aging population, and there won’t be many people to teach any language if that somehow isn’t fixed. If Japan wants to be slightly less prominent on the global scale…nobody should stop them.

Let’s pretend Japan does want to remain a global power though, and decides English is necessary for that purpose. How do you fix the system? There is one obvious answer that I, countless people online and even Reischauer in the 80s point out…start teaching English (or whatever foreign language) younger. To Japan’s credit, they have begun teaching English in elementary schools, but only in the sixth grade. I believe it should be taught even earlier, as the earlier a child is exposed to a language the more likely they are to retain and become more interested in it. Bluntly put…English can be more fun in elementary schools while in junior and senior high school it often isn’t. The few times I’ve visited elementary schools, the students seem genuinely excited to learn English, especially the little ones…one second grade class asked more interesting questions and thus learned more interesting words than any of my junior high classes have. Just this morning on the bus to school, two six-year-old students sitting in front of me spent the whole ride trying to figure out how to say “good morning” to me. They eventually did, and even tried out other English words they know. Young kids want to learn. Older kids just want a break from “examination hell.”

(One final aside: many people online believe the JET Programme is a big waste and that the Japanese government would be better off scrapping it. I do believe the program could use slight modifications, but a lot of those arguing for its removal tend to ignore the fact the biggest benefit of the program doesn’t come through straight-up English teaching. It’s really from exposing students, especially those in rural areas where they may have never seen a foreigner before, to those from other cultures. Again, unless Japan wants to remove itself more from the global stage, this exposure is vital.)

Coming up on the year-mark since I’ve been teaching in Japan, I can safely say I thoroughly enjoy my job and the students I work with. But I also see that the system has many flaws, the same flaws Reischauer points out in his book. Many people in the same position as me treat English teaching in Japan grimly, a hopeless charade. I think it can be salvaged. That is, if the Japanese want to keep pace with the modern world.

(Japanese Fun Fact #70 – Continuing the theme of “the Japanese sometimes play American music not suitable for the current situation,” I’ve noticed my gym playing more and more songs not appropriate for working out. Mostly random commercial rap tracks by hack MCs loaded with crates-worth of “fucks” and “fuck that.” It’s becoming less jarring each time. More surprising would be the recent addition of LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” to the gym-speaker playlist. Besides hinting at a big jump in popularity for the band, it’s also all about the titular subject of drunk girls doing the sorts of things drunk girls do while lead singer James Murphy says something about pedophiles. Always great hearing “Soak Up The Sun” follow it.)

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One Response to “The Japanese Today And English Teaching Today”

  1. […] already touched on this issue before, but for the quick version…JET probably needs a little revamping but is still really […]

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