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Meeting the Challenge: My Hopes For Japan’s Future

Three changes that could help Japan from the perspective of a long term expat.

By 10 min read 22

Regular readers of my articles will know that through all of the work I have contributed to this site to date runs a common thread, my great love an enthusiasm for this country, Japan, my home. However, as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, feeling a deep emotional bond to place or person can at times cloud one’s judgment and somewhat skew one’s sense of perspective.

It would be all too easy to slide into the comfortable conceit that everything in Japan is wonderful, and anyone who says otherwise is just a “hater” who doesn’t understand the society or the culture as deeply as you do. Such an assertion is of course utterly nonsensical, but it is a trap into which I have seen many long term foreign residents fall.

Likewise, there is an equally large and vocal group of non-Japanese who have perhaps stayed here too long and for whom the land of milk and honey has long since soured. Such people are prone to depression, anti-social behavior and become hyper-sensitive to even the smallest cultural misunderstanding. As such even trivial, unfortunate mishaps in their daily lives come to be put down to the “engrained racism and small-mindedness of Japanese society.” I read recently an angry rant by one such writer. The source of his fury: The way some Japanese people say “hello” to foreigners.

Such a mindset is equally destructive and unhelpful. Luckily I believe at the moment I still manage to traverse the fine line between these light and dark sides of settling permanently in Japan. But then again I’ve only been here for 7 of the past 10 years. Maybe when I’ve been here a couple more decades I will become equally dark and cynical, but I certainly hope not.

However, as much as I love living in Japan, I am certainly not under the misguided notion that this country is perfect. It got me thinking, what small changes could be made to daily life here to make things just that little bit better?

For your own consideration and discussion I now present some of my ideas.

End the stigma of non-permanent workers.

As an English teacher here in Japan, one of the biggest issues for us all is job security. Unless you are extremely fortunate, finding employment on a contract more than one or two years is nigh on impossible. As such English teachers are made to sweat it out at the end of every academic year hoping that their contract will be renewed.

To their credit the government did, in its own misguided, bureaucratic way, try to resolve this issue a few years ago. They decreed that anyone employed by a company on a non-permanent basis for more than 5 years (3 years in some cases) should have the right to request permanent employment after completing this proscribed period of work.

Japan needs to make it easier to fire permanent workers who underperform so that non-permanent workers can have the chance to be rewarded for their hard work.

Unfortunately, the legislation was full of holes and created an even bigger labour instability as workers all across Japan now find themselves placed on contracts with a maximum renewal limit of 3 to 5 years. In other words, no matter how hard you work, or how much you accomplish, when your pre-determined limit is up, you are out the door regardless.

So how could this be fixed? I believe it will require a bit of give and take from both sides.

The main problem from a company’s perspective is that they do not want to be stuck with workers they cannot dismiss should their work become substandard. In short, if you get a permanent position with a company in Japan, the laws are so tight that it is almost impossible for the employer to fire you, without facing a raft of legal implications. In short, Japan needs to make it easier to fire permanent workers who underperform so that non-permanent workers can have the chance to be rewarded for their hard work.

A loosening of the restrictions on dismissal of permanent workers should also run in tandem with extending the legal protections covering temporary workers too. In other words, a meeting in the middle which would hopefully negate the current impasse.

Regulate and enforce working hours

It is something of a cliché to those who have lived any length of time in Japan to see the sleepy salaryman on the last train home, briefcase in one hand and a beer in the other, looking absolutely shattered after his 14 hour day at the office. However it is a simple and undeniable fact that Japanese people work longer hours than most other countries and this has a direct impact on their health, their emotional state and their ability to build personal relationships.

The problem has got so bad in recent years that they even created a word “Karoshi” meaning specifically “death from overwork”. The obvious mental damage caused by overwork is also, I believe a contributing factor to Japan’s scandalously high suicide rate.


This is a difficult one to tackle as the tendency to work long hours and dedicate yourself completely to your company is so heavily enshrined in Japanese working culture. Legal enforcement with strong penalties for violators seems to be the only way forward.

In Europe, the Working Time Directive has, by and large, helped to greatly reduce the amount of unpaid overtime for workers. There are a few exemptions from the legislation, police and hospital staff for example, but most office workers are included in the mandated 48 hour maximum work week. A minimum of 20 days annual leave is also part of the directive, and is double the Japanese minimum of 10.
Enforcement is key however, and in Europe companies who knowingly violate the directive can face massive fines, and in some cases managers and directors of companies have even gone to prison. However, given the extremely cosy relationship that the Abe government seems to have with big business at the moment it’s hard to foresee any progress in this area anytime soon.

Expand English and other foreign language education to all grades of school.

The last point is a controversial one, as there are two very distinct lines of thought flowing through this debate.

On one hand there are the liberal thinkers such as myself who believe strongly in globalization and that Japan must do more to improve its English communication skills. Like it or not, English remains the main language of international business and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In other countries I have visited such as Hong Kong and Holland, I have noticed that the level of English amongst the general populous is exponentially higher than that of Japan. The main reason for this is, I believe down to the early age at which they start studying English. In both countries, English begins in kindergarten and many other subjects are taught exclusively in English throughout your entire school life.

However, starting English classes earlier won’t just impact on students’ language abilities, it will also make them more comfortable with foreigners and foreign culture. I’m a great believer in the idea that no-one is born with prejudice, rather prejudice and racist attitudes are acquired through education, or the lack thereof. Showing Japanese children positive foreign role models from an early age will go a long way to shaping their attitudes toward foreigners as adults.

Take the example of an experience I had while teaching in Okayama.

I was teaching a 5th grade elementary class. I would ask a few students to repeat the new words individually as a means of checking comprehension. They did so very well, with the exception of one girl. This girl would simply look away whenever I asked her a question. I assumed she just had some kind of nervous issue with public speaking, so I let the matter drop.

However, later that same day, I was having lunch with that same class. By coincidence I found myself sitting next to this same girl. The other students at the table were all happily engaging me in conversation, albeit almost exclusively in Japanese. But this girl remained silent. I asked her if she was enjoying her lunch. At that point she stood up, turned away from me and went to sit at another table.

I raised the matter with her homeroom teacher, and his response was sadly all too predictable.

“Oh don’t worry,” he said, “it’s not your fault. Her parents told her never to speak to foreigners.”

I would hope that if this girl’s parents had been exposed to English and to foreigners from an early age, such racist attitudes would not have been allowed to take root.

However, as I said in the beginning, there are two trains of thought in this debate. There is also the notion that children in Japan must acquire skill and proficiency in their own language before trying to learn another. However, research shows that a child’s mind is most susceptible to language acquisition between the ages of 3 and 7. Japanese kids don’t even start English lessons until the age of 10. However plans are afoot to expand English lessons to incorporate third and fourth graders into English studies within the next few years.

You’ll notice that in my heading I said foreign language learning, not only English. The enmity between Japan and its close neighbours China and the two Koreas is well documented. However, again I believe the best way to defeat hate is through education. Perhaps if younger students were taught a little about the culture and language of these places, they would realise they aren’t really so different after all.

I remember a small part of my Catholic school education in Scotland involved being taught, albeit in a brief introductory way, about some of the other major religions of the world. Whilst I personally have long since rejected religious doctrine in general, I would like to think that educational initiatives such as that practiced at my old school are part of the reason why islamophobia and hate crimes in general are lower in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. If it could work in Scotland, it could certainly work in Japan too.

In closing, I think a few points need clarifying. In writing a piece like this I realise I may attract a certain amount of criticism. There are a group of people in Japan who often adopt the attitude that “if you don’t like it, you can go back to your own country”. Indeed to these deluded souls even the slightest criticism of Japan is interpreted as a personal attack.

This kind of borderline racism does no one any favours and if everyone took that attitude society would never progress. And besides as a hard-working, tax paying, contributor to Japanese society, I believe what I have to say has no more or less validity than anyone else’s opinion.

However, I really hope those who read this will have the wisdom to see what I’m trying to achieve here. I love Japan. I have travelled the world and realized that for me and the hopes and dreams I have for my future, there is no better place I can be than here. I love the place, I love the people. I write this critique not to sound like a smartass or to pretend I know all the answers, because I don’t. But when you love someone you want to do all you can to help them realize their full potential. I remain, as always, hopeful, and positive as I look to the future.

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  • Elle Juarez says:

    There are a lot of things I think should change like English education, improving the salary of Japanese and non-Japanese workers, getting rid of all these fees especially when you rent an apartment, improving work environment for both men and women and ending the over work. (I think if you work 12 hours a week you’re either a high level executive in a company or a healthcare professional. Also pay women based on their dedication to their work and not pay them less because of their gender)

    Make it easier for parents to raise a family because right now not many Japanese are inclined to raise a family. Also the older generation shouldn’t expect the you generation men to work and the women to stay home and be a housewife. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Another thing to improve is the garbage and recycling.Does Japan really need to have 5 or more bags to sort things? In the U.S it’s more simplified you have garbage and recycling that’s it.

    I’m not complaining but I still think Japan has a long way to go in terms of developing as a country and improving the lives of it’s citizens as well as gaijin living or vacationing there.

    It would also be beneficial to relax the immigration laws a bit. Japan can’t hide from the fact that it’s not the only country on the face of the planet nor can it isolate itself from other countries because it needs the trade. They shouldn’t be afraid of foreigners, have stereotypes about them because they’re too scared or proud to actually learn more about other people and their cultures, and they shouldn’t try and take advantage of gaijin. Like it or not gaijin are interested in their country and they will vacation there or live there temporarily or permanently so they have to get used to it.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thats an interesting point of view, however i disagree with your conclusion.
    Firstly the sensei and i actually had a very good working relationship and i highly doubt he would have mocked me.
    Secondly, several other students in the class had mild autism, dyslexia and a variety of other learning and social difficulties which the homeroom teacher had no problem discussing with me so i doubt she was a special case.
    Thirdly, whilst this is a possiblity i worked with this particular teacher for more than a year and while he wasnt perfect, he certainly was not lazy.
    Im glad you have personally never experienced such things in Japan, but racism is a real issue here. Sadly too many Japanese themselves seem unwilling to accept that.

  • Adam says:

    Is that what they did to teacher’s contracts? Tough break. You can get full time work. You need to speak Japanese for real and get an introduction. I did web design full time, but ironically left after a year due to low pay. (7 times higher pay in the States for a front-end developer.)

  • Zerum Mc says:

    Why are you so afraid that ppl think you don’t like japan. That itself speaks volum. read your post in say hmmm 7 years. I think you are being treated for cancer about that time. Oh am i mean? Not really i am positiv, but also realistic. I did not really like your post, because i feel you dont know japan other from the outside, (Honne and tatema) right? but hey, thats what i feel from reading that post so dont worry about it.Anyway japanese, or say about 99% of the japanese think they are superior to the rest of the world or ” other species” thats why one of the things they truly belive is that they have longer intestines than other ppl, basic brain washing.well i sound bitter now. What i really dislike is that japan do sutch a great job on destroying life on this planet and totally destroy the pasific. Land of shame!
    we should call it, if you ask me. Well whatever, right? Carpe diem. Actually in 7 years you should rememer this post coz of the pasific ocean. Not sorry to tell my feelings. Stay positiv.Sincerly hanyō Or is it halfu.

  • Brodie Taylor says:

    The mental health system seems some serious upgrading, it is way behind other countries and this is partly why the suicide rate in Japan is so high.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Totally agree. The culture of suffering problems in silence also needs to change.

  • Wabisabi says:

    Overall, nice ideas, but I disagree with the starting age of English education without certain conditions. Minato ward in Tokyo actually ‘learn’ English twice a week from the first grade of elementary school, but can’t have a conversation as all they do is parrot. No writing because, as my eigo tanto said, “They can’t write, they learn to write in junior high school”, so they just forget everything as soon as the lesson finishes. The teachers are also keen on repeating set phrases with no elaboration, in English or Japanese, about what can change or the linguistic categories involved, so none of them know how the language works other than within that set phrase. On top of that, the local government hires Interac to both provide ‘native teachers’ (untrained, underpaid, glorified ALTs) and also test the quality of the teaching (akin to having a fox guard chickens).

    I think English education is fine starting at junior high school level if the style is changed to make the curriculum more practical and useful beyond just translation from English in to Japanese. Even people in the UK have better foreign language skills and there isn’t much emphasis on it anymore, let alone 6 years of intensive study for 6 hours a week. Shinagawa ward has a more hands-on curriculum compared to Minato ward, students only learn once a week from the first grade of elementary, but have almost as big a vocabulary, and, crucially, can have a proper conversation before finishing the 6th grade. Their program obviously has much less funding but the results are a lot better as it actually challenges the kids to think and interact with the language.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      You make a very valid point and thanks for contributing. I always believe that whatever age we start language study, all 4 skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking must be taught simultaneously. Your point about inadequately trained ALTs is also valid. Native English Teacher training is an area that sadly not enough people in japan take seriously.

  • Brenton says:

    I think the mindset you have could do some good for our world as a whole, not just Japan. I also believe that prejudice and racist attitudes are a learned concept through the lack of relevant education. Being able to effectively communicate with those around us is crucial for understanding our cultural differences. More importantly though, we are able to find our similarities and shared experiences which help remove the stigma of being different to begin with. I love the post. Thank you for writing it!

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks very much for the positive feedback. Im glad you see what i was trying to achieve in writing this article.

  • Maggie Flos says:

    I’m currently an exchange student and can experience the lack of English education among my piers. One of the undergrads is of the rare species who can speak English, most undergrads don’t speak a word and one of my fellow Master colleagues can not present a paper in English.
    I think there is also something that has to change within the academic field. The system is extremely traditional with it’s strict hierarchy. Hierarchy itself is not a bad thing but it’s not being utilized in a good manner here, I have been lectured down by my professor when trying to engage in a scientific discussion and have seen students being publicly shamed for their insufficient command of English and for asking questions during a seminar. The public shaming frequently involved being laughed at and the question/comment being made fun of and devalued. If the hierarchy was being employed to educate and motivate students the suicide rates of University students would probably drop.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Public shaming is unfortunately one of the downsides to the educational culture here. I always try to make as positive an atmosphere as i can in my classroom. People need confidence to use what they have learned otherwise what little english they know will soon be forgotten.

  • Timothy Hill says:

    I completely agree with your three points.
    My girlfriend is a native junior high school English teacher, and we can see first-hand all your points effecting the classroom. The one thing I would add is the plain and simple fact that almost every English class is geared to meet the needs of the education system which is primarily focused on having students take tests. Constantly cram studying for English tests, and rarely being given an opportunity for speaking practise is no way to learn a new language.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thats a very good point Timothy. The over-emphasis on teaching to test rather than acquiring skills is a major issue not just for English but for Japanese education in general.

  • papiGiulio says:

    Good points, let me add some others:

    – bann smoking in restaurants/bars or entrance of public places (in fact raise the tax 500%)
    – enforce traffic laws more severely. Especially running cars running red lights or dont stop for zebrazones and kids not wearing seatbelts.
    – force employees to take days off. Or give employees the chance to take 1 or 2 full week holidays (similar in Europe)
    – punish people who leave kids alone in their cars

    With that being said, Japan is a great country and no country is perfect but if these changes would happen, Japan would be so much better 🙂

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Totally agree on the smoking thing. It was really nice last time i was back in Scotland to be able to sit in the pub and enjoy the atmosphere without all the second hand smoke.

    • Michelle Armstrong says:

      I hate the smoking! My eyes were on fire while playing darts and everyone was smoking around me!

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Completely agree with the smoking ban!

      • Jinx15 says:

        Noooo! I love how I can smoke just about anywhere in Japan. I can even smoke at a certain place at my school. That’s a deal breaker for me..

        Please keep your lax smoking rules and cheap tobacco prices Japan!

        • Boey Kwan says:

          I support your opinion, because the private “Smoking Rooms” in Japanese corporations are quite thoughtful and useful. On the other hand, second-hand smoke is usually a health threat. Having it anywhere (ie. in public places) is a big source of discomfort for people.

          The disconcerting demographic is that Japan’s elderly population is said to be 40% of the entire Japanese population by the year 2060. Smoking and second-hand smoke is a threat to the safety of, perhaps, more vulnerable sets of lungs in the future.

          The freedom to smoke is completely justified, of course. Just think it’d be good to keep the smoke to specialized rooms, or put signs in front of smoking bars/restaurants.

  • Dirk Steirbich says:

    Indeed!!! Early Education is must!!



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