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What will the Olympics Mean for English Teachers in Japan?

There is nothing like the risk of humiliation on the international stage to accelerate change amongst Japan’s bulbous bureaucratic classes

By 4 min read 24

Ever since Japan’s government first “got serious” about English education, with the introduction of the much-maligned, and undeniably expensive JET program in the 1980s, Various schemes have tried and failed to raise English levels in Japan. Levels which even today remain embarrassingly low. Despite currently having at least 6 years of classes at public schools, amongst the Japanese public at large, less than 5% have even basic communicative competence in English.

I realise that as someone from the UK I’m not really in a position to criticise anyone’s foreign language competency, but it has to be said that lack of English is a big problem in Japan. Of the various schemes that have been tried over the last 30 years none seem to have been able to crack the ingrained mindset amongst the Japanese populace that English is too difficult, too troublesome and of little if any value to the daily life of the average Japanese citizen.

Prime Minister Abe made the grand pledge that within the next 10 years he wants to have a native English teacher working in every elementary and junior high school in Japan.

However, with the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, the prospect of global humiliation seems to have finally shaken Japan’s leaders from their complacent slumber. English is back on the political agenda, in a big way.

Last year Prime Minister Abe made the grand pledge that within the next 10 years he wants to have a native English teacher working in every elementary and junior high school in Japan. Based on my own experience of the current system where one teacher can be expected to cover anything from 3 up to 6 or 7 different schools in a year, achieving this lofty goal is going to require not just a major investment but also a major reimagining of the role that ALT (Assistant Language Teachers) play in the classroom.

As a tentative first step towards realising this ultimate objective, from next year English is to be offered as an official, academic subject at elementary school for the first time. Whereas currently grades 5 and 6 of most elementary schools in Japan will have some degree of English instruction, the level and extent of classes covered during the school year varies radically from place to place. Whereas some elementary schools will have an hour of English once a week, others are lucky to get it once a month.

With this standardization, English will also begin to be taught at a younger age. The current, unofficial status which English enjoys in elementary grades 5 and 6 is to be extended down to grades 3 and 4. It is hoped that by starting formal English study, albeit in an unassessed environment, two years earlier that overall communicative competence can be raised considerably.

Abe has, in his usual non-committal way, also spoken of possibly extending the JET program to meet the increased demand for native teachers. However, considering the way in which JET continues to be reduced in most urban areas, considering how much more it costs than hiring a regular ALT, this seems both unrealistic and unlikely.

What is far more likely is a great increase in the number of ALT positions, all across Japan. So, for those of you hoping to come to Japan, there is perhaps a renewed hope.

After the twin catastrophes of the tsunami and consequent nuclear fallout in 2011, following hot on the heels of the collapse of language school chains Nova and Geos a few years earlier, the English teaching industry in Japan contracted considerably. With this bold new government venture, buoyed by the renewed interest in English in Japan, there could be a great many new opportunities for teachers here. With increased demand will hopefully also come an improvement in working conditions and perhaps, finally, an end to the gradual slide that has seen average base salaries for entry level English teachers drop by around 35% since I first came to Japan 10 years ago.

Taken in tandem with the long overdue reforms to Japan’s employment laws, which finally seem to be gaining some momentum, we could be on the cusp of a renewed boom in the English teaching industry, not just for public school teachers such as myself, but also for my comrades in the Eikaiwa (private language schools) and corporate teaching sectors.

Of course, I could be totally wrong, and this whole sense of optimism could prove to be yet another false dawn, but if recent history has taught me one thing, there is nothing like the risk of humiliation on the international stage to accelerate change amongst Japan’s bulbous bureaucratic classes.

English teaching in Japan will never make you a millionaire, but after the dark times of the last few years, it seems, finally, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, lit up by the famous Olympic flame.

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  • Heather says:

    It didn’t happen for the Nagano games. Why would it happen now?

  • Steve says:

    The reason the Japanese “aren’t good at English” is simply the fact that they don’t need to be. Your average Japanese attends Japanese public schools, may go onto Japanese higher education and then is employed by a Japanese company thus continually being surrounded by first only Japanese students then all Japanese colleagues. Then again anybody coming to Japan with ” sugar plums dancing” in their heads i.e. make lots of easy yen and shag scores of hot Japanese babes should get a reality check: that party has been over for 15 years. Come to Japan for some good reasons like studying a martial art under a master, or another tradional Japanese art under a ” living cultural treasure”, work under an esteemed manga artist or for an anime studio, to learn the Japanese language , to photograph this gorgeous country or simple live in and explore this beautiful archipaego but to teach English??? Maybe to earn some yen to support your other endeavors while living here but committed EFL professionals should get this: it is a race to the bottom financially wise and you can do much better than teach some brain dead, lobotomizied lunks surrounded by colleagues that look like the characters in the bar scene from Star Wars.

  • Kazuya Yonekura says:

    Please imagine someone who speaks different language without much teaching skill demonstrating alone in a classroom surrounded by an unskilled Japanese English teacher and monkey-like students. I’m not intimidating you but the reality is JP students are too busy preparing for the entrance exams and rarely have true interest in speaking English at that stage, as explained by Mr. Chris Broad above. So teachers had better realize and understand this difficult situation before they apply.

  • FF says:

    The problem with English in Japan is Japanese culture. Is not politicians or people. Is everything. Their culture is very isolated and closed. Japanese want to keep it that way. It makes it hard for foreigners to live in Japan and makes it hard for Japan to connect with the rest of the world. When I was a teacher I always asked my students : how many foreigner friends do you have? The answer was always: zero. To learn a language you need to practice with foreigners who speak it well. There are very few foreigners living in Japan because is a culture that doesn’t make it easy for foreigners to live there. Finding foreigners to speak with often requires paying money. The best way to learn the language is to live abroad for a while in an English speaking country say Australia or Canada. In fact go to English School when you’re really very young to get exposed to it then when you’re a bit older move abroad and then you gonna learn it. That way your English will be perfect. English is not about shame or colonialism . Not anymore. Is empowerment. Is having a voice in the world. How many people wanna yell out to the world but can’t cause nobody understands them? Teaching English to people is giving them a voice in the global arena. Having a voice that the whole world can hear you gives you power.

  • LoveJapan says:

    I think the bigger issue why the Japanese are where they are with their inability to speak English is the lack of their own government failing to keep the same broken educational system that only tests its citizens on grammar. Grammar doesn’t mean anything if you can’t even open your mouth to form a coherent sentence.

    • Heather says:

      That’s how they teach everything here. Practical application of learned material is practically non existent. This is why, despite high math and science scores, Japan consistently places low (relatively) on international tests. Those tests, aside from just asking kids to solve equations, introduce practical application questions, and they have no clue what to do. It’s not taught. In Japan, students can just take make up tests until they pass if they fail one. High schools might say they have a pass mark of 60%, but kids get promoted a grade with 30% average. They shouldn’t need to go to a juku in order to be able to pass entrance exams. They should instead be held accountable for the work they do in actual school and schools curriculums should reflect higher education entrance exam knowledge. As it stands now, kids can goof off in school because there are no consequences for it.

    • FF says:

      I must agree about the grammar point. Grammar helps but in the end you still goanna speak broken english. They really need to put anyone with really amazing english skills (foreign or not) into schools as teachers.

    • incumbent says:

      Actually, the students don’t learn grammar. Ask any student, at any level, “What is a noun?” They will not be able to respond, “The name of a person, place or thing.” Which is to say, they don’t know the first thing about grammar. (And yet, you’re right, they will claim to know grammar and will claim to have been taught grammar.) They’re products of a pedagogy deceptively termed the “Grammar Translation Method”. What it means is that they’ve learned to translate every English word they see into a Japanese word, and then apply an algorithm to put those words together into a semi-coherent format (much like Google Translate). The name they give that algorithm is “grammar,” but it’s not grammar.

      The reason they’re given this instruction in this way, BTW, is not to learn English. It’s to learn how the Japanese language appropriates the English language.

  • LoveJapan says:

    Because English is king, that’s why.

  • anonymous says:

    While Abe’s conviction of bringing in more ALTs and expanding the JET Program for further English instruction sounds legit, it does not appear that they are following through….I am from the US, obviously a native English speaker, earned my BA and majored in English Language Learner Studies. Not only did I study English, within this degree, I also studied cultures from all over the world and how to properly teach to people of all ages, of all cultures, and of all English proficiency levels. I graduated with honors, a GPA of 3.9, earned many awards, on Dean’s List every semester, had academic references, and have a Japanese wife, whom is a citizen of Japan; yet, the JET Program rejected my application.

    Anyway, JET’s loss….I have begun my search for another company that would love my ALT services!

    • Heather says:

      Osaka board of education is looking for teachers. Must speak some Japanese.

    • Anon says:

      Someone’s clearly still bitter about the whole thing.

      Of course the government is following through. There’s almost 5,000 ALTs with the JET Programme alone each year. Perhaps if you spent more time contemplating how you could give back in terms of cultural knowledge, or kindness, and so on, you might have come out with a better result. Reeling off about your academic performance on some kind of ego-trip when really they just want a high level of English and a Bachelor’s is just laughable.

  • Christer Justad Krane says:

    I believe it would, but they also need to seriously change the way they learn english in the classrom. Japanese education, the way I experience it, is so extremely stiff. Everything has concrete rules for how you do it, and these rarely change.

  • Joe says:

    Why the whole humiliated thing. Should a nation not be allowed to freely speak its own language without knowing English. Here in western countries it’s not like people go out of their way to learn foreign languages like Japanese. People just expect everyone to know English.

    • Benjamin Ellis says:

      This is more about preparing Japan for a shrinking, multicultural world. English will be the common language moving into the next century. With the two biggest areas of future financial growth both adopting English as the language of business(China and India), it is important for Japan both economically and socially to be able to handle the demands of the changing world. Foreign languages have also been shown to be beneficial for students even when not used. Learning a new language challenges the mind in ways that other subjects do not. The argument could be made that Japan should offer a wider array or options for language in public schools, but given the current circumstances that might be a bit out of reach.

      • Heather says:

        English is also the only language spoken by pilots to air traffic controllers. In the whole world. So if any Japanese wants to be a pilot or air traffic controller, they have to learn English.

    • Aldene911 says:

      Well yes, but if a country wants to host international events, their language will have to be on the back burner for a while…. I have visited seven Asian countries and they all can speak English, their products have English on them etc etc… Why is Japan so different? If you do some research you will find English is the most common language among non-English speakers, a kind of unifying language so to speak. Japan needs to realize it is actually a part of the world.

    • FF says:

      Knowing English is empowerment not colonialism or whatever you seem to suggest. You’re missing the bigger picture. How many jobs you have access to? Who can you communicate with? Who can you trade with? All that is limited by your ability to think and speak global. English empowers Japanese to live a global life something most Western people take it for granted.

    • Janses says:

      Because China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong , even Russia and India … are fluently in English could be a good reason ?

  • Tania says:

    Well Here is hoping! I just graduated with my BA and plan on trying to get an English Teaching job there in Japan for this coming year.

  • Kazuya Yonekura says:

    What JP gvmt always do is just to adjust the numbers, for example, of the native teachers, of the English words to cover in which year, or which year to start English classes, and NOT to improve the quality of how English should be taught to Japanese students. Japanese teachers of English classes and native teachers should have some certification like TEFL, TESOL, or CLETA. If that makes the recruiting too hard, then Gvmt should provide courses to qualify them after recruiting.

  • Harold Moya says:

    More $$ for the sensei dispath companies…..that´s all.

    • incumbent says:

      Agreed. The current system of allocating ALT’s has third party contractors collecting up to 2/3 of the salary, with the teacher him or herself receiving the remaining fraction. ALT’s are hired as temp workers, in the manner one would contract for part-time janitorial services of a seasonal or special event nature.



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