What will the Olympics Mean for English Teachers in Japan?

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January 24, 2016

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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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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