Bad English In Japan –– A Conspiracy Theory

I have been coming to Japan for business and pleasure for over twenty years. For much of 2000-2002, I lived and worked in Japan as a senior executive of a global technology business. I have been married to a Japanese citizen for sixteen years and in October 2019 I declared Tokyo as my legal residence.

Over that time, I have developed a deep understanding of and respect for Japanese culture. I have adapted to the Japanese life-style and observance of traditions, customs and social rules. I enjoy Japanese cuisine. I have studied Japanese history, its political system and business practices.

Sadly, my Japanese language proficiency is near zero. Not that I have not tried to learn to speak the language but frankly I only half jokingly tell friends that I still have trouble with the English language! I clearly have a language learning deficiency.

That said, I am most comfortable in my adopted home, effectively using my limited linguistic knowledge, some translation technology and the ability to understand more than I can speak the language due in part to the non-verbal nature of much that is being communicated.

Similarly, most Japanese understand and speak little English. I’ve often wondered why that is so and I’ve heard a number of reasons. Four often advanced are (1) the fact that English is based on a totally different phonetic system; (2) because the schools focus on teaching grammar and limited conversation skill development; (3) because most Japanese rarely get a chance to learn through interacting with English-speaking people; and (4) there is little incentive to speak English or indeed any other “foreign” language.

I believe the lack of incentive the most troubling and was surprised to see a featured article in a recent issue of The Japan Times headlined: “Bad English In Japan –– A Conspiracy Theory.” While the article does not support the view that the Japanese bureaucracy and political leadership have engaged in a conspiracy, it does raise an interesting issue related to Japan’s troubled socio-economic-demographic future:

Fear of a Brain Drain?

Perhaps their thinking is that the loss of multitudes of Japanese in their prime working years to more opportunity-rich countries overseas could quickly turn a severe (but manageable) demographic decline into a death spiral.

Driven by a fear of mass emigration and brain drain, is the bureaucracy engaged in a conspiracy to keep English down? Probably not. But, whether by design, ambivalence or ineptitude, government reforms to English-language instruction will forever be too little and too late.

The takeaway for Japanese who want to learn English well: You are on your own.

Read the article here:

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Hi, I’m Paul Myer. Thank you for visiting my website. I hope you enjoy my writing and photography. If you want to stay connected, please subscribe to receive posts via email.

One thought on “Bad English In Japan –– A Conspiracy Theory

  1. Japanese tutors at English Tutor Network who have a TOEIC score above 900 say that they, on average, spent 4,000 to 5,000 hours studying English to reach that level. The typical high school graduate in Japan has spent, on average, 787 hours studying English throughout junior and senior high school. Many years ago, when I lived in Tokyo, I worked at a “conversation club” where locals could sit down with a native English speaker and a cup of coffee and practice conversational English. Not sure how their fluency improved, but it sure was fun for everyone!

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