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:
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: http://www.paulmyer.com/wp-content/uploads/Bad-English-In-Japan-A-Conspiracy-Theory-1-1.pdf