With a bit of a debate raging about the future of the English teaching industry in Japan, us on one side and seemingly the JET program on the other, we found ourselves wondering, why do the Japanese study English? Many of the arguments on the other side, meaning the idea that AI will not be able to translate like humans can for decades, is based on the machine having to translate something complex; Shakespeare, the King James Bible or the I-Ching. This isn’t what we’re talking about. In fact we mention that some people will continue to study English in specialized fields. However, an overall, nationwide obsession with English language acquisition will fade as day-to-day business documents and websites can be translated in real-time with a fairly high level of accuracy, by machines.
So, up to this point, why do the Japanese study English?
They value their relationship with the USA
Japan and it’s people are obsessed with the pecking order. This can be socially, professionally, privately and yes, Geo-politically. America is the top dog and has been for some time. Japan falls in line and likes to appear as if it’s supporting America’s every move. Japanese across the land study English as a massive show of respect, with an emphasis on show. After decades of English language classes, why can’t they speak it? There are various reasons, but one we believe is at the core of this incompetency is that the power structure doesn’t truly want the average Japanese to speak English well. Fear of anything outside of Japan is a powerful motivator to follow the government’s every move and edict, and the struggle is what defines student life. Essentially, they are in love with their own inability, it’s a defining characteristic. However, the show goes on: Look, we all study your language; please take care of us.
English is an embedded academic hurdle used to beat them over the head
Learning a second language in school makes a lot of sense. But why does it have to be English? Why aren’t more Japanese learning Chinese? Why not Korean? Because so much of English in the academic system is nothing more than busy work to keep students away from free thought, and focused on memorizing data for tests. This might sound absurd to an outsider, but between the two of us, we have over 25 years of language education experience spread across various levels, all the way from kindergarten to university. It would take very little to screen junior high school students and put promising candidates into English language classes, and let the others focus on something else. Japan doesn’t do this because education is not about academics, it’s about indoctrination. English is a great club with which to pound students into submission. It makes their lives hell while giving them an early distaste for anything foreign, anything beyond the most surface levels anyway.
With the reality being that students very rarely fail major tests, generally 25-30% is enough to pass, and students are given multiple chances, sometimes three or more with special tutoring to pass, for most students, proficiency is a fantasy. Alex Kerr addresses many of these realities and much more in his hard-hitting book, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan.
I initially read it a decade ago, and rolled my eyes, it has taken that much time and real experience to see things for what they truly are. It’s all about control, humiliation and forcing students to do something horrid and soul sucking, to Ganbarou, just like they will be expected to do in the slowly dying Japanese corporate culture.
English is still a big business
Even though things are definitely changing, English is still a big business in Japan and comes equipped with all the big business marketing and sales aggression. Another point, which companies and individuals have figured out, is that anyone, literally anyone, can get into the English language business. There’s no real licensing necessary. Anyone can open an English school, Gaijinass did. Big companies that have nothing to do with language education have easily slipped in. Rizap, which is a health and fitness company, has started English language programs.
People see it everywhere, and without knowing the why or how, they join, or they send their kids to study. The system is there, it’s in place and it self perpetuates. You see a Coke machine and you think “I should get a Coke.”
They love to pretend they are not “Asian”
This might come as a shock to some, but Japan does not like Asia, and in fact, does not consider itself part of that group. One of the worst insults you can hurl at a Japanese woman is to tell her she looks Chinese. Japan has “borrowed” so much from China it’s laughably ridiculous, but the Japanese fancy themselves, somehow, the Europeans of the Pacific; so many wrinkle their noses and pull sick faces at the idea of pakuchi, a spice used in Thai and Vietnamese dishes, but I’ve yet to meet one who flinches when Mexican cuisine uses cilantro, or Italian cuisine coriander yet, they are the same spice.
English, and this obsession with it over, say, Chinese, is wrapped up in this fantasy. This is why it’s always hilarious to hear a American-Japanese talk about “Asian American culture and rights”. Most Japanese are disgusted by this lumping of themselves together with countries they still largely view as inferior.
They dream of escaping
Ever since I first came here, I said clearly: If I was Japanese, I’d never live here. The rules, obligations and the indoctrination is so severe, Tokyo is a great city to live in if you’re on the fringes. Once you have to start following all the rules, and being more, well, Japanese, it ceases to sparkle.
This is why most Japanese, even if it’s just for a short while, dream and lust after escaping from Japan. Studying English is connected to this dream, and even if they never really go, and many don’t, studying allows them to keep the dream alive.