Is Japan getting bored with English? Let’s Hope So!

After glancing at a few developments in Japan’s news, something has hit me – Japan’s interest in the English language seems to be on the decline! Let me give you some examples along with my own speculation as to why this is happening:

Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that Japan’s municipalities will accept 5,508 foreigners as teachers/token foreigners in the JET program. More interestingly, this year marks the 4th straight decline in the number brought in by the program after a peak in 2002 (see the announcement for a clearer chart):

JET Number accepted 1987-2006.JPG

My explanation for this decline – JET salaries and other costs are covered by the central government in the form of kofuzei, or tax revenues collected from local governments and redistributed back so as to achieve an equilibrium in economic development nationwide. Since kofuzei has been the target of major cuts as part of Koizumi’s reform program to make outlying regions more autonomous, it’s likely that the municipalities had to make a decision between an ALT and money for a new bridge. Not a sign of a lack of interest per se, but the dynamic of the incentives to accept these people is changing, forcing towns to reexamine their priorities.

The decline in the English teaching market is even more striking in the private sector. FujiSankei Business-i examines the glut in English teachers in Japan in a July 12 article. According to NOVA’s estimates, the market may have peaked in 2004. The increased competition among schools is exerting pressure toward innovation, improvement of service, and the closure of schools (NOVA, the king of eikaiwa schools, is restructuring – not a good sign!). While this could spell a period of decline for the eikaiwa schools, maybe this will actually inspire the schools to actually get results.

The JET Program and private eikaiwa schools share the same essential method and selling point – put a recent college graduate from an English-speaking country in the room with Japanese person/people, wait for magic to happen. Call it English by Osmosis. For a long time college students have considered “teaching English in Japan” a valid first job option if nothing else panned out or if they really really liked Evangelion. But considering the above developments it could be only a matter of time before teaching English in Japan ceases to be an automatic option for undergrad students in English-speaking countries looking for something easy.

After something like 25 years of the “eikaiwa boom” it should come as no surprise that just about every Japanese person has given eikaiwa a try in one form or another. And once the majority realize that it’s not a magic replacement for a lack of motivation/talent, they get bored, leaving three things behind: 1) new generations of suckers; 2) hardcore students who know how to work the system and learn despite the flaws; and 3) disgruntled students who may no longer believe in the method. I realize that there are many teachers in Japan working very hard every day (I used to be one of them), but it is simply a flawed system.

And in a not unrelated development Japan’s pop culture is starting to look more into the Asian market these days at the expense of Hollywood. Just as we here in the US finally picked up on the trend of US celebrities making extra cash by appearing in Japanese commercials, it looks as though Hollywoord stars are no longer the commercial pull that they once were:

A Hollywood in-house secret, Japanese TV commercials were once talked about with a wink and a shake of the head. Piles of cash were paid to stars willing to peddle anything from whiskey to cigarettes, cars to coffee, instant noodles to cafe latte — as long as nobody told the fans back home. Hey, did you know Dennis Hopper did one for bath products? How much do you figure Leonardo DiCaprio got for that SUV spot? A million? Three?

Sadly, the days of seeing, say, Harrison Ford guzzling Kirin beer may be over. American stars have not vanished from the Japanese advertising landscape, but their numbers have dropped dramatically since the heyday of the 1990s, when even Mickey Rourke was considered bankable here.

The article goes on to say that the recent popularity of Korean dramas has spurred the shift in focus. Thankfully, the good times aren’t over – you can still see the many many ads that the Japan-pandering era produced at the wonderful Japander.com.

Another development in the background of all this is the political backlash against Koizumi’s reform agenda. Those who decry economic reform often cite their distaste for “market fundamentalism” (such as privatization of public corporations etc), considered a mechanical application of the American system to Japanese society. Regrdless of the validity of such claims (even though the US is unlikely to privatize its postal service anytime soon!), it may be inevitable that the anti-America rhetoric translates into fewer people taking up English as a hobby.

While the JET Program and eikaiwa schools are here to stay as an institution in Japan, it seems to me that the underlying support for grassroots English interest is waning a bit – the Japanese are getting a little bored with the “English through osmosis” model. While I dread the uncomfortable oyaji conversations that will no doubt result from the popularity of tripe like Dignity of a Nation, Japan’s shift away from its fascination with English/Hollywood (and perhaps by extension the rest of Europe/the entire “white race”) may at least have the fortunate side effect of making people realize that foreign-born TV personalities in Japan such as Dave Spector and Pakkun aren’t intrinsically all that interesting despite their mad Japanese skills. One can only hope.

But seriously, getting away from this flawed approach toward language learning is a promising sign for Japan. I tend to agree with calls to “learn Japanese first” (made in a recently popular anti-American diatribe Dignity of a Nation and elsewhere) that recently seem to be hitting a nerve. The logic in Japan of “English is the world language, so everyone needs to study English” is just basically wrong (as is the general curriculum that forces students to memorize a series of codes that only happen to be English and have no bearing on applied use of the language). In short, if you don’t learn your native language well and can’t express yourself on a deep level, there’s not much point in you being conversant in another language – you’ll have nothing to say! I think it’s best to provide quality opportunities for people to learn languages, and encourage those who are interested to pursue it to a high level. That might not make Japan into a nation of English speakers, but I don’t think that it’s politically possible for Japan to take the real steps needed to do that (i.e. make English essentially a second official language).

And another thing: it’s a little unfair for the JET Program to lure some 5k foreigners to Japan every year knowing that most of them are wasting their time. Considering that everyone is hired on contracts that last a maximum of 3 years, just what do 2 years at an elementary school or sitting at a desk in a city hall in the middle of nowhere in Japan have to offer anyone in terms of skills that can be applied elsewhere (outside maybe education)? In my own experience, I have met dozens of former JETs who are completely at a loss for what to do after completing terms in JET. They often want to use their Japanese language skills in their careers but for a number of reasons (never got any decent chance to take their Japanese to a high level, no meaningful job training except very little in education, and no meaningful further job opportunities for them inside Japan) it just doesn’t happen. But at the same time I can understand the mass interest in Japan and the eagerness of college grads to take a job in an interesting foreign country.

But rather than frittering their time away in a classroom, both sides would be better served if Japan had a JET Program for areas in which the country actually needs foreigners, like nursing, factories, finance, and IT jobs. Some recent proposals to promote these less parasitic foreigners, such as enhancement of visa programs, elimination of corrupt “language schools” and “entertainment visas” that serve as hotbeds of illegal immigration and crime, and attraction of more foreign students, whose numbers keep growing, are intriguing steps in the right direction IMO. This way, maybe all those people thinking about living in Japan might try studying something in a field that they know Japan needs, so when it comes time to graduate maybe they can get jobs that actually contribute to Japan’s GDP rather than padding its massive fiscal deficit. And for the Japanese, perhaps living in tandem with folks like this will provide a real incentive (“This person is my neighbor and I want to be her friend” rather than “I don’t want to waste the lessons I’ve already paid for”) to deal with foreigners and perhaps actually acquire the diversity and fresh experience that they seem so willing to pay for with eikaiwa.

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16 thoughts on “Is Japan getting bored with English? Let’s Hope So!”

  1. Thank you for pointing me to 「日本の品格」. I had no idea that Japan was “the world’s sole civilization based on emotion and form.” I am also a proponent of returning Japan to a caste system based on Neo-Confucian occupation rankings, so I better give this thing a read.

    Japan – as a nation – may benefit from more practical, rational English education (or any sort of tertiary education with actual meaning), but the bottom 60% of society never actually had any need to learn English. Even if things swing back in reaction, Japanese who do speak English and know how to manage the elite track will find themselves rich and powerful. People can go back to 軍歌 and eating barley if they want, but the market is still going to reward those who can navigate both local idiosyncracies and the American Globalization.

  2. I definitely agree that interest in English is declining dramatically. Just speaking from personal observations, I’ve seen numerous small eikaiwas go out of business in the last 5 years. I hardly ever see anyone coming or going from the NOVA branch by my place, and haven’t seen nearly as many U.S. celebs in CMs or magazine adverts here….

  3. Beautiful post, although I most counterargument on the reasons behind the declining number of JETs: surely the student population has been dropping for years, thus it would make sense that the proportion of JETs would decline with that.

  4. Writing from the perspective of someone on the fringes of the JET program – i.e. I’m not a JET, but I know squads – I want to point out that declining numbers in the JET program should not be confused with declining numbers of AETs in high and junior high schools across Japan. At least in Nagano prefecture, there has been a trend in the last three or four years for schools to switch from participation in the national JET program to private contracting organizations like Interac, or even individual hires. My understanding is that this option has proven friendlier to the school budgets. I don’t know what the cotnracting organization takes off the top, but I know that most teachers get about 5万円 less than their JET colleagues. I don’t have the numbers to speak towards any national trends, but from personal experience, of the few dozen schools in our area that have opted out of the JET program, there are none that I know that have stopped employing native AETs. In fact, native AETs are now employed in elementary schools in my small town, through a local contracting organization.

    I do agree that AETs are ill-prepared and underutilized, and think efforts towards encouraging professional exchange programs in other areas could be quite valuable, (from an internationalization perspective, anyway). But I would hesitate before buying into the idea that English is on the decline.

    I’d say you’re also right about Japan not having the political (not to mention cultural or ideological) means to adopt English as a true second language, but why on earth would they? Sure there’s been a fascination with eikaiwa, but the motivation has rarely, if ever, been for the purposes of adopting an English lifestyle – surely an English-speaking cultural minority would be the only justification for such a move. I grew up in Canada, where we have historically had two official languages, and learned French from kindergarten until the end of high school, and even though I didn’t take French seriously after leaving high school, looking back it was incredibly valuable. I think it’s incredibly important to offer students the chance to learn another language – I’d go so far as to say it’s necessary to browbeat them into learning at least a little bit of one. That said, you’re right on about needing to offer the chance to excel, and that’s where the Japanese education system could improve – by increasing language proficiency requirements for native (Japanese) language teachers, and seeking out AETs that are professionally interested in ESL education, rather than a few years in a really awesome limbo.

    Also, just to play devil’s advocate, when the japander phenomenon became over-saturated in the US (cf. that episode of Friends and Lost in Translation), do you think the asking price of selling out went up? Have advertising budgets been as healthy lately as they were in the 90s? I’ve seen Richard Gere and Bruce Willis featured pretty prominently lately (Shall we dance, Mr. Koizumi?), and I don’t even watch much TV.

  5. I was going to make two points, but Crusoe already made my first one namely that in many districts JET ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers, I’m afriad Crusoe mistyped the abbrevation) are just being replaced by teachers hired either directly or through private recruitment agencies, at lower cost than those through the national government-run JET program.

    The second point is that for those people wanting to learn a second language for business purposes, a large number of people have started switching their focus from English to Chinese. As many of you know, I recently studied Chinese in Taiwan for 8-9 months, and well over half the students at both language schools I attended there were from Japan. One of those schools has about 1,200 students total, and the other about 150.

  6. Indeed, the trend toward private ALTs is unmistakable, but I’m willing to bet that even that market is seeing some saturation – hence the super-low wages that I see on gaijinpot all the time. I certainly don’t think that English learning is on the decline, but maybe the market for eikaiwa-style lessons has simply reached a turning point.

    Since JET is funded by Kofuzei, my instinct is to think that the schools shouldn’t feel like they’re paying anything for the their ALTs since it’s coming from the national budget. But the actual funds go to the municipalities themselves and therefore might not be directly reflected in the schools’ budget. Many town budgets are notoriously opaque (Kumamoto Prefecture, for example, only lists the amount of kofuzei received, not where it’s going. But I guess you could get it through a FOIA request…), so the money could just be going somewhere else entirely. And they could also be offering benefits to their JET that aren’t covered by the funds they get from the government.

    But assuming that the JET Program doesn’t cost schools anything and it was never the subject of “san’i ittai” budget cuts, could it be that the schools can simply get better results if they shell out the money and hire through private agencies? Those agencies have the freedom to revise their hiring policies on the spot to suit client needs (as opposed to the JET Program where a change in hiring policy would constitute a change in government policy) and can tap into the vast number of semi-experienced eikaiwa teachers (who are far more likely to be actually good teachers as opposed to some snot-nosed kid just out of school). Another advantage is that they can use the budget for a private ALT at their discretion (as opposed toa JET allocation which MUST be used to accept a JET). And to directly hire a teacher from the private sector is a far different dynamic than the JET Program, where the schools have to figure out what to do with this foreigner parachuted in by the central government. They can plan and avoid the “teacher in search of a lesson” phenomenon.

    The best results I’ve seen from this system are when directly-hired foreign private teachers who like teaching and have a talent for it can develop a good relationship with the school that makes them hire the teacher full time. But that makes you wonder: Wouldn’t it just make more sense to import some of the more talented people who are already proven ESL teachers in their home countries?

    On the Japander thing: That’s a good point. But I have a feeling that the Aiful dog (they killed him after the company got the smackdown right?) and the NOVA rabbit have more to do with it. It seems like TV ads go in cycles – we used to have way more celebrity spokespeople in the US, and up until a few years ago every ad had to be ironically funny. These days it seems like every other ad is still ironic except in an unsettling and creepy way.

  7. English learning is most definitely not on the decline. People just have higher standards now. Fewer are willing to “learn by osmosis,” and there are enough foreigners in the country now that finding a native speaker of another language isn’t too difficult. The market now is for people who are actually qualified to teach ESL. Eikaiwa jobs in Tokyo are paying ¥1000-2000 an hour, which certainly isn’t bad but won’t get you beyond first base in this city (you’ll be eating convenience store sandwiches and drinking Miscellaneous Alcohol-2).

  8. Great post there. I agree with Joe that learning isn`t on the way down. I think the Japanese are realising that you don`t have to pay a large company money to talk to a gaijin. You can get free lessons by going to Western bars and picking up Western men or join clubs where big groups of Western and Japanese people will drink together.

    Mainly it`s progressing towards children`s education. Enrol them in a school. Get them able to differentiate between an “A” and an “a”, count to 1000 and tell the time and then pull them out of the school before they hit junior high school. Then they`ll be at an advantage over the other kids.

  9. JETs of course have more free time than anyone to come along and comment… that’s why I’m here. Regardless of the market saturation you propose for private ALTs, you can be sure that the growth in those numbers has outpaced the decline in the JET numbers. There are almost certainly more English teachers present in the public school system than ever before.
    That number may be in for a decline as the government re-realigns it’s English teaching policies. The JET program was part of an initiative to move away from grammar and memorization to a more wholistic approach… an approach which all but the most green of young teachers admit has failed pretty badly. I think the consumer end has already discovered this failure, and has consequently divided itself into those who want to take english as seriously as any other subject, and do so at regular juku and those who want to meet globetrotting foreigners, who can get their kicks at gas panic, or nova.

  10. No point learning a language you have no practical or personal use for…Even the more educated set would have trouble keeping up with it if they don’t live/work in an English environment of some kind…

    I don’t think this difficulty in learning is particular to Japan, really. I would think China, Korea, Taiwan etc, have the same problem…

  11. As the economy improves, people will find good jobs and won’t seek additional training/education. So instead of the adults going to school, they’ll put their salaries into their kids’ education. This may explain the trend I observed where children’s classes are increasing at the expense of adult lessons.

  12. Definitely, JET is declining due to the EXPLOSION of the success private companies are having by taking up the bloated contracts. I work as a manager in one of those companies, and we have taken in dozens of cities in the past few years alone. JET market share has dropped to less than 25% in Kanto because they can’t compete with companies like mine. We do it cheaper and better.

    We constantly have more positions than applicants and the private lesson sector is growing. The only thing happening is that people are shying away from the inflexible old standards of JET and English conversation and hitting local companies instead. I strongly urge anyone bilingual and with some managerial experience to get in on the ground floor with a small company and prepare to ride it to the top. Don’t believe the cherry-picked statistics on companies and government agencies that can only fall, because the phoenix is rising from the ashes and current small companies are about to soar above the old guard.

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