Critics of English teaching in Japan have put forth many arguments – it’s ineffective, it’s counterproductive, it attracts the wrong crowd, it starts too late, it focuses too much on English at the expense other languages, you name it. But this post from finance blogger Kazuki Fujizawa (likely a pen name) is the first time I have seen someone argue that English education in Japan is being intentionally undermined by the education ministry.
He starts by noting that the recent political developments in Japan (upcoming election) can be kind of hard to understand. This is only natural because as a free society power is not concentrated in one place – it is a complicated interaction of various interests. On the other hand, it is comparatively much easier to understand how dictatorships like North Korea or the former East Germany are governed – North Korea has its massive propaganda machine and terrorizes the population, while East Germany kept its people from escapting to the West by building the Berlin Wall.
With that in mind, he tells the story of what you might call Japan’s Berlin Wall, which I have translated below:
I think the time has come for the education ministry to abolish its policy of undermining Japanese people’s English abilities.
Viewed from the perspective of the rulers, the question of English language education was a sticky problem.
That is because if the people ever became able to speak English fluently, the talented Japanese people and firms might have gone overseas to get away from the world’s highest personal and corporate income tax rates. But to take in Western technology and develop the country, they had no choice but to give the people English language education. The rulers of Japan wanted to keep the people in bondage while simultaneously collecting as much information from abroad as possible.
The Japanese bureaucrats’ answer was to create an English language education system without precedent anywhere else in the world that was perfectly suited to meet these two opposing demands. They made the extremely specialized skill of mechanically replacing English sentences with Japanese the central focus of the compulsory English language curriculum.
Forcing middle schoolers with young minds to repeat these exercises again and again was wildly successful at disabling the people’s English language communication skills. People educated to turn English sentences into Japanese by moving the word order around become completely unable to speak English.
To the rulers, this was a very wonderful thing.
Unable to communicate in English, the Japanese people could thus be prevented from fleeing overseas without resorting to violence.
The amazing part of this English education system is that even though the Japanese people are rendered incapable of communicating in English, they can still understand written English such as English-language scholarly works. This way, the bureaucrats could disable the Japanese people’s English-language communication skills while at the same time giving them access to the vast archives of English-language written materials.
This system was a key component of Japan’s high rate of economic growth following World War II.
Even as English-language information entered Japan from around the world, the Japanese could only read English but not speak it or write it, meaning that there was almost no outflow of information from Japan to the outside world. This one-way flow of information made it possible for post-war Japan to rapidly industrialize.
But as Japan caught up to the advanced Western nations and caught the “developed nation disease,” this policy of disabling people’s English abilities began to crack at the seams.
Without English skills, Japan’s diplomacy is weak.
There is also little transmission of culture to the world.
A whole range of manufacturing products in Japan are incompatible with those sold in global markets due to Japan-specific standards.
Importantly, most Japanese companies can no longer survive in a shrinking Japanese market as the country’s biggest problem is the shrinking and aging population, which is progressing at the fastest rate in the world.
The era when Japan could shut itself off from the world, import information, manufacture products in Japan, and then sell them to the Japanese market has ended. Nowadays, Japanese people and companies must go abroad and sell their own products. That means they must have communication skills in English, the world’s lingua franca.
Looking throughout the world, in small advanced countries where businesses cannot succeed only in their home markets, the people can speak English almost without exception. Middle school students in the Netherlands and Sweden all get nearly perfect marks on the TOEFL test.
In Japan, our own market will shrink more and more, so we must now go abroad to survive.
Don’t you think it is high time for the education ministry to abolish its policy of disabling the Japanese people’s English abilities?