English education in Japan: Challenges and changes

Ranked at number 30 out of 70 countries in the 2015 EF English Proficiency Index, Japan has a moderate proficiency compared to other developed countries around the world. As a mostly homogenous country, Japan seems to be torn between remaining loyal to tradition and keeping up with globalization.

While most Asian education systems dominate globally in math, science and reading, Japan is one of the few wealthy countries in Asia that has faced issues and challenges in its English education system for decades. However, in recent years, the government has been making efforts toward significant improvements.

1. Emphasis on grammar


Like most second-language curriculums, Japan’s English education system has placed emphasis on theory over practice. Junior- and high-school teachers focus on grammar and written skills that are needed for exams such as EIKEN. So, for most Japanese students, English learning is usually a requirement to achieve high grades and pass admission exams, rather than a skill for personal enrichment or future career prospects.


In recent years, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has recommended elevating the importance of speaking and listening as well as modifying English assessments on high school and university entrance exams. The government has also begun subsidizing private-sector exams, using these results to push high schools and universities to teach more practical English skills that could benefit students in their future lives and careers.

2. Low exposure to the language


Earlier exposure to English learning could help address the language deficiency problem. Students don’t spend enough time listening to and speaking the language—repeating after the instructor isn’t the same as speaking it. Because students’ exposure is limited to the classroom and (generally) low-quality textbooks, a majority disengage from the language and lose interest in it.


In late 2013, MEXT attempted to move up compulsory English-language education to the third grade instead of fifth grade of elementary school. The education ministry proposed upgrading the lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders to full-fledged language classes, including written English with classes taking place three times per week, instead of only once.

3. Lack of continuity in school


In 2004, The Japan Times reported that the Japanese-English curriculum lacks continuity at every schooling transition, from elementary to junior high school and from junior high to high school. The curriculum doesn’t have an integrated education for elementary students and junior high school students. There should also be seamless progress in teaching the language in university to improve students’ conversational skills.


The Central Council of Education, an advisory board to MEXT, has proposed unifying the existing elementary and junior high school system. The council has also been building a comprehensive language program that would follow students from grade school through university.

4. Quality of teaching


The qualifications of English teachers have, in the past, been questioned. Some reports say that Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) often teach grammar in Japanese, and check that the students can follow the textbook by translating the English into Japanese. Similarly, local teachers were previously not required to obtain a teaching certification, while the native English speakers (who serve as assistant language teachers (ALTs) from government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programs or by privately-run companies) may also lack professional training and substantial teaching experience.


Since 2008, under the OECD Globalisation and Linguistic Competency project, all teachers have been required to pass the teacher recruitment test conducted by the prefectural Board of Education for public schools, or take a test given by private schools to acquire a 10-year teaching license. MEXT have been better facilitating recruitment and comprehensive training programs for ALTs from overseas, too.

What are other effective measures that should be taken by the government to improve English proficiency? Let us know in the comments below!

Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.

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