How to Japan

The Power of English: The English Language Within Japan

Understanding the role of English in Japan, from its historical significance to its status as a modern-day symbol of prestige. Addressing the dynamics of the pressures to maintain Japanese cultural integrity and remain competitive in a global market and what this means for English education in Japan.

“Make sure to use English as much as you can.” That’s what we were told on our first day of graduate school.

What they said made sense. All of us were students who were expected to engage in research over the next two years. Doing well in academics often means publishing your work, and the better the impact, the better for your career.

Soon, as I got into my degree, my senior colleagues were often coming to me to check their English articles and look at the English instructions for their studies. My classmates asked me to help them write emails to foreign professors.

But it wasn’t until one night, when I was looking for part-time jobs with a friend who didn’t speak English, that I fully understood the value of English. My friend considered jobs like cleaning pools or working in local izakayas. On the other hand, I found many online jobs like translation work or writing articles, like this one, that were perfect for me as an English speaker.

“I wish I could speak English,” my friend told me. “I always thought English speakers were really cool.”

It reminded me of what other people had said before. People who could study abroad and return with foreign friends and good English skills were seen as successful. It was a sign that they were not only smart enough to study but also had enough money to afford English classes and study abroad experiences.

I quickly realized that being able to speak English was more than a useful skill.

What is the history of English in Japan?

The story of how English became a prominent language in Japan started after the Edo Period when Japan opened its borders after centuries of closed border policies.

During the Meiji Era, from 1868 to 1912, Japan was determined to modernize itself and establish its place in the world. Emperor Mutsuhito and his supporters initiated major changes to strengthen Japan’s infrastructure, identity, and global presence.

During this period, Japan worked hard to catch up with Western countries regarding prestige and power. The government sent study missions to Europe and the USA to learn about their political systems, schools, and military forces. They also invited Western experts to Japan, sparking a fascination with the West and a desire to follow in its footsteps.

By the 1880s, Japan had transformed from a traditional craft-based economy into one of the world’s top industrial powers. With this rapid industrialization continuing until the 1930s and the initial phases of World War Two, a continuous flow of Western individuals, frequently well-educated experts, began to enter the country. In a sense, English became a part of this industrialization movement as a few English instructors also made their way to the country.

However, the widespread use of the English language can be traced back to the aftermath of World War II and the American occupation from August 1945 to April 1952.

What is English in the modern day?

In recent times, pressures to increase English education has continued to grow, which is no surprise given that English is one of the largest international language today.

One noteworthy shift is the steady improvement in students’ English proficiency in Japanese public junior and senior high schools.

According to a survey by the education ministry, in fiscal 2021, 47.0 percent of third-year junior high school students achieved English proficiency equivalent to A1 or higher under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This marks a significant 3.0 percentage point increase compared to the previous fiscal 2019 survey. Similarly, among third-year senior high school students, 46.1 percent exhibited English skills at the A2 level or higher, representing a commendable 2.5-point growth.

Despite these positive developments, these figures have not yet reached the government’s desired target of 50 percent, indicating regional disparities in English proficiency. It’s no surprise it’s easier to gain English proficiency in inner-city Tokyo compared to a rural town in Shimane.

The Japanese government has been actively promoting English proficiency among its citizens, particularly in schools. In 2011, English education in Japan became mandatory starting from the fifth grade, a requirement later extended to the third grade.

Looking at English teachers, approximately 40.8 percent of junior high school English teachers now possess a proficiency level of B2 or higher, while senior high school English teachers have reached 74.9 percent at the same proficiency level.

Despite pushes for improvement, Japan is still behind compared to many of their neighboring nations.

The increasing importance of English proficiency is also reflected in the preferences of Japanese parents. English conversation lessons have become the third most sought-after subject for children’s tutoring.

English as a Status Symbol

Undoubtedly, there has been a historical elitism attached to English worldwide, especially in English. However, it is crucial to consider the present context. While America’s influence on Japan plays a role in the modern status of English, it’s also important to address distinct dynamics within contemporary Japanese society.

English is quite simply a global language. To achieve higher-level positions in Japan, speaking English is crucial to allowing you to interact and engage in productive relationships with the rest of the world. Whether you are an academic doing research or a businessman working for a company, you must exchange resources with foreign peers.

However, Japan is still physically and culturally isolated as a nation. With still relatively low immigration, lack of shared borders, and reduced exposure to foreign communities, it limits the organic exposure to English for the average Japanese person.

This means many must rely on standardized education for their English experience, which doesn’t always work well for developing everyday speaking skills. International schools, English-speaking schools (英会話/Eikaiwa), and study abroad opportunities are all good alternatives for cultivating English skills, but this is where we get into the major problem.

English education is expensive.

This is where the view of English-speaking skills feels unattainable to many Japanese people. Unless you’re uniquely good at studying, living in a major city with many foreigners (and where rent is high and schools competitive), or able to afford alternative schooling options, your opportunities for English use become increasingly limited.

This barrier to entry into English education contrasts with the many pressures to learn English for career enhancement. A 2019 survey shows that Japan’s global English proficiency ranking dropped to 53rd, placing it in the “low proficiency” category. Despite continuous efforts to improve the English curriculum, as mentioned before, Japan remains near the bottom among Asian and developed countries.

However, while you see English everywhere in Japan, from advertisements to TV programs to social media, there is also a simultaneous movement celebrating the uniqueness of the Japanese language, culture, and identity known as Nihonjinron sitting on bookshelves beside their English-learning counterparts. This creates a common sentiment of concern around young people’s declining proficiency in Japanese and offers guidance on speaking the language politely and beautifully.

In present-day Japan, people grapple with a dilemma. On the one hand, they cherish their native language and culture, but on the other, they acknowledge the importance of interacting with a globalized world where English offers economic benefits and status.

This internal struggle becomes more complicated when considering Japan’s shrinking population, which is leading to an influx of foreign workers. In the end, the deeply ingrained national identity, hurdles to English education, and a level of economic self-sufficiency that allows resistance to the idea of an English-dominated Japan are shaken as English becomes a growing reality for many Japanese.

Can I live in Japan with just English?

As mentioned before, in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, English is more widely spoken and accessible. Public transport, restaurants, and many businesses offer English support, making daily life more manageable for non-Japanese speakers. Likewise, these urban centers are filled with international communities, providing opportunities to connect with and work in English-friendly environments.

However, the countryside is a completely different story. Rural towns prioritize community and neighborliness, often relying on Japanese language skills. Living in Japan’s countryside as a non-Japanese speaker can be challenging, as closed-off communities may limit your interactions and experiences.

Overall, while Japan’s English proficiency is on the rise and opportunities for English speakers, the presence of the Japanese language is still very much dominant. In most urban centers, you’ll find many places, from banks to government offices to doctors, where Japanese is still the lingua franca and English options are, at best, limited if existing at all. Even at my university, which actively advocates for English publishing and collaborative research with foreign institutions, my paperwork, courses, and assignments are still in Japanese, with English options being limited, if at all.

While speaking Japanese in major cities is not mandatory, it enhances your experience and opens more doors for you. As for rural areas, a willingness to learn the language becomes even more crucial.

Related Links:

Japan and English: Communication and Culture, History and Power by Walter Carpenter

Japanese Students’ English Proficiency Improving: Govt

Do people speak English in Japan? Here’s what you need to know

My name is Katarina (Kat) Woodman
ウッドマン カタリナ (キャット) と申します。

Kyoto University Graduate School of Education
​Educational Cognitive Psychology Course, Doctoral course​
教育認知心理学講座, 博士後期課程

I was born in the United States and currently reside in Kyoto, Japan. My specialization is in Japanese Second Language (JSL) and multilingualism, but in general I write about a broad range of Japanese related topics.


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