Japan Doesn’t Want to Become Another Casualty of English

From Foreign Policy:

In a 2019 survey, Japan dropped to 53rd in global English proficiency, squarely in the “low proficiency” band. Japan ranks near the bottom of Asian and developed countries alike despite constant reshuffling and refinement of the English educational curriculum in schools and the frequent assertions, acknowledged by Japan’s Ministry of Education, that English-language skills are needed to compete in the modern economy.

The failure to adopt English is particularly unexpected given that the English language—and the whiteness associated with it—signifies privilege in Japan. Countless advertisements flaunt white foreigners on TV and use English aptitude as the basis for selling products. Top companies such as Rakuten, an e-commerce website and the Japanese competitor to Amazon, place immense weight on English proficiency, whether or not English is needed for an employee’s role. Eikaiwa (English conversation) programs run daily on TV, and accounts featuring videos of Japanese American children speaking English cultivate tens of thousands of Instagram followers.

. . . .

At the same time, essays and books about the supposed uniqueness of Japanese language, culture, and identity—a genre known as nihonjinron—are in every bookstore, next to shelves of English-learning books. They overflow with complaints about young people’s poor Japanese and instructions on how to speak polite and beautiful Japanese.

Today, Japanese are caught between a belief in the importance of Japanese language and culture and the need to exist in a globalized world in which English carries economic privileges and status associations. A plummeting population and an inevitable future influx of foreign workers collide with a proud national identity, structural and cultural obstacles to English learning, and enough economic independence to resist what might otherwise seem an inevitable future: an English-speaking Japan.

For years, multinational companies have been mandating English as the common corporate language. “In East Asia, many parents, professionals, and students themselves see English as a prerequisite for attaining the best jobs on the market,” said Minh Tran, the executive director of academic affairs at Education First, a Swiss language-education company that offers classes in Japan.

Yet the spread of English has left behind a “trail of dead”: mangled languages, literatures, and identities. As countries around the world scramble for widespread English, there’s a fear of losing their own traditions, cultures, and even names.

English became a tool of the Japanese elite throughout Meiji era Japan’s relentless race to catch up technologically with the West. And while Japan was never a colony of a Western country, the U.S. occupation after World War II lasted for seven years—enough time for the U.S. military to implement widespread political and economic changes throughout the country. In the Cold War, Japan came under the U.S. nuclear umbrella of protection from the Soviet Union, further cementing America’s image as a symbolic protector.

This presence of American soldiers at this time exposed the general Japanese public to spoken English. “America [was] idealized in Japan at the time as a symbol of freedom and democracy, partly as a result of the success of the American occupation,” writes Takako Yoshida, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Lleida. English accordingly became associated with freedom, power, and status.

Link to the rest at Foreign Policy

During the occupation, Japan was governed (or ruled) by General Douglas MacArthur. At the end of the war, about 450,000 US military personnel together with other Allied soldiers were stationed in the country. Those members of the military who had fought in the war were mustered out as quickly as feasible and replaced with occupation troops from America, Britain, Australia, India and New Zealand.

Whatever his shortcomings, no one ever accused MacArthur of being indecisive. (Well, General George S. Patton did on at least one occasion, but Patton always had to be the most decisive military commander who had ever lived.) One biographer dubbed MacArthur as the American Caesar. (PG’s favorite bio of MacArthur)

The General effectively ordered Hirohito to remain as the emperor of Japan, staving off a potential suicide, which would have caused a great deal of societal disruption. Acting by fiat, MacArthur established a parliamentary democracy and, under his direction (although he was a politically-conservative Republican), the Japanese government introduced sweeping social reforms and implemented economic reforms similar to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

Major land reforms resulted in millions of acres of farmland (nearly 40% of Japan’s arable land) being purchased from landlords by the Japanese government, then resold at very low prices, to the tenant-farmers. Under these reforms, about three million peasants became owners of the land they had worked, sometimes for generations.

The Occupation ended in 1951 and Japan became a fully-sovereign nation in 1952.

According to Cultures of War,

Discipline, moral legitimacy, well-defined and well-articulated objectives, a clear chain of command, tolerance and flexibility in policy formulation and implementation, confidence in the ability of the state to act constructively, the ability to operate abroad free of partisan politics back home, and the existence of a stable, resilient, sophisticated civil society on the receiving end of occupation policies – these political and civic virtues helped make it possible to move decisively during the brief window of a few years when defeated Japan itself was in flux and most receptive to radical change.

5 thoughts on “Japan Doesn’t Want to Become Another Casualty of English”

  1. It doesn’t have to be either/or. My family is fluent in English and Spanish. We were taught both (plus French later), and our parents switched easily (though Daddy retained a charming accent his whole life in Mexico).

    Both cultures were respected, both were appreciated, both were celebrated. We had the Fourth of July (though often moved to a different date to avoid the rains) on the grounds of the American School. And celebrated the Grito de Independencia the night of the 15th of September – with equal fervor.

    It can be done. I had friends who spoke only Chinese (don’t remember which Chinese language) with their children at home; when the kids went off to Kindergarten, they picked up English easily and quickly. As the parents, who were both techies, knew they would.

    • Agreed, A. I don’t think one language vs. another is a zero-sum game. You don’t become non-fluent in your native language when you learn a second one.

      Over time, if you only spoke and heard the second language, you might get rusty on your first, but I would expect you could pick up the first one pretty quickly if you associated with people who speak the first language.

      Of course, fluency in language and the ability to learn different languages, like many other things is an aptitude and not all people have the same aptitudes for any given field of human endeavor. Perhaps, for some people, learning a second language will diminish or push out the first language.

  2. Long ago, I lived in Japan for a while, and found the Japanese were very good at reading and writing English, but were poor at speaking. That’s why they had so many English schools. Any native English speaker could get hired. I fear some of my old students are still saying, “Far Out, Dude!” It was a different time.

    • And some language speakers are better than others at picking up correct language for the pronunciation of a foreign language.

      For example, I’m told that many speakers of Portuguese find Spanish pronunciations odd, but they can handle speaking once they learn the pronunciation rules of Spanish.

      OTOH, I’m told that, for most English-speakers, Khoisan, an African click language, is much more difficult to learn.

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