Foreign Policy Blogs

Japan to Send Teachers to the US for Training

The Japanese government is sending 96 Japanese English teachers to the U.S. this month to participate in a six-month training program. The teachers will take courses in English education at seven universities. They will stay with American host families and work as interns at American secondary schools.

As an American teaching English in Japan, I am interested to see how this works out. English education in Japan is in desperate need of reform. Japanese scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are among the lowest in Asia. With an average total score of 70 on the TOEFL, Japan’s average is below Afghanistan’s (73) and North Korea’s (78). One of Japan’s solutions has been to import native English speakers through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, in which I am a participant. While the JET Program has been successful as a cultural exchange program, it hasn’t achieved many tangible results as far as English scores go.

I can point to two reasons Japanese English ability is so low, despite the amount of effort the Japanese put into learning English. One is the education system itself, the other is the disincentives for English ability in Japanese society.

Japan to Send Teachers to the US for Training

A Japanese classroom from 1920. Students today wear different uniforms.

Japanese schools emphasize rote memorization. This is helpful for memorizing Chinese ideographs and math formulas, and passing standardized tests, but not so helpful at learning to communicate in a foreign language. I have seen the failings of this method firsthand, with students who can ace a spelling test, but give me a nervous stare when I say, “Good morning,” to them. Students will memorize and recite sample dialogues from their textbooks, but then freak out when they are in a situation in which the conversation deviates slightly from the sample dialogue.

Japanese society also discourages learning foreign languages. Whereas knowing a second language is an asset in the U.S., if a prospective employee were to list English ability as a skill on a résumé in Japan, they would be seen as a show-off. In this case, English ability could actually HURT their chances of getting a job. If an employee was known to speak English, they would be asked to do a lot of pro bono translation in addition to their regular duties. For the average Japanese, there are better reasons NOT to learn English than to learn English.

Sending teachers to learn in the U.S. could bring about some positive reforms, but I can also imagine ways the program could be unwittingly sabotaged. One problem I could imagine is that with Japan’s emphasis on hard work simply for the sake of hard work, in order to avoid the perception that these teachers are getting a six-month vacation in the U.S. on the tax-payer’s yen, the teachers will be made to write daily reports or perform other time-consuming duties of marginal utility, which will hinder their ability to interact and integrate with their host society.

A more likely problem would be that these teachers will simply be expected to forget everything they learned in the U.S. Despite the problems with the Japanese style of learning (memorizing), it works better for Japanese students than the individualistic approach of American education. Memorizing is a straight-forward method that everyone can be forced to do. Japanese schools emphasize getting every student to the same level. This means getting poor students up to par (while also keeping down bright students). Japanese students have a high base level and average, but a low ceiling. This is in line with the Japanese value of homogeneity. The American approach is much more individualistic, which is great for the bright students who want to learn, but bad in that it allows many students to fail. The range of ability between the best and worst students in the U.S. would be unimaginable in Japan. Once these 96 teachers return to Japan, they may have trouble implementing the methods they learned in the U.S. since the methods will seem distinctly un-Japanese. Japanese social hierarchy also plays a big part in the classroom. The teacher talks, the students copy exactly what the teacher writes on the board, and there is virtually none of the back-and-forth between teachers and students that is typical in American classrooms. A student who asks a lot of questions would not be seen as interested and engaged, but as insolent (the teacher may think the student is testing their ability, or insolently pointing out a hole in the lecture). It may be easier for these teachers to unlearn what they learned in the U.S.

Despite these concerns, I still think this is a step in the right direction for Japan. If nothing else, it should improve the English ability of the teachers teaching English.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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