Everyone involved in the language education sector in Japan will freely admit that English education in the country has been on a level at best over the past couple of decades, and many arguments could be made that the standard of English from school-leavers is actually decreasing. At the same time, education in South Korea, China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are experiencing English language booms with children becoming very proficient in the language from an early age. While there are a number of reasons causing this relative decline in Japan, I think there are three main contributing factors resulting in this status quo. These are a suppression of creativity in students, and the lack of challenge presented to them.
I write this from the standpoint of a teacher at a junior high school, although the latter factor certainly applies to later grades of elementary school, and is an issue I will go into later. The education system in Japan revolves around a set event, and preparing for it. At elementary school the students are focused towards getting into Junior High School; once they get there their sole goal is to pass the high school entrance exam (for those that will go to high school). Once into high school, the aim of every student is to pass the “Centre Test”, the Japanese name for the university entrance exam, which will focus the rest of their lives. Anything that is not involved with getting to these goals is deemed unimportant, and grammar points not to be tested (even if important to learn for English language comprehension) are passed over.
At the senior high school level, I was lucky enough to teach at a high level school, which offered two English-based subjects that were not on the Center Test: Model United Nations and PCLL (a subject with 3 components: speech, skit and debate). When these subjects were introduced, teachers were met by a strong resistance from parents, who complained that their children shouldn’t be wasting their time on things that wouldn’t directly be tested. It took a strong principal and 兒童潛能開發 group of teachers to defend their position and to try to explain the benefits that the subjects would have; both within the English language skills spectrum, and throughout their range of studies and beyond. The argument was made that these subjects were not just preparing students living in a small village in Okinawa for a single test, but giving the adults of tomorrow the skills, knowledge and means to develop for life in a truly global society. I know there are a whole bunch of buzzwords in there, but it’s the best way to explain it. And whenever I meet former students from that high school (who are invariably doing very well in their lives), they remember clearly those classes, the themes discussed, and the skills they learnt.
It was a high-level school to begin with, but the fact that it was willing to look a little outside the box transformed it from being an average to low level school 15 years ago, to one of the top 3 in Okinawa today. But look down to the general situation of English language education at junior high schools in Japan (even more so in Okinawa), and things are much different. Scarily enough, I am still unaware if there is any actual syllabus set out by the Ministry of Education in Japan that states what students should know at the end of each year of learning. The textbooks that are approved by the Ministry of Education certainly teach different material at different points to students, so there is no consistency there. But what there is consistency in, is removing all traces of creativity from students. At elementary school students learn that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”. There is no other response. At junior high school you would expect students to be able to be given range to express their real feelings, but even then they are limited to a handful. You are allowed to be good, fine, tired, hungry or have stomach ache. Other feelings will not be on the end of year exam and so should not really be discussed.