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Speak Out in English Japan! How to Make Communications Better for an International Future

Japanese students frequently have outstanding English grammar, vocabulary, and interpretation skills, but lack communication skills. Let's remedy that problem.



Tokyo Institute of Technology museum and Centennial Hall. This top Japanese STEM university features some classes in English. (©Fumihiro Kato via Wikimedia Commons)

In the current international turbulence, the ability to communicate effectively is more important than ever. Yet, confident English communication is one of the biggest challenges that Japanese people face. 

The importance of logical thinking and construction skills was introduced in the earlier parts of this series. Unfortunately, these skills are still not well known in Japan. This second article in the series takes up why it is more important than ever to introduce courses that teach these skills at Japanese universities. 

Last of three parts

Read Part 1: Speak Out in English Japan: Leading Through Communicating 

Part 2: Speak Out in English Japan: Learning to Communicate Logically


Acquiring English as a 'Second Skill'

It has been a long time since the internationalization of Japan's universities was called out. However, some universities seem to think that attracting many foreign students is the same as internationalization. Yet as they stand now, it is doubtful whether they can attract globally-minded students. 

Thinking logically, however, there is an approach that would naturally attract foreign students. That is, if Japanese graduates from Japan's universities were able to demonstrate leadership and play an active role overseas in their respective specialized fields, then foreign students would seek out those institutions. 

Previously I described the "first skill" as the ability to communicate specialized knowledge in fields such as engineering. The next step is for universities to develop that ability in students so graduates can compete with their international counterparts.  That requires improving students' communication competency in this "Second Skill" of English proficiency. 

Additionally, more emphasis needs to be given to English communication in university STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Currently, in general, humanities students are thought to have better English proficiency than students in the STEM fields. However, Japan's science and technology fields are at the world's most advanced level. 


If English proficiency is acquired, Japan's international competitiveness will increase dramatically. In turn, this will strengthen not only Japanese companies but also the educational foundations of specialized fields at universities linked to them.

Wiser Use of Japanese Tax Funds by Universities

A large amount of tax money is injected into Japanese universities. Those institutions have a duty to use this tax money wisely. That requires the development of human resources with skills that will enable Japanese students to play an active role in the international community in the future and bring tangible and intangible benefits to Japan.

Once science and engineering graduates start working overseas in English, humanities students will also follow. Using English, they will be able to work with local people overseas in a wide range of areas, such as management and sales. In this way, they may also develop a deeper understanding of their international counterparts than those in science and engineering. 

It's amazing when these things come true. When English skills develop that far, communication through an interpreter will be unnecessary. 

(© Wikimedia Commons)

English Immersion Classes

I often hear people say that Japanese people are weak in English. I disagree. Instead, I think that the Japanese have just not been taught practical English. 

A professor of engineering at a university in the United States, who taught me, used to talk about this. He said that Japanese students' English grammar, English interpretation, and vocabulary were outstandingly superior to those of other countries' students. Their fatal weakness, he said, was the lack of communication skills.

To learn English, it seems that listening, speaking, reading, and writing are required. However, Japanese students put too much emphasis on reading, so the other three skills are not sufficiently acquired. 

What's more, most of the English classes so far have been conducted in Japanese. Take English classes at primary and secondary schools where native English-speaking Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) are present. After an ALT reads and pronounces the English sentences, a Japanese teacher proceeds with the English class in Japanese. 

This is the reason why English immersion classes (English classes taught in English) are needed.

Classes are taught in English in an immersive approach at Akita International University in Northeast Japan. (©Ikumi Mashiko for JAPAN Forward)

Some Universities Teach All In English

A few universities have already introduced teaching all in English. Some others have begun classes taught in English in specialized courses. This should help students acquire comprehensive skills in their specialized fields and the ability to communicate their knowledge in English. 

Students in these specialized courses are required to be sufficiently proficient in English to follow lectures given in English. For this reason, students must be accustomed to classes taught in English in their general education before proceeding to specialized university courses. 

In other words, English immersion classes in high school are necessary. Also, studying abroad before or after graduating from high school can be very effective and should be taken into consideration.


In Japan at present, English education is introduced from elementary school onwards. The mandate anticipated that foreign language education from an early age would raise Japanese people who are strong in English. However, this needs to be followed by evidence that Japanese students are acquiring English proficiency. 

In my opinion, it is not too late to start educating in English, even at the junior high school level. This would also better balance the importance of beginning with a solid and correct Japanese language education. Proficiency in one's own language is important to maintaining the identity of being Japanese and success in later education.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks at Keio University in Tokyo on June 12. (From screenshot)

Making Better Use of Existing Opportunities

Also, not all Japanese people need English. Again, ALT native English teachers introduced in elementary schools are also assigned to junior high schools and above. But their role becomes simply one of assisting the Japanese teachers. And in many cases, those Japanese teachers teach English in the Japanese language, negating the point of hiring native English teachers. Instead, native teachers should be entrusted with classes and teach in English as full-time teachers.

On the other hand, there is likely to be a shortage of lecturers who can teach English immersion classes in specialized courses at universities. Since Japanese and native instructors are active in overseas universities, government offices, private companies, and so on, why not treat them well and entice them from overseas? Then, after a few years, the graduates would be able to take charge. 

This could easily be implemented as a matter of decision by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and university management.

The author explains how a Japanese product works to experts in a recording studio in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. (©Hirokazu Sato)

Prepared to Take Part in the International Community

Each member of the European International Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) technical committee speaks fluent English despite being technically proficient. I have asked a few of them why that is. 

"You are an engineer, why are you able to speak fluent English? Did you learn it at an English school or something special?," I asked. Their replies were uniformly, "I didn't go to an English school." 

When I said, "In Japan, people start studying English in junior high school and have been studying it for a total of eight years by the time they graduate from university," many were baffled. If that was so, why couldn't more Japanese communicate in English? Their reaction also caused me to wonder if we in Japan are teaching toward a goal. English education at school should not be treated as a subject, but rather as a tool for communication.

In the Meiji era, immediately after the opening of the country, Japan was in a mood to catch up with and overtake Europe and the United States. To absorb overseas technological capabilities, the ability to read foreign English and German literature was particularly important. 

Today, Japan is a member of the G7, the most technologically and economically advanced countries in the world. It is in a position to make friends and provide leadership with these and many other foreign countries. For that, international communication skills are absolutely necessary.

Conclusion: A Japanese English Education Plan Starting At the University Curriculum Level

There has been much debate about where the English level of Japanese people ranks in international comparisons. For this purpose, the comparison of TOEFL scores is often cited. 

TOEFL is a common entrance exam that must be taken by foreign students wishing to study at a university in the United States. Therefore, it only compares English proficiency at the student level. It does not reflect the English level of Japanese people living in the international community. 


Still, looking at the results of the TOEFL test, Japan is close to the bottom.

Clearly, this must be remedied. In my view, a better English education plan would be to keep in mind the clear goal of enabling Japanese graduates to communicate proficiently in English. That must start from the university level first. Thereafter, senior high schools should tailor their English classes so that their graduates can follow immersion English classes at university. 

Later, the supportive English language education necessary to improve high school education should be initiated in junior high schools. However, the current plan to achieve improvements in English communication ability is upside-down.

I often talk to young people. Many tell me they have been studying English for at least eight years, from junior high school to university graduation. When I ask why they are unable to speak out in English in an international setting, their excuse is that the teaching method at school didn't teach that skill. 

In that case, today’s children are receiving faulty English education. No wonder school are in disarray. However, rather than feel sorry for the children, we should focus on fixing Japan's English education, now.


Author: Hirokazu Sato

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