Studying English in Japan, or Indisputable ‘You Must’

If you have lived in Japan, you may have noticed how often in the presence of a foreigner conversation gradually drifts to how the speaker knows someone who’s studying English or how they want to master it, and how English is so important nowadays? If you haven’t, try listening to a casual conversation of people sitting close to you in a bar or an eatery shortly after you come in. 

When I came to Japan, I noticed something about learning English here. First, it’s everywhere. You are surrounded by the commercials of language schools, people talk about it on TV and in printed media. They use celebrities and athletes to represent the language schools. ‘Tokyo Olympics 2020 are getting closer, and everyone should be fluent in English by this time’ is a common narrative. Second, people are constantly, automatically saying they want to learn English. Which is not a bad thing, right? For me, learning a new language is like opening a new world. 

But let me ask you, how many people you know are actually interested in studying new languages? And do they bring up this topic almost every time you meet? Do they constantly feel obliged to start studying it for whatever reason? Do they spend thousands on pocket dictionaries, apps, workbooks, phrasebooks etc.?

English is not my mother tongue, however, in my home country there was no such pressure to study English (or any other foreign language). Why do I say pressure? I have worked as an English teacher here and I have seen the backstage. I have seen the clients of these schools whose inspirational advertisements are seductively inviting you to join.

I have seen tired, worn out salarymen sitting late after work trying to concentrate on their textbooks, and those who openly sleep during class. People who show no interest in the language whatsoever, but are always happy to chat with you in Japanese, and share a story or two about their kiddos. And it’s understandable. Since they are forced by company policies to take those classes, they are just trying to make this time as fun as possible. Their way home usually takes around hour and a half by train, and, in 99% of cases, they will not have a seat, and after this hell of a ride in a packed car, some unlucky ones will have to take a 10-20 minute bicycle ride to their house.

Why do they attend those classes? Simply because their company management has decided that most of  employees should be able to speak the language. They choose several people and make them attend English classes, after finishing a course the salarymen will have to sit TOEIC test, get a certain number of points, and based on the performance get a salary raise (or, in some companies, there’s no such a prize for losing your personal time). Their age varies from 25 to over 60. People who have wives, children, always tired working extra hours fathers and husbands must stay after work to participate in this circus (well, pardon me for calling it what it is). Why are they not refusing to take part in something that is obviously not appealing for them and is taking precious time? I suppose, this is a mystery of Japanese culture I will never be able to understand (local corporate culture is dreadful indeed). 

Let’s proceed to the situation with high schools. Again, students are coming to extracurricular English courses on Saturdays or after school. Can we say they come to those classes voluntarily? Not necessary. Typically a class has 15-25 students, where you will have 1 or 2 language junkies, and the majority of students who can barely read. If you ask them why they came here, they would typically answer something like ‘English is a language of global communication and a everyone should speak it’. This is somewhat logical and understandable, but if you decided to take those classes yourself, by your own will, doesn’t it mean you’ve got to show some enthusiasm? Of course, people at this age aren’t the most devoted and thorough students, but in this case, why, as a healthy student who doesn’t enjoy school, not choose ‘going home after classes’ option? This is a mystery for me. However, I was not the biggest fan of my high school and was running away after the bell rang with speed that any Ferrari would envy, and as long as I truly don’t comprehend why some of my school mates enjoyed staying in the walls of alma mater after classes, I still believe that at that age students are able to decide what to spend their time on. In case it’s not something that brings tangible results, or a major interest, I do not understand why they are choosing to be at a place they rather won’t be. Of course, they are more than willing to speak Japanese. Which again questions the necessity of this classes. Because, in a class where majority of students can barely read, and 1% is speaking English like a native, as a teacher you have to be entertaining and creative.

I quit this job after realizing that situation doesn’t change from school to school, or company to company. Every time I saw people who were there by someone’s order, and they simply wanted to be entertained so the time of that short sentence would pass faster.

I believe that mastering a language is a hard work, which takes a lot of effort, research, and even passion. It has become somewhat fashionable to study English in Japan, and a lot of pressure is put on making more people speak it, or say that they want to speak it. I have met only a couple of people who refused to be in the ‘I wanna speak English’ club and were brutally honest about it.

I can’t see why so many people should be putting their time and effort to do something they don’t necessarily need, however, this inability to say NO to higher-ups, or teachers, or any other person who is ‘higher’ than you in the society, has deep cultural roots.


I am a guest in Japan, and I don’t have any rights to teach people how to function in their own society, and even though the Japanese themselves find this aspect of their behaviour exhausting, it will take long time to change the situation, to create society where mental comfort is valued more than it is now.


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