Why are Japanese so Bad at English? (5 Reasons)

Everyone knows Japanese people aren’t exactly Masters of the Universe when it comes to speaking English, despite receiving six years of English education.  Six years?  Are you kidding?  You could build yourself a Great Pyramid in less time.  I’m pretty sure.  Just chop up some limestone and stack it up.  Probably take you a couple of years at best.

But okay, there are clearly some good reasons why Japanese folks can’t speak English.  And if you study Japanese, you also need to avoid the same traps.

Ask any foreign English teacher, and they’ll tell you, “The grammar-translation method doesn’t work.”  Sure, but people also say that we swallow spiders in our sleep and the Apollo moon landings were merely elaborate hoaxes.

Foreigners tend to all say the same thing about Japan because, well, everybody else says the same thing, so it must be true.  But the grammar-translation method actually does work.  Maybe it’s not the fastest method, but hey, it gets the job done.  Well, mostly.

英語が出来ません (I Can’t Do English)

The fact is, Japanese people know a ton of English.

I was at a soba shop in the countryside this past weekend, sitting around a wood-burning stove, eating home-made noodles and some green thing I’d rather not describe.  And all around me are farmers who, if you added up their ages, would come to about a thousand years old.  And for some odd reason (i.e. my presence), they start naming lists of English words they know, like numbers, colors, animals, foods, vehicles, appliances, and random words like “straight,” “curve,” “hot,” “cold,” “big,” “small.”  Japanese farmers even know amazing things like “mania” and “fantastic.”  So many English words have entered the Japanese vocabulary that even the crustiest old dude with a plow can cobble together enough of a sentence to get his point across.  For younger people, the breadth of vocabulary is astonishing.  By graduation, every high school kid knows a couple thousand English (or English-esque) words, easily enough to hold a conversation.  Give them a vocabulary test and they’d pass it.  So why can’t they speak?

Grammar certainly isn’t the reason.  Sure, they leave a trail of discarded articles and particles like Sherman going through Georgia, but so what?  Ken also be making some crazy ungrammatical sentences and people still be understanding him.  No grammar?  Hey, that be no problem.

Shyness?  That’s a well-worn excuse, but I’ve known enough Japanese bosses (not to mention spouses), to know that Japanese people can be assertive to the point of terrifying when they want to be.  Fear of sounding like an idiot?  Sure, but it’s no worse in Japan than anywhere else.  I take that back.  It’s actually way better to try speaking English in Japan than in, say, the U.S., where if you mess up somebody’s going to snap “speak English!”  Then probably shoot you, just because they can.  A culture of conformity?  That’s just more well-worn mantra about Japan that people repeat too readily.  So why all the muteness?  There’s certainly a number of factors, but I’ve come up with a solid five:

Three Curricular Reasons Why Japanese People Can’t Speak English

1. Inadequate reinforcement of the lessons.  It’s not that the grammar-translation method doesn’t work, it’s that it’s not backed up by something more.  School students get a lesson once a week if they’re lucky, for less than an hour.  That lesson explains grammar and introduces vocabulary.  And then . . . whooosh, you might as well send them to Siberia.  Japanese kids have tons of words and a smattering of grammar, but no examples of how to use the stuff in action.  They need reinforcement:  real-world materials showing the variety of ways in which words are actually used.  There’s no reading program, no opportunities for conversation or presentation, no schedule for watching movies.  The grammar explanation isn’t the problem.  It’s that it isn’t rounded out with further study.

2. Classroom control. Now, if you’re a teacher, you can probably relate to this.  Traditional, lecture-centric teaching requires everyone to shut up and pay attention to you.  It’s just that there’s a fine line between classroom control and turning your class into a mini prison.  Shut everyone up too much and you can’t restart them.

From a student perspective, too, there’s a tendency to avoid doing anything that even remotely approximates work.  Remember being a student?  Man, I sure do.  The last thing I wanted to do was, well, anything.  I just wanted my teacher to leave me alone so I could go back to reading G.I. Joe comics and daydreaming about jumping out the window.  And that was in college.

These combined forces create a situation in which the teacher is speaking, everyone is nice and quiet, but nobody is listening.  The message is being lost, and little learning is happening.  It’s like teaching someone to swim by giving them weekly lectures on swimming.  This situation exists in schools around the world, and unfortunately, does little to prepare people for the act of speaking.  It’s certainly not unique to Japan.  Some teachers just use too much stick and not enough carrot.  At the risk losing some classroom control, it wouldn’t kill you to get people out of their seats and actually interacting with each other.

3. Inadequate practice.  Students learn, but they don’t get to apply their knowledge.  According to self-proclaimed linguistic savant K. Seymoreofmystuff in The Skill of Speaking Fluent Japanese, speaking requires skill, not just information.  Kind of like how I’m the greatest basketball player ever with a remote in one hand and a can of beer in the other.  There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it.  Put somebody face-to-face with another human being and all sorts of things happen to their brain.  They sweat, blank out, pee their pants.  It’s not always good.  You gotta practice for that.

Two Cultural Reasons Why Japanese People Can’t Speak English

1. Silence constitutes an acceptable response in Japan.  People are allowed to get away with not speaking.  In fact, they’re encouraged not to speak.  Japan cultivates a society based upon keeping your lid on tight.  Nobody wants you to go off doing something crazy, like saying what’s on your mind.  The thinking seems to be that if you start encouraging people to exercise free will, pretty soon they’ll be out robbing liquor stores.  (Okay, possibly true.)  From childhood, the population is kept in line by well-meaning parents and teachers, who use all manner of physical and verbal discipline.  Within the few times I’ve taught in elementary schools, I’ve seen a coach knock his players on the head with a baseball bat, a History teacher punch a kid in the chest and a Special Ed teacher body-slam a student who wouldn’t get a haircut.  And that was in a good school district.  I was like, Jeez, once that lid comes unscrewed, watch out.  Japanese people aren’t shy when they’re the one holding the stick.  Students are just conditioned by abuse from those charged with protecting them.  They learn that if they joke around, speak at the wrong time, or act out too much, they’re likely to incur the wrath of those above them.  Several years of such treatment and you’re going to be conditioned pretty well to avoid any output.

2. Japanese people by and large don’t understand that English is not optional, but essential.  Everywhere they look, most of the words are still in Japanese.   The majority of the people look Japanese.  It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist, except on TV.  The chances of a Japanese person having to use English appears to be about on par with needing an abacus.  So in the schools it gets scarcely more attention than Art class or P.E., not that those aren’t also great subjects.  I recently asked a class of university English majors how they intended to use English and their answers fell within the narrow range of “I don’t” to “I want to have foreign friends.”  It’s like a mildly interesting hobby.

But it’s not like Japan’s still an island nation that you reach by clipper ship.  With cheap jet travel and the Internet, the distance between nations is gone.  And what’s the future language of the Internet going to be?  Not Japanese, that’s for sure.  To the extent that the Net is important—in international trade, exchanging medical and scientific knowledge, and distributing services—English is the language to bank on.  And bank that cash you can, assuming you can communicate.  The language of raking-in-the-bucks internationally is, for the near future, very much English.

Japan as a nation is kind of like, English?  Meh.  A few corporations have adopted the language, but for most of the population, it’s business as usual.  It’s easy to miss this fact as a foreigner, if you spend time in Irish bars hanging out with the few Japanese people who have chosen to study English.  But for the Japanese majority, English isn’t spoken partly because it’s not important.  Doing your laundry every day?  Now, that’s a priority.  English, ah, you can get around to it later.

Lessons for Japanese Learners

If you’re studying Japanese, you have to make sure these same five factors aren’t harshing your own mellow.  In the same order, here’s how:

1. Back up your studies with real materials:  reading, movies, conversations, whatever you like.  It’s important to study grammar, sentences, and kanji, but you also need a lot of real-world exposure.  Reinforce and apply what you’ve learned.
2. Stop thinking classes suck.  100% of the people I’ve know who were awesome at Japanese also took an awesome number of classes.  Just make sure to seek out lessons that provide speaking practice.  Don’t sign up for boring, lecture-style classes.  Take lessons with that have 8 or fewer students, or hire a tutor, and you’ll learn a ton.  But here’s the deal—a class is only a few hours a week, so the rest of the time is your responsibility.  People say, “I took Japanese class for a year, and I didn’t learn squat,”  or “I only learned 30 kanji all semester.”  Hey, being in class for two hours a week didn’t prevent you from studying the remaining 166 hours of the week.  Nobody’s stopping you from learning more kanji.  Don’t blame the class when there’s a mirror handy.
3. Practice speaking.  What’s easy on paper is hard in real life.  Make opportunities to speak Japanese.  If you can’t capture a real, live Japanese person, one on the internet will probably do.  Use a language exchange site like The Mixxer.
4. Don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes.  Study politeness levels and correct vocabulary, but when it comes time to speak, forget all of that and just speak.  Do the best you can and people will forgive your mistakes.  The more you speak, the better you’ll get.
5. Make Japanese a priority.  Things that are optional, like my dishes, don’t get done.  Make it essential in your daily life.  My dishes,  I mean.  What you do with Japanese is your business.

About half of life is doing the right stuff.  The other half is  avoiding the wrong stuff.  It reminds me of the ancient Japanese saying:  “You’re in the army now, you’re not behind the plow.”  So now get out there and be all you can be.


75 Replies to “Why are Japanese so Bad at English? (5 Reasons)”

  1. “You’ll never get rich
    You son of a bitch
    – Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji

  2. Awesome post!
    I’m an English teacher, but English is not my native language.
    Whenever I tell my Japanese student that (including the fact that I also studied Latin, Spanish and French at school), they think I’m a genius!
    Learning foreign languages is just not very common in Japan.
    English is the exception, but the curriculum is soooo old … and so is the English they teach!
    I could write a book about it by now after teaching for 4 years in Japan.

    Give high school students 1h of time and a topic they’re really interested in and let them write something about it in English. You’re lucky if you get more than 2 or 3 sentences.
    Speaking is even worse!
    We’re currently trying to reinforce output, but for most of them it’s already too late 🙁

    1. I know a few people here teaching English who are not native English speakers, and I think that’s quite an impressive accomplishment. That’d be like me getting my Japanese to the level where I could be a Japanese teacher. Which would be awesome.

      I know what you mean about asking Japanese people to write. I have the same problem with college classes. If I assign a 500-word essay as homework, a week later I might get half a page. A room full of cats could write better papers if you taped little pens to their paws.

  3. Ken, great post highlighting some of the real issues in a humorous way. I have to agree that practice is the biggest thing. Elementary kids get English once a week and get to play games, etc. But with big classes have limited chances to speak. In jr. high its all about grammar and tests and again, they rarely get to practice, and at that age are more shy about it.

    I took Japanese in college, but I knew the only way I’d really learn was to come and speak the language every day.. Unless you’re geared towards language, its all about practice.

    1. There’s no doubt that using Japanese every day in real life is a tremendous help. It really bridges the gap between knowledge and ability.

      I find it interesting that such a wide disparity exists between what people can do on paper and what they can do in real life. How many times has that happened to you? Like, you study something and you feel you know it really well, and then suddenly when you need to say it in real life, you just space on it. It’s pretty frustrating when that happens.

  4. Interesting perspective. I think it should be a lesson for us Angliophiles, or whatever the hell you call American-speaking folks. There’s a myth that people in the United States cannot speak another language, let alone our own, which I guess is officially, or unofficially English. Or, is it proper to call it American? Anyway, I’ve read that approximately 20% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home. Another interesting fact: English is not the “official” language of the United States. There is no official language. So, do you think it’s a problem that Japanese cannot speak English so well? Why not Mandarin Chinese, which is closer and spoken by more people?

    1. That’s a good point, really. Certainly other languages have a numerical, linguistic, and cultural advantages over English. It’s just that English has become this universal language. So when some old lady goes to a foreign country, she’s not like, “You don’t speak my language? Well, how about Icelandic? No? Chinese?” Like somehow English won. Maybe because our alphabet has 26 characters, and Chinese has like five thousand? Nah, that couldn’t be it. But if I remember my 6th grade history class, it arrived with Christopher Columbus on the Mayflower, along with the telephone. Pretty sure that’s right.

  5. I think the main problem is that Japanese people in general just do not care very much about learning English.

    It’s similar in England. It’s compulsory to receive 4 years of foreign language instruction (usually French or Spanish) but if you go to England and try to speak French or Spanish to someone, you’ll be laughed right out the place.

    1. Well, you’re certainly right that a lot of people don’t care much about English, starting with the public school students who are required to take years of it. To be fair, they’re not really given much of a goal. No one seems to discuss how English will benefit them.

      And yet, there’s a strange contradiction, because Japan as a nation has invested heavily in English education. From kindergartens to adult classes, English is big business. Everywhere you look, there are English schools, and both corporations and the Government have programs to bring foreigners from all over the world to ensure students are taught by “native speakers.” (Ironically, a number of teachers come from countries where English is not the primary language, and have, uh, interesting accents.) It’s one thing to buy a bunch of English textbooks, but quite another to bring thousands of people from around the globe, set them up with apartments, visas, and arrange for them to live in your nation, just to teach language.

      Personally, people tell me all the time, “I want to learn English,” and many of them have spent thousands of dollars on classes. And yet, there’s that lack of a goal. They want to learn English the way I want to learn to play the saxophone. Like, I think that would be cool. But I don’t really know when I’d ever use it. So, to remedy the English education in this nation, I’d start off by providing some concrete goals—make English something tangible and immediately useful, rather than a vague theoretical pursuit.

    1. Yeah, I’ve known some Japanese people caught up in this policy, and it’s a real hardship for them. You take a worker who’s good at his or her job, and suddenly add an entirely new dimension to their job. You’re good at accounting? Great, how about we make you do all your reports in a foreign language?

      It’s hard not to point out how “Japanese” a solution this is, forcing everyone to speak English. It’s not easy to improve foreign language skills quickly, and at least some companies are imposing this requirement without providing any classes. The result is that already overworked employees have to spend their own money attending classes at nights after work, or lose their jobs. It’s tough to imagine a corollary situation in, say, the U.S. But I guess that’s part of the magic of Japan.

  6. When I work for a well known bank. People suddenly laughed at a girl.She said,”Thank you.” She was educated in Australia for 11 years as a daughter of chairman of wool trading company.So, she didn’t know the exact pronunciation of Sankyu (Japanese thank you).You may think this was a kind discrimination.It was not.That was because she looked Japanese(too natural) and spoke strange accent.It is true English speaking Japanese were regarded as Eigo Tsukai(literally English user) and looked down.They tend to hide their skill of English speaking.And it is agreed that hiring a British person may be a good solution.Their accent sounds superior to American.Anyway some Japanese are proud of not speaking English.The management of English speaking only company cannot speak English.

    1. Yeah, I can certainly understand why somebody wouldn’t want to use English in Japan, since it really sets you apart. Not everybody wants to stand out and be treated like they’re “different.” I like to see people look for commonalities, rather than differences, but maybe I’m kind of strange like that.

  7. A lot of truth here. I always figured it was that Japan was such a nice country already that they don’t really need it. It’s more important in poor countries because learning English could be their way out. Why would Japanese want a way out? It’s similar to how not as many Japanese people come to the US for college.

    1. Yeah, the way Japanese society approaches English reminds me of how I studied French in high school and college. It was kind of interesting, but I never really considered it particularly important. It’s ironic that Japan has set up a comprehensive English-language education program, and then treated it as only marginally important. And in place of “ironic,” feel free to substitute in words such as “mind-boggling” and “asinine.”

    2. Hi I am Japanese and I am one of those Japanese people who can’t speak English well.

      I think living happily with your mother tounge all your life is a lucky and good thing. It means your country is independent and has power to run economy without relying too much on external demands. It means people don’t need to go abroad to survive or find way out.

      The easiest way to make Japanese people fluent in English is make them feel ” we can’t live in Japan anymore”.

      My English is not very good but I can hold easy conversations in English and I like watching international news like Cnn, National geographic…

      But I can watch them in Japanese too….and my salary is better than salary most bilingual Japanese gets. ( having speciality is the first priority.Having second language is just a tool which someone can do instead of you)

      I actually don’t recommend Japanese people to waste time on studying English if they don’t have their specialities.

      Japanese people who got novel prizes don’t speak English….

      I am not saying that Japan is good country, I mean it is much important to think way-out inside Japanese society rather than running away from Japan.

      For example, if there are better opportunities abroad , we have to think how to make those environments inside Japan but how to get into those better countries.

      Of cause we need a few bilingual specialists to communicate abroad. But I think we have them already.

      1. You make a very interesting point and I read an article recently where this same point was made. I read an article written by a translator named Juliet Winters Carpenter who is a member of the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET). She translated the work of Minae Mizumura’s book The Fall of Language in the Age of English (Columbia University Press, 2015). Ms Carpenter’s article spoke about the plight faced by the Japanese, and other cultures, in holding onto their language as a means of expressing their thoughts. You can find a link to the article here:


  8. Hey Ken, I found your blog last night and have been reading your posts. You write so incredibly well and I’m really enjoying your blog! Your tips for learning Japanese have been very helpful, and I am going to begin incorporating them. Actually, I’ve been trying (on and off) to teach myself Japanese since 2005, but work, life and other stuff has always gotten in the way. Now I feel that I can devote time every day to it, so I’m going to go at it in earnest!

    Just wanted to add my two cents in here. I’m from Canada and we are an officially bilingual country (French and English). When I was in public school, it was mandatory to take French from Grades 4-9. That’s 6 years of schooling in French, but that certainly did NOT translate into a country of bilingual people. Anyone coming to Canada (aside from Quebec) cannot simply walk up to a random person, begin speaking French, and expect to be understood. I took French all the way up into university, so my command is pretty good, but I am by far in the minority.

    Also to the person who speaks multiple languages – that truly is amazing! I am in awe of how people who know multiple languages can keep them straight. On my first trip to Tokyo in 2008, when I tried to speak Japanese, my first instinct was to speak French. Then in 2012 when I was in Paris, one time I tried to speak Japanese! Talk about confusing people. XD

    1. Thanks a lot, seriously. So yeah, I know what you mean about getting languages confused. Basically, I have one “foreign” language, and that’s Japanese. So whenever I have to speak a language that’s not English, that’s the noise that starts coming out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter if you’re a taco vendor in Baja, Mexico—Japanese is what you get. dou itashi mashite.

      As for language education, tell me about it–I studied French for six years and could barely place an order in a Paris cafe. I ate nothing but croissants, crepes, and baguettes for an entire week. Very starchy of you, France.

      The reason people fail to learn languages is very simple: it’s the difference between education and training. That probably makes no sense, so I guess I better write a post about it. Thanks for the inspiration.

      1. Seriously, I mean it! I’ve read all your posts and added your feed to my reader. I can relate to some of your experiences (certainly not the Yakuza one… yikes, totally scary!!), and in some respects, my experiences are the opposite of yours, which I chalk up to being Asian looking and non-white. I also encountered racism on my first trip, which made me hesitant to go back. I should clarify that I am half Chinese, half Indian, so I am brown-skinned, and I definitely was on the receiving end of many very impolite stares when I was on the subways and trains. However, on my trip last year in May, I luckily did not experience any such thing. Did attitudes change or maybe I just didn’t notice??

        Anyway, that sort of leads into my question: have you lived in other parts of Japan, like Hokkaido or Kyushu? I am curious as to what attitudes towards foreigners in other parts of the country are like. I read on the net (so it HAS to be true ;-)) that Sapporo is more “liberal” than other parts of Japan. What are your thoughts?

        1. Thanks very much for reading all my crazy stuff. I certainly appreciate it.

          So yeah, I’ve spent weeks in Hokkaido and many months in Kyushu, plus a good amount of time in the Kansai area as well. Here’s what I think.

          The racism or discrimination or whatever you want to call it (othering?) in Japan falls along a continuum, from folks who’ve had no contact with foreigners to those who’ve lived overseas and speak perfect English.

          Japanese people who’ve never met a foreigner seem to have fewer preconceptions. They know foreigners are “different,” but they’re not really sure how. So they’ll treat you roughly like anyone else, and as long as you can speak Japanese, they’re easy to get along with. You need to get out in the boondocks to find this type of Japanese person, but there’s a lot of boondocks in Japan, so it’s all good.

          In the middle of the spectrum are people who have met foreigners and concluded that “Oh, you’re like this.” These folks comprise the “You can eat natto? Wooow” crowd. Since you don’t look “foreign” in the way I do, I think you’ll get different reactions, but I get a lot of “Hello Charlie, let’s speak English.” Seriously, a dude I’d never met said that to me last week. Jeez. I also feel like there’s a lot of power-tripping, with people trying to show how much We’re Japanese and You’re not. We can eat this but you can’t, because you’re . . . well, you know. So that’s annoying. But it’s not everyone of course. Sometimes it just feels that way.

          On the other end of the continuum are folks who have lived abroad and hopefully gotten a clue. That clue being the very un-Japanese notion that you shouldn’t treat people differently based upon how they look. They’ve lived abroad and witnessed that you can actually stand on the corner handing out fliers for your hair salon not just to white people, but also to black people. They’re like, Wow, even black people? Amazing. So these people may treat you like a normal person, which is nice. But that’s rare in Japan.

          So I think if you lived in Japan for a long time, you’d get every type of treatment. After a while, you become a bit of a connoisseur of discrimination, and you can spot it in the subtlest of gestures. Didn’t put my Pringles in a plastic bag? You racist bastard. This is what’s known as being “Hypersensitive,” and beer helps to chill you out of that, hence my frequent use of the beverage. Hey, it’s a medical condition.

          Sapporo in particular? Hmmm. I guess I’d have to say that people in Sapporo are a bit friendlier in general, and don’t seem too stuck up about things. I mean, they live buried in snow half the year, so that probably helps keep them grounded.

          All in all, this thing, this way in which Japanese people treat people who look “foreign” different than people who look “Japanese” is really the number one thing the nation needs to work on. A lot of immigrants leave Japan for that reason, once they realize they’ll face a lifetime of discrimination. Japan is all bent on learning English, which is fine, but they desperately need to include some education about equality.

          1. Hey Ken, thanks very much for that! I do understand what you mean about being “hypersensitive.” Canada is certainly not perfect (gasp!) and that stuff does happen here too, so I am also attuned to differential treatment. Sometimes it may be something, and other times not. And even if it IS based on ethnicity, getting upset certainly isn’t going to change the other person’s attitude.

            Hmm, what you say about people in rural Japan is actually the OPPOSITE of what I would have expected! But well, now that I think about it, I guess people in smaller communities tend to be friendlier. If you ever venture out to Nova Scotia or PEI, the people are SUPER friendly, especially out in farm country.

            You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about, especially in terms of my goals for learning the language. See, I’ve always wanted to learn the language because I think 1) it would be cool, 2) it would give the option of importing Japanese RPGs, and 3) open up the option to apply for the Japanese Bar and possibly work in the legal field in Japan. But given that I’m allergic to 80+ hour work weeks, and already have over 100 various game that need playing, my time might be better spent… oh, I don’t know, playing video games? Coolness only takes you so far.

            Eh, sorry for my ramblings. If I ever visit Japan again — the 13-hour flight from Toronto is a huge barrier because I’m also allergic to planes 🙁 — I’ll buy you a beer! Or several. =D

  9. the way you wrote this just implied that you think Japanese people are required to learn English, which they’re not.

    1. Hey, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not they learn English. Frankly, I’d be happy if everybody just spoke Japanese. I mean, it’s Japan, after all.

      The Japanese government, however, apparently has a different opinion. Public schools are mandated to provide English classes for a minimum of 8 years. So actually, yes, Japanese people are required to learn English.

      Given that, I’d say that if you’re going to spend so many years working at something, you ought to at least come away with the ability to utilize it. You know, that thing Yoda said about trying and doing and all.

      1. Government wants Japanese elementary school to teach English because kid’s parents want.

        It is demanded because parents worry about their kids.

        But parents don’t know if we really need English. Parents see people who graduate from famous universities and can’t do well in society. Then find another goal! English education! Studying for famous universities don’t promise success now! But English could be!!! They don’t understand nothing can assure your success in this modern society.

        We can’t measure creativity which is the most important thing for success.

        Parents always need something measureable. Now, English is on stage.

        People go to universities. They don’t know if it is important. But they worry about future and do something looks important.

        As we know, there are many crap universities which don’t give your investments back, even famous ones.

        What is important is all depends on person to person.

        1. Dear Rara,

          Thanks for your contribution to this thread. I’ve read your previous post as well as this one.

          Just wanted to add my two cents. I currently work as an ALT in Japan due to various circumstances (mostly due to my wife being a Japanese national), after having been a university prof (French medieval literature) for several years at a major university in the US (Midwest) — and no, English isn’t my first language, French is. I’m also fluent in Spanish and I am actively studying to become proficient in Japanese with whatever neurons left I still have in my brain.

          My two children (6 and 3 years old) both speak and/or understand 3 languages since they were raised in America, while we only spoke to them exclusively in French AND Japanese. They got their English through friends.

          Now, here’s what I think of your input so far — Correct me if I’m wrong but I get the sense that you’re making excuses for something that most trained English language teachers I’ve met here in Japan seem to agree on, and that is, something can be improved in the Japanese language curriculum, at least as far as English is concerned.

          You keep basing your claims on the the notion that English is not important to Japanese, therefore people shouldn’t give a penny whether Japanese people can speak it or not. After all, you seem to believe, they don’t need it as long as they can survive and live well in Japan. Well, my dear friend, with that kind of insular I-don’t-need-anyone thinking in this new millennium, it will be a matter of generations before your brains and society get atrophied, literally and figuratively.

          Literally, because, it has been proven times and times again that learning a second, third or fourth language significantly boost your mental abilities. Go fight these scientific findings, but don’t try to make excuse for something that is clearly not done right in Japan when it comes to learning a second language other than Japanese. I’ve been a teacher in the US, so I know a little about the “English-centric/America First” attitude some students have, but trust me, they find themselves pretty much quickly behind on the job market – I mean even recently a major US Ivy league school has made headlines for “forcing” students to take another foreign language course before being allowed to graduate — (and no, someone like me speaking French would not be able to take French to graduate– it wouldn’t count in that school, I would have to choose Japanese, Mandarin or some other language besides English and French (my first language)) — This is just to show you the new changes in attitude adopted my many schools around the world.

          You can resist the trend and think as you’re now doing “Huh, well, in Japan, we are fine in our little cocoon without English”, but boy, you’re wrong. Have you looked at the Job stats in Japan lately? Have you looked at your prime minister Abe’s efforts to triple the number for foreign workers for years, which pitifully failed as very few people are interested to integrate Japan due to the same thinking you are now adopting (Japanese are fine and don’t need to go abroad to be fine)?

          Don’t you yet understand how beneficial it would be for a child’s mind to be exposed consistently to another language? You’re only seem to be stuck in the work/economy binary as the most vital factor to (not) learn a new language. “As long as you have specialty, you shouldn’t worry” — Is this all you can give as a reason NOT to learn a new language?

          How about the simple pleasure to read a foreign novel or watch a foreign movie in the language it was made out of originally? (which is a major incentive for me to study Japanese) — I don’t care about being fluent in Japanese just for the sake of finding a job… Heck, I could ask my wife to do so if we needed to, or simply stay in America. But see, this would be too limiting for our lives, for my children’s lives, for the new possibilities they could have….How about learning a new language with a positive attitude to take full advantage of the cultural subtleties contained within the language? Don’t you think doing the same in another language, be it English or French, or Russian could be worth doing?

          What language are you and I using right now? Are you even aware that Japan is only 2% of the world population and as such maintaining a linguistic embargo on itself would be like committing hara kiri (excuse the image, I couldn’t help myself). If there was a Chinese person, a Japanese and myself trying to have a conversation, which language do you think we would try to default to? I can tell you Japanese would not be the first, and not French either, although it is my first language.

          From my personal experience here in Japanese elementary schools and Junior highs, (and although this may not be scientifically proven) I guarantee you that as a language teacher, what I have witnessed here with both students and even Japanese teachers of English left me sometimes in a state of shock (and I come from a so-called third world African country, where I’ve learned English with the bare minimum available to students) and very few opportunities. But man, this is Japan for heaven’s sake, the land of computers, audio and video gadgets, etc, but I can tell you that my English teachers in high school back then (90’s) were far more efficient in their attitude and effort to incentivise students to practice a new language, not just use the excuse that “you don’t need English”. A language is made to be spoken, practiced, used. By the way, in my country alone, there are more than 60 local languages, so why the heck would we need to bother with English or Spanish or German?

          If English wasn’t as important for the Japanese government as you imply (“only the kids’s parents asking for it”), I guess Japan wouldn’t spend so many resources trying to hire people from all over the world to teach it to their children. So instead of beating the old “Japanese people don’t need this on this island” thinking, be more open to suggestions and let’s discuss new ways to improve the English curriculum in Japan. Not everyone trying to make a suggestion or a critique has mischievous intentions. I really care about every single child, student, teenager I teach, be it at a college in the US or in a tiny elementary school in rural Japan.

          Thank you for reading me until now.

  10. Awesome writing as usual..! I can’t stop giggles even this article is a serious one. Back to the topic. I totally agree for the first 3 curricular reason. Here in Indonesia we have at least 6 years of english leason. (in Middle school and high school). But I think the result is not as good as expected. I was a bit more lucky since my parents studied in Australia, so when I’m a little kid, I already got used to hear english words. It’s because the lack of practicing and listening that makes students here is not so good with english. But hey.., we still better than the japanese afterall 🙂
    As for the cultural reason, I just wonder, why is Korean and chinese is better in english? I think they share some common culture and habits don’t they? Well I don’t know exactly, but as far as I know, at least their pronunciation is much better.

    1. That’s a really good question, and I wish I had an answer for it. A whole lot of Japanese people wonder the same thing too.

      Obviously, those countries are doing something different, but since I’ve never worked there, I don’t know what that is. It could be more frequent classes, greater emphasis on communication versus grammar accuracy, or better student support. Certainly this video shows an approach to learning English that Japanese people have not embraced. Not by a mile.

      What’s really amazing is that almost every country that studies English seems to have better success than Japan.

      1. Just a note….It is still illegal in Japan to hire a “gaijin” to work for the government, this includes public schools. All gaijin teachers are hired from a private company. Korea and China actually have full time English teachers in the classroom and stress the importance of global communication. Also, from what I’ve heard the governments of other countries actually encourage and help finance overseas education. This means that the students have to come back and work for a couple of years. Only the richer Japanese get to go overseas and study long term, and then they don’t want to come back to Japan. Sorry for the grammar, spelling and any other errors above. I’ve lived in Japan too long

        1. I wonder to what extent that’s true. There are certainly “foreign” teachers employed directly by the local Boards of Education. I know a number of people who are directly employed, although they’re not permanent staff. Like so many jobs here, there are contract limits. Sigh.

  11. Hi, I’m a Japanese high school student and staying the US as an exchange student. I agree some of your overviews, but there’s a fact which is totally different from what you said. The thing is that Japanese teachers are not that strict as you said. Indeed, some teachers are strict, but not in classrooms.
    Oh and, I think that the length of studying English also can be the reason why Japanese people are bad at speaking English. Since I came here in the US, I’ve met a number of exchange students from some other countries. And most of them speak fluent English. I was really amazed and surprised at first, because I thought I even was kinda good at English but then, I literally was like a baby. I’ve asked some of them like “why do you guys speak English so well?”, and they said like” because we’ve learned English since elementary school”. Once I said “I’ve only learned English for three years and half” in the conversation with them, they were a bit surprised.
    If we start learning English earlier and practice speaking it, Japanese wouldn’t be said they are suck at English.
    In terms of the way to learn English, we should learn more about the prepositions. So many Japanese are so bad at using prepositions properly. I think we better learn it as understanding the nuances.
    Those above sentences are my personal opinions though.

    1. Those are good opinions, and I appreciate your input.

      The crazy thing is that I worked in a school district where all the children learned English from Grade 1. Those kids had 12 years of English by the time they graduated high school. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of a difference. Like all Japanese folks, they could read and write, and knew things like what an “adjective” was. I’m still working on that one. But they couldn’t speak English.

      And to a large extent, they couldn’t even speak Japanese. Because they don’t speak. Japan’s gotta be the most not-speaking country in the whole world. I just thank God we all have cellphones now, so that we have somebody to text with while we’re at a restaurant with our silent friends.

      So why this is happening, I don’t know. I see real severity in the way Japanese folks interact with one another, and themselves. Parents are hard on their kids, especially on the girls. The principal is hard on the teachers, and the boss is hard on the employees. It all flows downhill. I’ve seen so many times when a person says one thing wrong, and the entire relationship ends. Japanese people are great at severing friendships. So my conclusion has been, uh, maybe that’s why people don’t talk very much.

      And why so many Japanese people like to study abroad. I’ve heard the same things many times—there’s so much freedom, everybody engages in discussions. Then they return to Japan and see the rigidity, and the danger of saying too much. So I don’t know. You don’t see this? Maybe it’s just me.

  12. すごく面白い記事でした!!!!

    It’s awesome article!!
    Recently, I wrote like education of English in Japan as my essay

    I do agree with you!!

    1. そのエッセを読みたいんですが。リンクありますか?

      Thanks for commenting. I’d love to see what you wrote.

  13. Great article.

    I’m an ALT myself, teaching for 3 years now in 2 High Schools that are considered low level. I come from said Quebec province in Canada, so I’m in an interesting position to be able to talk about bilingualism since childhood. However, that’s besides the point.

    I agree with all 5 of your reasons. I also think the biggest stop to Japanese speaking English is more social than technical.

    I’ve seen students with near-perfect pronunciation (the #1 weakness of any Japanese learner) hide their skill and use katakana pronunciation to avoid being singled-out. However, when kids listen to Taylor Swift or One Direction, and can sing the songs almost perfectly, that’s ok. It’s a song. It’s not them. It’s not their own words.

    That’s why USUALLY (this is a generalization, of course, but there is some truth to it), half japanese and half foreign kids are more inclined to have better English speaking skills. They learned English since they were young, yes, but they also have a thicker skin, because they already know they are slightly different, and they’re ok with that.

    Another point I have is that English is not very present on TV. When an important English-speaking person to the eyes of the Japanese society (like president Obama, or famous actors like Hugh Jackman) is on TV, their voice isn’t dubbed. It’s left in English, with subtitles. When it’s an unknown English-speaking person in a variety show, then a usually silly sounding voice is used for dubbing. TV has an opposite mentality about English than what the government is trying to accomplish. It’s not taken seriously, unless it’s necessary or unavoidable. There currently is a TV show where a Japanese comedian has to go to New York or some other American city, and accomplish certain tasks by talking to random people in the street. It’s a comedy show, of course, and while it is funny once in a while, I believe this show reflects very well the mentality of speaking English in Japan: you “sound strange” hence you become like a clown, and it’s funny. It’s not serious. Looking like a clown is what people want to avoid in every day lives. Their social images are in jeopardy if they try and fail. Comedians can do it though, that’s ok. Also, notice how immediately after failing to be understood, or failing to have correct pronunciation, a joke is made about it by emphasizing and exaggerating the sound, so that it becomes funny. That’s a COP OUT. That’s the “saving face” phenomena at work.

    Essentially, English is in a strange position in Japan. One part of Japan wants to be good at it and envy it, but since social harmony and acceptance is more important, then there has to be a way to let people off if they aren’t good at it.

    I’m sure not many people make that “saving face” joke in places like UNIQLO or other companies that decided to adopt English. If you fail over there, then it’s way more serious, and the Japanese learner will then have a very powerful motivator to correct their mistakes from now on: “fear”. It’s the real deal there.

    Anyways, I think you are right, all those 6 years let a lot of untapped knowledge in the minds of Japanese students, but then the social norm and lack of goals makes it wasted knowledge.

  14. Man I dig this blog.

    And the many astute comments, too.

    (So many duuuuudes and hmmmmm… 😉

    Nice point, Vincent, about only the “serious” English sources on TV being spared the often over-the-top overdubbing.

    As an aside, here in Paris, where I’ve lived now for over 10 years, the OCD-level over-dubbing is also I believe, a major factor in the serious lack of Ego-skillz here. EVERYTHING is overdubbed, no matter how “high level” the speaker may be, politically, scientifically or whatever–which further smacks down the already minimal practical application possibilities for the Frenchies here who actually have a decent foundation in English.

    I was lucky, as most of my time Nihon de was spent in smaller towns where the usual English ended abruptly after a booming, “HELLO I’M FINE!”

    So I learned my admittedly Tarzan-esque but effectual Nihongo quickly.

    Being a singer certainly helps.

    As does simply liking how Nihongo feels in la bouche.

    Unlike French–which only after 10+ years of my planned osmosis/non-mosis word-harvesting here, has resulted in my only now being able to follow many, (though certainly not most and very little group stuff), conversations. More importantly, I’m finally able to crack some pretty decent jokes and even puns now and then.

    With more thought on this, I do believe that being able to make people giggle is a huge piece of the puzzle that is jiving with any other culture/language.

    That and doing an impressive Madonna back in the day didn’t hurt ‘neither.

    Anywho, as I’ve already gulped down every single post in this blog already, I’m tres looking forward to the next one, Ken.

    Write ON,

    : J

  15. Hello, this is my first time posting. I was a refugee to the US about two decades ago, where I became a citizen and learned fluent english. I joined the Navy at 18 and have been working as medical staff for 6.5 years.
    (I was going to go in as a nuclear engineer with a huge enlistment bonus, but the recruiter said something along the lines of “Oh…you’re not from the US…uh, well, this rate is not available for terror- I mean foreigners, sorry…)
    I am in Okinawa these days, and I have made friends with plenty of japanese ladies who work as civilians in the clinics. I ask for help with some japanese words sometimes as I study, and they are glad to help. Their english is not perfect, but it gets the point across.
    One of the things I notice is that they always ask me to elaborate when I use a figure of speech and what context to use it in, sometimes asking me to write them down for future use.
    If I try to get more involved in teaching, however, they try to change the subject. I offered to proofread some things in the past and got a feeling that they might have been offended by the offer.
    I am not sure if it is a matter of pride, or something else entirely. One of them is in a supervisor position, but I can still have casual conversation because it is still an american work environment. Hell, we shoot emotes at eachother on LINE from time to time.
    Anyway, thanks for the insight. You can probably expect more posts from me since I am binge reading your archive.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’d be interested in why they declined your proofreading and teaching offers. I kind of don’t think it’s pride. If you get any other insights as you work there, let me know.

    2. If you are a Japanese who is against Okinawa’s army base, how can they study English?

      I think anti-America’s feeling prevents Japanese people from studying the language.

      They have to realize that English is not only for America.

      As you know…some American make problems in Okinawa…

  16. So…. lemme get this straight…
    we DON’T swallow spiders in our sleep???



    I need a moment.

  17. Okay, I do have one serious response. I am using anime as my reference here, so if that’s a completely absurd source, forgive me. It just seems like the major link between the popular culture of Japan and America (and probably other countries, the English-speaking ones at least…) Anyway, I notice that is SEEMS like English is scattered around everywhere… on T-shirts, signs, etc… and thrown into songs and even occasionally in dialogue. If you watch enough subtitled anime you catch more English than you would expect. So is it just that English is a novelty? I occasionally see other languages, especially French and Italian, but it’s English that I notice 90% of the time. In written form, it usually seems almost decorative. (Which makes sense, since people obviously think that kanji is “cool” or whatever, enough so to permanently ink on their skin even though they don’t speak the language…) but aesthetics aside, why use English in casual dialogue if they really don’t have an interest in it?

    1. For the exact same reason english people use some french words like ” merci beaucoup”, “a la carte”, “pardonnez moi”; it’s a cultural thing, when cultures collide they often leave a mark on each other. With the previous wars and the mondialisation, it all makes sense to me 🙂

      I also assume that, when something is written in english, french, italian or whatever, it give a certain “cachet” to the thing, the same way you would be more appealed in a chinese restaurant if they have Chineses caracters on the front 😉

    2. That’s a good question, and one I’ve asked myself. Certainly, there are thousands of English words in common usage in Japanese.

      It’s clear that during the 20th century, English increased substantially worldwide, to the point where it’s unavoidable. Now when two people of different countries meet without a common language, English is what they use to communicate. You can’t not not use English. Except perhaps in Japan.

      And in thinking about this further, I think maybe we’ve asked the wrong question. In many industrialized nations around the world—and even developing countries—there’s a substantial portion of the population that legitimately speaks English. Educated Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Indians are capable of carrying on fluent conversations. So maybe the question really is: What the hell, Japan? Instead of utilizing English as a legitimate tool like so many nations, the Japanese crammed it higgidy piggidy into their own language, changed the pronunciation to Japanese, and hey, problem solved. English? No English here. They’ve managed to keep English at bay, rather than adopt it as a real language.

      I saw a sign recently on the roof of a plant and gardening center. The sign was six feet tall and 30 feet wide, painted in bright colors, advertising the business. Right in the middle of the sign was the only English. It read “Bird Barths.”

      Now, how much do you really not have to give a shit about another language or culture that you wouldn’t spend one minute looking up the spelling of a word before inking it permanently over your business in two-foot high letters? There’s even the same word in Japanese: バス. Anybody care that you spelled it wrong? Nope. Miss one stroke of a 12-stroke kanji and you’d be ridiculed for days, but misspell a 4-letter word? Eh, it’s just English.

      “Hey, we should get a plaque to commemorate Suzie Wilkins retirement after 25 years!

      “Great idea. But is her name spelled ‘Suzie’ or ‘Susie’? We don’t want to engrave it wrong.

      “Well, it’s not worth the trouble of asking her, so let’s just go with ‘Shuzie.’

      “Yeah, that’s good enough.”

  18. i can speak english without learning when i’m still 12 years old, probably because i love to play game which is using english language and my father love to watch western movies, and when im 15 years old i can learn HTML and other programming codes without any tutorial so i just have a template script and got used + modify it,day by day and i know how it works naturally, i think if im going to live there someday, i’ll probably become the genius ones

  19. It’s not a Japan problem in general. Go out to China, Brazil, Russia, or even France, how many people will you find who speak english fluently ? Maybe ten percent, rest of people know only limited basic words in English. It’s all up to the person. If you really want to learn a foreign language you will handle it. I had been raised up in Germany (Born in Tadschikistan(Former USSR-state)) and even here people struggle to speak English what is very funny cause German is one of the most similar language to English.

    1. Hi Anatoliy,

      Social circumstances have a big effect on who, how much and what kind of foreign language they learn. Ten-year-old kids in the tourist parts of developing countries are very fluent English speakers because it can mean they will sell something.

      For most Japanese, the pressure is on to learn grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension for school and university entrance exams. Once that is all over, there’s not much incentive to continue to learn English.

      Overall, in my experience, the average German on the street in a major city in Germany asked a question in English in will do much better than the average Japanese in an equivalent city.

  20. At this time and age it is foolishness to not learn English. And I used learn instead of study. As anyone can study but it does not implicate that the things studied have stuck with you. Still it is important to know your own language and be proud of it and not infest it with Engrish. I don’t understand why use the English word to look cool if there is propper word for it in one’s own language. It’s not cool. Same goes to any borrowed words, why say cafe au lait or latte when you can say coffee with milk/ white coffee or maitokahvi (Finnish)!?!

    However I think making things mandatory is wrong. As it makes people to resist more. It might also become a point of pride to be able to say you are bad at something that’s mandatory. This is the case in Finland, where Swedish is also offical language and everyone has to study it in school. Some are proud to say they don’t know Swedish.. I personaly don’t get it.

    In Finland the English classes are also grammar based. ALthough they have been trying to change that to more speaking and reading, to understanding and to be understood. Which is better in my oppinion. Finland is also one of these silent countries where if you don’t have anything to say or you think you can’t say anything 100% correctly, you don’t say anything at all. Shame. Or many of my friends don’t like to read books in English becouse there are words they don’t understand. One word in thousands of word is nothing!!! And even then you should read Harry Potters as it doesn’t matter if you don’t know a word as that word is probably invented for the series. 😛

    Personally I love, I mean I LOVE languages. In addition to Fnnish, Swedish and English I have learned German, Italian and Russian. I find it so intriguing to find similarities between different languages. And eventhough sometimes I do mix them (I’ve written a Swedish essey in Italian, the teacher loved it :D), so what. I’ll just have to try again.

  21. Ken,
    Is there any demand in Japan for teachers of languages other than English?

    Here’s my crazy idea:

    My wife and I will probably be retiring in the next 5 years or so. A am American and she is Polish. I’m learning Polish now, she has spoken English daily for 30 years, and could probably teach English as well as, if not better than I could, not to mention Polish. Note that neither of us are currently in an education-related field. I work in Supply Chain Management in a big Aerospace company, and she is a Physical Therapist at a local hospital. But I figure that 5 years is enough time to get some teaching credentials and learn enough of both languages (Polish first, then Japanese) that I could teach English in either Poland or Japan. My wife could also teach English in Poland, but I think she could have a unique skill set if she undertook teaching Polish in Japan.

    Since we’ll both be in our sixties by then I think we’d want to avoid full-time work, and Eikaiwas especially. Perhaps we could work as a part-time teaching team of sorts. My wife is especially simpatico with children. I think I would be better suited to teaching high schoolers or adults.

    I think after retirement we’ll initially want to live in wife’s hometown near Warsaw for a while, maybe teaching English to neighborhood kids and other individuals (in a structured environment, such as through the local church). Japan seems to be a powerful magnet though, at least for a year or two. I’d like to do something productive if we do make an extended visit there. By then we’ll probably be around 65 years old, which brings up another issue: what are the chances of old guys/gals landing part-time teaching jobs in Japan, in competition with younger teachers?

    1. Wow, lot of stuff there. Where to begin…

      Yours is something of a unique situation, simply because of your age. Honestly, an individual who’s 65 with some teaching credentials and Japanese language skills is far less desirable than a 22 year-old fresh out of college with a blank resume and a head full of straw. In my mind, it’s of questionable value to invest time and energy into further education, other than for your own personal growth. Not that that’s a bad thing; I just don’t know if it’ll help you to get a job.

      What you’ve got going for you is you seem not to need to earn much money. That’s great. The big challenge will be the visa, since work visas are provided for full-time employment. Again, honestly, teaching English full-time at age 65 sounds pretty horrible. Sorry, I exaggerated—terrifically horrible. I don’t know how much experience you have in the profession, but it’s sweaty, hard work. Two hours a day is about the max you’re going to want to do, especially for the peanuts you’re likely to make.

      Jumping topics: Is there a demand for other languages? French, Spanish…a bit. Polish? Mmmm, not so sure. Assuming you landed a full-time job, then perhaps your wife, with a spouse visa, could teach at some community center to the one person in the region with a burning desire to learn Polish. Although I’d bet that teaching Polish cooking would be a bigger hit. Who doesn’t love pierogies?

      But maybe other types of visas would be a better fit. You could enroll full-time in a Japanese language school and stay quite a while. Perhaps that’d kill two birds with one stone. If I had the cash, that’d be the way I’d go.

      1. Thanks for your response Ken.

        Yeah, when we retire the income will already be there, so no need for a teaching income although the extra cash would be nice. And no we wouldn’t teach full time. Otherwise why bother to retire from our current jobs, which probably pay triple what we could make teaching either English or Polish.

        On the other hand doing nothing in retirement isn’t that appealing either. If we’re going to spend any significant time in a foreign country, whether it’s Poland, Japan or somewhere else, I’d like to do a little something useful, even if it’s volunteer work. Just being a tourist is kind of empty. I did the tourist thing for six months fresh out of college back in the ’80s and while that was great in some ways, I never felt like I belonged anywhere and the constant traveling was without a sense of purpose. Making friends was hit or miss and fleeting, and usually was with other travelers, not locals. Although by pure chance I did meet the woman who would later become my wife. I guess that’s providence for you.

        I don’t like big crowded cities, so what I envision is “setting up shop” for a year or two in a smallish town, maybe near the coast or in the mountains. I figure with most of the action happening in the big cities, there may actually be a need for part-time teachers in smaller towns, or on one of the smaller islands. It might also be a better way to make local friends if we’re doing something useful for the community.

        As for teaching Polish in Japan, the small town idea probably wouldn’t work, but my small amount of research indicates an uptrend in trade between Japan an Poland. English is a compulsory subject in Polish schools but it’s a similar situation as that in Japan where the languages are so different from each other (English v. Polish) that few poles speak English well. It’s an even more homogenous culture than Japan. Over 95% Catholic and something like 98% white native Polish. Practically speaking, trade between Poland and Japan will most likely be conducted exclusively in English, but a Japanese businessman who speaks at least some Polish will have quite an advantage, at least with travel to Poland on business trips, since there is really no English signage in Poland except maybe at the Warsaw airport, and probably 95% of the people you encounter in Poland speak little to no English.

        So while Polish language learning may be an extremely small niche market in Japan, there may also be only a handful of native Polish language teachers available in Japan, if any. But yeah, large cities like Tokyo may be the only places with enough “critical mass” to do something like that, unfortunately.

        1. Your plan sounds great. I’m just wondering how you’re going to address the visa conundrum…any thoughts on that?

          1. No idea about the visa at this point. Just brainstorming for now. Might have to just get tourist visas and deal with it when we get there. We may be limited to volunteer work and that’s okay…maybe teaching disadvantaged youth who can’t otherwise afford private lessons. To overcome the time limit of tourist visas (3 months?) I suppose we could take short trips around Asia: South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, etc., and come back after having our passports stamped in those countries, if that’s how it works. The wife’s dual citizenship (USA/Polish) makes her a member of the EU so maybe it’ll be somewhat different for her, dunno yet.

  22. Can Japanese people speak Russian? or speak Dutch i know this is dumb question you can to not reply or delete me if you don’t like it…

    1. No, they can’t. Well, probably there’s one person who can, but not too many folks.

      English is what everyone is clamoring for. Beyond that, there’s a subset of language-learners who study other languages. I’ve met Japanese people studying Spanish, French, Korean, and Chinese. I’m sure Russian or Dutch ability is fairly rare.

      1. Of course, the big question is “Can Japanese people speak English?” despite everyone under the age of fifty having done at least six years of high school English, plus in many cases cram school, eikaiwa sessions, work classes …etc.

        I would have to say that Chinese and Korean would be other languages reasonably on the Japanese wish list, but others are way out there.

        1. Followed by the bigger question of whether Japanese people can even speak Japanese. With the level of interpersonal communication in this country, more and more I’m finding the answer to be No.

  23. Japanese people not being able to speak english just works perfectly well with the american and japanese government to keep the japanese economy going while people in japan dont resist because of its culture.

  24. This post got picked up my “Madame Riri,” a site dedicated to spreading the truth of “what those ‘foreigners’ think.” Without a trace of irony, the idiot running the site takes it upon herself/himself to call Ken by his first name, in spite of the fact that Ken specifically points out on this very blog that he doesn’t appreciate being treated that way. I would say I’m surprised at both the bigotry and ignorance, but nah, I’ve been living in Japan long enough.

    1. Actually, I’d be surprised by the opposite.

      The Japanese business introduction: Please let me introduce Takeda-san, Kimura-san, Suzuki-san, and oh yeah, Kenny. Say “hi” Kenny. Kenny can speak Japanese. Say it, Kenny, go ahead and say “hi.”

      And everybody’s like “Heeeey. Amaaaazing.” Then they switch to English.

      So it’s not that the name thing alone is a big deal. It’s that virtually 100% of the time, Japanese people find something small to point out that marks you as different, as not part of the group. Maybe your hair is too short, or your intestines too long.

      And they probe for it. Don’t you find Japan too hot? We don’t. Don’t you think Japanese apartments are too small? We don’t. Don’t you think spicy food is delicious? Hah, trick question–we don’t.

      And if they can find nothing, they offer the ultimate backhanded compliment: Wow, you’re just like a Japanese!

      Yeah thanks. Thanks for pointing that out. Now I’m comfortable.

  25. I think it’s time, Ken, that you just surrender and go full James Bond in “You Only Live Twice”.
    I could see you with that haircut. And perhaps a Japan girl….”she has a face like a pig”. Suave

  26. I work in Japan in a field where there are no people brought up in Japan, or even Japanese natives who were educated overseas, who have the ability to produce the required level of English demanded for the job.

    In their hubris the Japanese companies do not employ English native speakers of a high level, instead relying on Japanese people with high “English” test scores, and they predictably lose the contracts, because they don’t know what great English looks like.

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