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English Education Reform in Japanese High Schools: Challenges in Classrooms and Beyond

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3118 words Published: 17th Mar 2021

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The advancement of English as an international language has exerted a powerful influence on central education policies across the globe. The purpose of this essay is to review Plans on the Promotion of Improvement of Students’ English Abilities, a policy introduced by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) based on English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization announced in December 2013 (MEXT, 2014a). The Japanese government is keenly aware that it must undergo a major revamp of English education without delay. English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization has explicitly stated “Timed with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, towards the full-scale development of new English education in Japan, MEXT will incrementally promote educational reform from FY2014” (ibid.). This essay begins by explaining the objectives of the policy in its socio-economic context. It will then analyse implementation issues associated with it, focusing primarily on high school education and controversial university entrance examination system. It will also discuss the effects the policy has had on Japan’s English as a foreign language (EFL) landscape. Furthermore, it will examine how this government initiative with emphasis on communicative approaches has impacted the TESOL industry, drawing on Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories and researches.

Socio-economic Factors and Policy Objectives

A recent report (OECD, 2018) indicated that, besides demographic and socio-economic issues associated with steep population decline, educational challenges such as teacher workload and high-stakes university entrance examinations, could affect future English education in Japan.

The policy has been introduced in response to criticism towards MEXT’s failure to address communicative weaknesses among Japanese students. The targets, 1) nurture the ability to understand abstract contents for a wide range of topics and to fluently communicate with English speaking persons and 2) conduct classes in English, with high-level linguistic activities, have been set for high school students. These goals are in line with the government’s determination to make Japanese students more competitive on the global stage by enhancing all four skills. Of greater significance are the proposals of earlier university entrance examination reform, improvement on teacher training, and revision of teacher employment criteria with emphasis on applicants’ high level of language proficiency.

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For the Japanese government, improving the English skills of its population has been a pressing issue since the national interest hinges on the success of its policies. In reality though, Japanese nationals have been lagging far behind on English proficiency. According to the latest Education First (EF) (EF EPI, 2019), Japan was ranked 53rd among 100 countries and regions. Likewise, Japan turned out to be one of Asia’s worst performers on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL); Japan was ranked 3rd from the bottom among 29 Asian countries and regions. As for speaking, Japan was at the very bottom of the list (ETS, 2019, p.14). Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), a powerful economic lobby, stated concerns about the status of Japanese English proficiency and urged that MEXT should take appropriate actions (2017, p.6).

Some experts argue that socio-cultural factors have negative impacts on students’ language proficiency development and motivation to study English. Japanese students have far less exposure to the target language in naturalistic settings compared with their peers in the countries where English is taught as a second language (ESL). Living in a highly monolingual country, Japanese people are rarely forced into an exigency in which they must speak a foreign language. This blunts their enthusiasm to communicate in English and affects their perception of its linguistic significance.

Challenges in Implementation

Major Shift in Teaching Method

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has emerged as a prominent pedagogical principle and more and more non-Anglophone countries have incorporated CLT into national curricula (Littlewood, 2014, p.352). The traditional teaching method in Japan has been an adapted version of Grammar Translation Method called “yakudoku” (“yaku”=translation + “doku”=reading). The methodology involves word-by-word translation of written English into Japanese for reading practices. Now, MEXT has been pushing ahead with a new curriculum, promoting CLT with emphasis on the use of language.

Multiple Constraints

Whenever top-down reforms are mandated extra burden will be put on those who are directly involved in language teaching. Naturally, the foremost question is to what extent English teachers feel prepared. Their hesitancy or unwillingness to adjust to the change may be related to their limited command of spoken English. Or they simply follow their “long-held professional values and beliefs and specific instructional rituals” (Savignon, 2018, p.6). Another reason often cited is lack of adequate training. Whereas MEXT proposes teacher empowerment through training, some express concerns over additional training, arguing it may make things tougher for Japanese teachers who work very long hours (OECD TALIS 2013 Results, inOECD, 2018).

Japanese people typically place more emphasis on harmony with others rather than pushing ahead with their own views. In Japan, silence is a tacit form of communication, not a testament to lack of understanding. As Tanaka (2009, p.116) noted, facilitating active oral participation in Japanese classrooms “involves a significant cultural re-orientation”.

The arguably toughest impediment factor of all, however, is the university entrance examination system. English teachers in Japan generally regard grammar-focused teaching as pivotal to preparation for university entrance examinations. Therefore, the implementation of new policies that are not aligned with the entrance examination guidelines will face criticism. Excellent English grades attained through high school education and culminated results in entrance exams represent gateways to academic opportunities at prestigious universities and success in later life (Savignon, 2018, p.5). And the majority of parents of high school seniors adamantly support the status quo. This realty was supported by Nishino (2011, p.151) who argued that some Japanese high teachers hold positive beliefs about CLT, yet do not necessarily choose to adopt communicative activities. As Kikuchi and Browne (2009, p.172) noted, there is “a complicated gap between educational policies and actual teaching practice in Japan”.

Policy with CLT: Effects on the Japanese EFL

Overview of Foreign Language Education in Japan

In Meiji Era (1868-1912) the Japanese government made a conscious effort to learn from the Western world. The Ministry of Education (“Monbusho”) was established in 1871. After Japan’s defeat in World War II and the subsequent American occupation, the modernisation of English education was accelerated. English was taught as an elective subject in secondary schools exclusively for entrance examination preparation. It is since those earlier years that Japanese students have been learning English as a subject required for entrance examinations.

History of CLT/CommunicativeApproaches in Japan

In 1987, Monbusho (then “the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture”) worked with the Ministry of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs to create the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. The majority of JET participants are ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) who team with Japanese teachers in classrooms. Monbusho also made a major revision in 1989 guidelines (1989b), incorporating new courses (Oral Communication A, B, and C) into high school curriculum for the first time. From the 1990s onwards, MEXT has implemented a series of measures to improve English proficiency among Japanese students. It is rather interesting to note that the Course of Study 2009 for Foreign Languages (MEXT, 2009) indicated the integration of grammar teaching with communicative activities while putting emphasis on the communicative use of English in specific contexts.

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Controversies surrounding CLT

MEXT has finally started getting more serious about English education and set ambitious goals in English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization (2014a). As explained in prior sections, the policy has presented formidable challenges for both students and teachers. A core issue is the fact that whereas national curriculum promotes CLT the contents of university entrance examinations remain focused on grammar and reading skills. In reality, yakudoku method that has long been practiced in Japan is still dominant because students who excel in grammar and reading comprehension have an edge in highly competitive university entrance examinations. Sato (2002, p.54) remarked that teachers’ own beliefs about communicative approaches are not necessarily in line with their institutional goals of exam-focused methodologies. Thus, it is unclear to what extent CLT-based approaches employed in Japanese high school classrooms are “communicative” in a strictly pedagogical sense.

Some question the appropriateness of CLT. Tanaka (2009, p.116), referring to the importance of socio-cultural connotations, posited that CLT might prove to be culturally inappropriate in the Japanese classrooms without rejecting the theory itself.

The Impacts on the TESOL industry

Theoretical Overview of CLT

Richards and Rogers (2001, p.172) described CLT as “an approach rather than a method”, suggesting that CLT can be identified with a wide variety of pedagogical domains where the principles of language teaching and classroom applications are of communicative orientation. Savignon (2002) remarked this extremely broad interpretation has led to confusion as to what CLT really is. According to Savignon, CLT does not strictly mean face-to-face communicative interaction; students may also engage in reading and writing practices involving “the interpretation, expression, and negotiation of meaning” (p.22).

Howatt (1984, p.278) defined two versions of CLT, the ‘strong’ version and the ’weak’ version. These variations reflect how English instructions are given in classrooms. Whereas the strong version puts an exclusive focus on meaning, the weak version focuses both on form and meaning. Researches (e.g. Lightbown & Spada, 2013; Nassaji & Fotos, 2011; Savignon, 2002) have shown that focus-on-form approaches prove to be particularly meaningful when incorporated into communicative activities.

Hymes (1972, p.281) introduced the term ‘communicative competence’ with a broader conception of language use; language competence does not simply mean knowledge of the rules of grammar, but also entails knowledge of the rules of language use. Canale and Swain (1980, pp.27-31) and Canale (1983, pp.7-11) identified three dimensions of communicative competence; grammatical, sociolinguistic and strategic competence. Wada (2002, p.33) noted, the model of communicative competence proposed by Canale and Swain (1980) and Canale (1983) was often cited by curriculum designers as underpinning theories when Monbusho decided to introduce oral communication courses in high schools.

Implementation of CLT in Japan

CLT must be integrated with yakudoku in such a way that these seemingly dichotomous methods would coexist and inform each other. Therefore, the theoretical framework identified as the ’weak’ version by Howatt (1984) seems to be more suitable for Japanese EFL classrooms. The weak version allows teachers to employ flexible communicative approaches while retaining the benefits of yakudoku. This view was supported by Tanaka (2009, p117).

For the successful execution of CLT-based instruction, continuous training of teachers is imperative. Though prevalent for many years, CLT is an approach theorised and implemented in Anglophone countries before making inroads into other parts of the world (Littlewood, 2014, p352). Thus, the contents of teaching/learning materials such as course books need to be carefully reviewed for suitability and appropriateness in the Japanese EFL context.


English education in Japan has undergone waves of changes in the era of globalisation. Against the backdrop of the ever-growing significance of English in cross-cultural communication, language proficiency has become a serious business for policy makers. This essay has critiqued a government policy advocating practical use of English, primarily in high school context. Through the process of the analysis, a complex nature of implementation issues has been revealed. The university entrance examination system is arguably the biggest impediment to English education realignment in Japan. Unless university entrance examinations are to focus more on communicative skills, poor performance among Japanese students is likely to remain unresolved. Therefore, the government should give highest priority to university entrance examination reform. In addition, strategic overhaul of teacher training programmes and proactive recruitment of qualified teachers need to be addressed. With the national curriculum being shifted towards more communication-oriented, this essay has also examined the impacts the policy has had on the Japanese EFL. Moreover, it has presented a feasible model for integrating CLT into yakudoku method, drawing on SLA theories. Further pedagogical research is required to determine the content formats and methodological options for purposeful integration of old and new approaches in Japanese classrooms.


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