Bilingualism in Japan: Why Most Locals Don't Speak English (Part 1)

UX Researcher - Serena Lai

When it comes to interviewing participants for ethnographic research or usability tests in Japan, two questions we often get asked by clients are:

  1. Can we recruit native Japanese participants who can speak and/or read English well?
  2. Can one of our own researchers moderate in English with the help of an interpreter?

When asked the reasons why clients would like to do the above, the most common answers tend to be:

  • We have a website or mobile app prototype that is in English only, and we want to test the concept for the Japanese market before we move ahead with translation and localization.
  • We are doing a global study across several countries and want to keep the same moderator to ensure research and reporting consistency.
  • We have a limited budget, so we are hoping to use our own researcher to interview English speaking participants to eliminate costs associated with local moderation and simultaneous interpretation.

While these are certainly understandable reasons, we usually don't recommend this approach since bilingual participants are rarely representative of the general population. Apart from recruitment feasibility issues, interviewing those who represent only a very small minority of the nation may result in skewed local insights; Japanese who speak English fluently enough to be interviewed in the language usually have some experience living, studying or working abroad, so their attitudes, motivations and behaviours may be very different from those who have not benefited from similar exposure.

So how small of a minority are Japanese bilinguals in Japan? And why do Japanese generally have low English ability, especially when it comes to speaking? In this two-part article, we'll aim to answer these questions by looking at Japan's English education system as well as the country's history.

Fluent Japanese-English Speakers as a Minority in Japan

While no official data seems to exist regarding the percentage of native Japanese-English bilinguals in Japan, the general perception from desk research and from conversations with Japanese friends and colleagues, is that less than 10% of Japanese have professional working proficiency in English. This includes all four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. However, if we look solely at English speaking ability - the weakest skill of most Japanese - then the percentage of the nation who have business-level conversation fluency is estimated to be less than 5%, with the majority of these likely working in industries such as academia, interpretation, tourism, finance and others that require speaking English.

But what about the percentage of people who have basic conversation skills, enough to get by smoothly when travelling and sightseeing in English-speaking countries? Even for this group, it's perceived that less than 20% of Japanese are comfortable using English on a conversational level. In fact, this low estimate may be overly generous when looking at the 2016 statistics of Rakuten's online survey on Japanese people's attitudes towards English.

In Rakuten's survey of 1000 men and women aged 20 to 69, 69.9% of Japanese felt they were either "poor or very poor" at English, with only 8.7% responding that they felt "good or very good" and the remaining replying they "do not know / cannot say either way". Out of the 8.7% who expressed confidence in English, the main situations in which they used English were:

  1. Travelling abroad
  2. Singing English songs
  3. Regularly interacting with foreign people
  4. Reading English books and newspapers

Since travelling abroad and regularly interacting with foreign people are the only two scenarios that point to speaking competence, the study suggests that far less than our estimated 20% of Japanese are comfortable at even a basic conversational level.

The Idiosyncrasies of Japan's English Education System

When it comes to reasons behind Japanese people's low level of English speaking proficiency, the blame has largely been cast on Japan's foreign language education system. While most Japanese graduate secondary school with at least 6 years of compulsory English education, the goal of English learning in classrooms has never truly been on language acquisition - at least not in the sense of being able to use English to converse with others. Rather, the primary focus of language classrooms for the past century has been on preparing students to pass the English exams required to enter university. These exams did not (and still do not) consist of a speaking assessment, so priority has been given to helping students develop reading, writing and listening skills, with speaking taking a back seat. Classes were taught in Japanese through grammar-translation instead of being balanced with an aural-oral approach to encourage students to develop speaking and listening competency. The lack of language teachers who spoke English fluently, as well as the lack of real life opportunities to speak and/or use English outside of a classroom setting, also contributed to the poor state of English proficiency across the nation.

As evidenced by local street interviews by That Japanese Man Yuta on Why Can't Japanese Speak English, this approach continues to be prevalent today.

The above video is published on YouTube. Mitsue-Links does not have a direct relationship with the video publisher nor any in-video advertisements.

When Japanese were asked, "Why do you think Japanese people are generally bad at speaking English?", responses included:

  • "We tend to focus on writing rather than speaking, and we only study for tests."
  • "We don't practice conversation."
  • "[It's because of the] passive teaching style. Teachers just lecture. We don't have any opportunity to actually speak or practice conversations in junior and senior high school."
  • "Our teachers don't speak English well ... and students don't really know the benefits of being able to speak English well."

Taking a look at the last comment, many may wonder why the benefits of speaking fluent English are not self-evident. But if we consider Japan's history as a predominantly monocultural country, perhaps we can somewhat understand why the advantages of knowing the world's current lingua franca are not so obvious to the Japanese.

In Part 2 of this article, we will explore how the history of Japan has contributed to local attitudes and perceptions towards English.

For more information on Japanese English education system, check out these articles: