Bilingualism in Japan: Why Most Locals Don't Speak English (Part 2)

UX Researcher - Serena Lai

In part 1 of this article, we discussed why we rarely recommend recruiting English-speaking Japanese participants for UX studies in Japan. We looked at some numbers that suggest that bilingual Japanese make up less than 20% of the population and talked about how the English education system in Japan has largely been blamed for the low numbers of Japanese who can speak English fluently. Here in part 2, we'll look at how Japan's history has also contributed to the nation's ambivalent attitude towards needing English proficiency in today's global society.

Japan's History as an Island Nation and One of the World's More Homogeneous Societies

Unlike other countries in the world that share common borders with foreign neighbours, Japan is an island nation whose population predominantly consists of ethnic Japanese. In general, everyone speaks the same language and shares the same customs and beliefs, so there has never been a need for the average citizen to learn a second language.

In addition to being an archipelago, Japan's seclusion to the outside world during most of the Edo Period (1603 - 1867) has reinforced its cultural and linguistic homogeneity. Between 1633 - 1853 Japan adopted an isolationist foreign policy where international relations and trade were severely limited (previously, the nation had been trading actively with countries including Korea, China, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands). Fearing a loss of authority and control as western ideas and Catholicism spread in some parts of the country, the ruling shogun introduced a series of edicts to close off the country and limit foreign influence; foreigners were denied entry and Japanese were forbidden from leaving without special permissions. For the next two centuries, the Netherlands became the only western country Japan maintained trade relations with, and even this was tightly regulated with exchanges conducted exclusively on Dejima - an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki.

As contact with the outside world was strictly regulated and confined to Nagasaki, there was no need for the general populace to know a foreign language. Throughout Japan's 220 years of seclusion, Dutch (the language used to trade with the Netherlands) was mainly learned by Japanese interpreters and scholars interested in keeping abreast of western developments. Towards the mid-18th century, when the ruling authorities re-embraced non-secular western ideas related to science, technology, medicine and other fields, Dutch texts were translated into Japanese and circulated, and schools were established to help spread these new ideas through the country. Given this method of sharing new knowledge through translated texts, there was again little need for the entire nation to learn a second language. It was not until the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) that foreign language education on a national basis was deemed necessary.

In 1854, Japan was pressured to enter a treaty with the United States after Commodore Mathew Perry's naval flotilla, with far superior armaments, anchored off the coast. Acknowledging the threat posed by the show of force, and realising how technologically behind they were, Japan ended their isolationist foreign policy, signed treaties with other western nations, and set about revolutionising the country. In its drive to rapidly modernize the nation and emulate the colonial powers of the day, the new Meiji government realised the critical need for universal public education. The education system reform saw the founding of the Ministry of Education in 1871 and the introduction of a national curriculum.

With the nation hungry for rapid modernisation, it was paramount that overseas ideas and technologies were studied and international partnerships were formed. Therefore, with the power balance in the 19th century shifting from the Dutch to Britain and the United States, the Ministry of Education added the study of English learning to the national curriculum. Again, the goal of foreign language education from the outset was not so much to foster communication skills for intercultural exchange, but to grant the people an essential tool with which to sift, absorb and adopt western ideas in Japan's quest to swiftly establish itself as a strong, civilized country that rivalled western powers. This brings us back to the grammar-translation based language teaching method (discussed in Part 1) that still exists today, and which continues to hinder the English-speaking skills of Japanese people.

In Conclusion

While the idiosyncrasies of Japan's current English education system have long been acknowledged, the fact remains that without a critical need nor sufficient opportunities to converse in English regularly outside the classroom, the benefits of gaining speaking fluency will continue to be questioned by many. Having successfully established itself as a global power in the 20th century while avoiding colonisation from the West, Japan is still considered one of the most homogenous societies in the world. Looking at the 2017 yearbook statistics by the Statistics Bureau of Japan, less than 2% of the country's 127 million people are non-Japanese, while residents from nations where English is considered an official language do not exceed 0.3%. Given these figures, it is perhaps inevitable that having English speaking skills is not a priority for the nation as a whole.

As pointed out by some of the people interviewed by That Japanese Man Yuta in this YouTube video, for the average Japanese citizen with no intentions to live and work abroad, not knowing any spoken English while living in their own country poses no inconvenience. However, with English as a lingua franca, some felt that having a basic knowledge of the language was not necessarily useless. When asked, "Do you think Japanese people need to be able to speak English?", the mixed responses from interviewees capture the population's ambivalence on the topic:

  • "No, I don't think we necessarily 'need to' be able to speak English. It's because we can manage [in Japan with no problems] even if we don't speak it."
  • "If I visit a foreign country, I think I need to be able to speak their language. So for those who visit Japan, it would be good if they can speak Japanese."
  • "It's better if we are able to speak English since it's the world's lingua franca. It won't hurt to be able to speak it."
  • "Yes. Even though we know English grammar, our speaking skills are very low and it makes me wonder if that is really acceptable. Even though there are a lot of people visiting Japan from other countries, Japanese people can't communicate with them effectively. If we are to think of ourselves as a developed country, I think we should be able to speak English."

With international tourism on the rise in Japan, the Ministry of Education has recognised the need to re-examine its approach to English education in order to help increase Japan's global competitiveness. However, with Japan's demographics unlikely to change in terms of its largely monocultural makeup, it seems unlikely that changing its English language education system alone will help to increase the number of bilingual Japanese-English speakers in Japan.

For more information on Japanese history, check out these articles: