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English-Language Education Policy in Japan

English-language education in Japan began as early as 1600 with the initial contacts between the Japanese and Europeans. However, soon after that Japan became wary of foreigners and the spread of European imperialism. From 1638 Japan adopted an isolationist policy to keep out ‘dangerous influences’ and isolated itself from the rest of the world. Foreigners were expelled and foreign language study and books were both banned. It was not until Commodore Perry entered Tokyo harbor in 1853 and proclaimed that Japan be ‘opened for trade or trampled’ that the isolationist policy ended (Hagerman). In modern Japan, they are conflicting views over how the Japanese people view the English language. On one side, it appears that there is much interest in acquiring a working knowledge of the English language, which can be demonstrated by the annual rise in STEP Eiken applicants[1] and the number of Japanese media outlets that have begun to incorporate English-language programs into their repertoire (Tanaka), in order to participate in the global economy and international community. While at the same time, Japan maintains itself as one of the most independent nations on Earth due to its geographic isolation and amazing translation industry which results in hardly any need of English in daily life, which is pointed out by writers such as Henry J. Hughes and Mike Guest.

English has been a part of the official national syllabus since 1947 and many subsequent education policies have addressed curriculum reform. The “Action plan to cultivate „Japanese with English abilities” designed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in March 2003 is one of basic policies focusing on English Education. This action plan specifically defines the English language abilities required for Japanese people as follows by education stage: average junior high school graduates should have basic communication skills with regard to areas such as greetings, responses, or topics relating to daily life; average high school graduates should be able to participate in normal communication with regard to topics, for example, relating to daily life; and, finally, average university graduates should be able to use English in at a professional level in their work. Later, in 2008 MEXT continued to implement the action of “Revisions of the Courses of Study for the Elementary and Secondary Schools”. One significant change is that foreign language activities” class, which meets once a week, will be introduced in fifth and sixth grade in 2011, including English language.

However, even though MEXT has carried out a series of policies on English education, there still exist many problems in curriculum and schools. Firstly, many educators believe Japan’s poor English-speaking abilities is blame for the juken (school entrance exam) system, which does not have a speaking component. As a result, teachers heavily weight toward grammar and writing as required for exams. Another significant criticism of English education in the school is the lack of resources in terms of teacher training, time and materials. Another reason is related to geography and culture. Since Japan is an isolated island and cultural self-satisfaction suffuses through this nation, for many Japanese, forced English education simply produces the so-called English allergy — a determination to learn no more than is needed to pass exams, and an urge to forget everything once the exams are over. Even those who do try hard to learn can easily end up as damaged products.

[1]  An English language test conducted by a Japanese public-interest incorporated foundation, the Eiken Foundation of Japan (formerly the Society for Testing English Proficiency, Inc.


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Clavel, Teru. (JAN 5, 2014). English Fluency Hopes Rest on an Education Overhaul. The Japan Times. Web.


Hagerman,Craig. (Received October 1, 2009). English Language Policy and Practice in Japan. Web.


Hughes, Henry J. (28 November 2009)."Cultivating the walled garden: English in Japan." English Studies 80.6 (1999): 556. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web.


Guest, Mike. (28 November 2009). "Why Do Japanese Struggle With English?" China Daily (18 February 2006). Academic Search Complete. Factiva.


Tanaka, Sachiko Oda. (1995). "The Japanese media and English." World Englishes. 14.1 37-53.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Feng, Jingying. (2015). English-Language Education Policy in Japan. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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