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Japanese English ~SANSEI JOURNAL

Roy Huang and “Jack” (Duy Pham) wait for new international students at SeaTac, September 2019.

By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post

The July 2021 Tokyo Olympics are hurtling toward us. Thus, a timely question to ask is, what is the level of English in Japan these days?

From June 2019 to February 2020, I drove over 300 Japanese travelers to destinations throughout Puget Sound on trips ranging in length from one to ten hours. I did this during the course of part-time work as a tour guide for a local Japanese bus company (see SJ columns of Aug., Oct., Dec. 2019, and Aug. 2020, online). While most riders were tourists on vacation, a minority were college students or working professionals on study tours. Their ages ranged from 20 to 70.

I learned two main lessons from the experience. The first is that few Japanese people based in Japan, less than 5 percent, have a functional command of English. The second is that as a rule, the latter rare individuals previously lived overseas. Most commonly they did this as exchange students. Others took overseas assignments from their employers.

Japanese-American readers can easily understand the limited English ability of the Japanese if they imagine the reverse experience of similar groups of JA’s traveling to Japan. Both groups are fish out of water: adults transformed back into young teenagers. A few individuals in each group might be able to handle basic travel conversations: purchasing tickets; asking directions, ordering lunch. Others would need help.

For both groups, friendly conversations with locals they meet lie beyond reach. Thus, few would be able to ask and respond well to non-standard, open-ended questions such as “Tell me about your life, what has been interesting and what has been difficult…” Accordingly, nearly all must be content with learning what they can about the new country before them with their eyes, from guidebooks, and from guides.

Of the two comparative groups, one has always struggled with learning the world’s default second language. The other was bilingual 1-2 generations ago, but lost it. One group is being hurt economically by its inability to participate easily in the global economy, which runs in English. The other is not being hurt economically, but has lost much culturally through not being able to communicate effectively in its heritage country.

As space here is limited, today let us focus on the limited English of the Japanese in more detail. Instead of relying on anecdotal accounts on this topic—which are numerous—let us turn to one well-documented, independent measure: average TOEFL test scores by country.

Table 1. Average TOEFL test scores for Asian countries versus per-capita GDP. Asterisks mark former British or American colonies. Boldface countries are mentioned in the text.

Country TOEFL Score GDP
Singapore* 98 $101,649
India* 95 6,997
Pakistan* 94 4,898
Malaysia* 91 29,620
[USA 65,298]
Hong Kong* 88 62,496
Philippines* 88 9,302
Bangladesh* 88 4,964
Indonesia 86 12,335
Kazakhstan 85 27,518
Sri Lanka* 85 13,657
Nepal 85 3,568
Vietnam 84 8,397
Macao 83 129,4519
Taiwan 83 55,078
South Korea 83 43,143
North Korea 83
China 81 16,830
Uzbekistan 81 7,308
Myanmar* 81 5,370
Azerbaijan 79 15,041
Thailand 78 19,277
Turkmenistan 77 15,207
Mongolia 77 12,863
Kyrgyzstan 74 5,486
Afghanistan* 74 2,156
Cambodia 3 4,583
Japan 72 43,236
Tajikistan 69 3,529
Laos 67 8,173

*TOEFL scores are 2019 data from Educational Testing Service (ets.org). GDP data are purchasing power parity (World Bank, 2019). These are based on what currencies buy “in the street,” instead of on nominal exchange rates.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language is used by American universities to ensure that prospective foreign students will be able to function on campus. On it, Japanese test-takers score far below where one might expect based on per-capita GDP. Instead of ranking near economically similar South Korea or Taiwan, Japan scores between impoverished Cambodia and Tajikistan (Table 1).

Table 2. Japanese students studying in the United States, by academic year starting in the year listed (Institute of International Education, iie.org).

Year # Students
1994 45,276
1997 >47,000
1999 46,872
2000 46,497
2001 46,810
2002 45,960
2003 40,835
2004 42,215
2005 38,712
2006 35,282
2007 33,974
2008 29,264
2009 24,842
2010 21,290
2011 19,966
2012 19,568
2013 19,334
2014 19,064
2015 19,060
2016 18,780
2017 18,753
2018 18,105
2019 17,554

Turning to Japan’s “elite” bilinguals, will they alone be able to carry Japan into the future? I doubt it, for here the numbers of Japanese studying in the US have been moving in the wrong direction (Table 2).

The trend began with Japan’s economic stagnation after the collapse of its “bubble economy” in 1992. More recently, it is being accelerated by plentiful jobs for college graduates in an aging Japan, creating little incentive to develop an edge (The Economist, Feb. 6, 2021). To these, we can add the US’s poor COVID-19 record.

All of this makes me fear for Japan’s future. I believe that in my lifetime, I have seen the apex of Japan’s rise in the world and the beginning of its fall.

The one positive that I ended the 2019 travel season with is heightened respect for the programs of local community colleges. They are doing what they can to teach Japan’s youth to speak English.