Notes from Japan: Japanese, English Language Far Apart

Morioka, Japan. There are many reasons why foreign language programs in Japan are, in the words of former ambassador Edwin Reischauer, ”˜extraordinarily poor.’   Domestic politics, the educational system and the Japanese language itself all contribute to the barriers that keep English from being mastered in this increasingly powerful nation.

This academic failing is a grave problem for both Japan and the world, for it is this linguistic deficiency that keeps Japan from becoming a full member of the Western and perhaps even world community.

Although strikingly beautiful, the Japanese language lends little to the bridging of linguistic waters.   It is simply too different in logic and grammar to serve as means of international communication.

Unlike any other language, east or west, Japanese involves a linguistic grouping all its own.   Thus it bears little if any resemblance to the Indo-European family of which English is a part.   Although written in Chinese characters, this oriental language seems to be as unrelated to modern Chinese as Finnish is to French.


It is not that the Japanese student does not wish to learn English, but simply that his province-controlled classroom is geared to different objectives.   Like education on the continent, a Japanese student must perform well on his or her step examinations to reach the next level of academia.   Similarly, to enter a good high school, one must do exceptionally well on the post junior high school test.   Entrance into a respected university requires excellent post senior high school examination scores.

As English comprises only one-fifth of these tests, the student is forced to limit himself to this textbook English fate.   Thus the essence of English — its cultural background — is almost entirely ignored, leaving the once promising student barely able to s communicate with native speakers after graduation.


Politically speaking, there has always been a traditional fear here in Japan of the ”˜outside.’ Because this island nation was almost completely isolated until the nineteenth century, a strong feeling of cultural solidarity has arisen.   Still in existence, this feeling seems to evoke a deep-rooted suspicion of anything non-Japanese.   Although countless outside ideas have been accepted, they have been so only under the strictest of governmental control.   Today, as in the past, it seems that the Japanese government hopes to retain its tight controls and assuring in adequate English skills is perhaps one of the safest ways.

Poor language training, however, is in no way unique to Japan.   Most of the English-speaking world itself is known for its lack of bilingual expertise.   Our own public foreign language training is a case in point, although not necessarily for political reasons.   The number of American high school graduates who can converse intelligently in French or Spanish speaks for itself.   Furthermore, the choice of languages taught illustrates all too well our own fear of departing from the European heritage.

As youth from around the world continue to navel and broaden their horizons, however, perhaps a new dawn will approach in which students in Japan will yearn for and demand better English instruction and students in the West will develop a greater interest in Japan, its people and its customs.

As this occurs, the Japanese will be better able to join the world community to which they already belong so strongly.   ln so doing, the Japanese will better understand what is vaguely referred to as the ”˜West’ and Americans will understand more clearly that country mysteriously known as Japan.


Originally published in The Voice, College of Wooster, October 17, 1980.

Read other stories by Jim Luce on Japan:


NYC’s Japan American Association Funds Haitian Students Dream of International Study


Yoko Ono Supports Mayor Akiba and Nuclear Disarmament at John Catsimatidis’ Home


2,870 Mayors for Peace: Does Yours Belong?


Japan’s PIKADON Project & Hiroshima Yes! Campaign in New York City


Keiko Tsuyama: Japanese Woman of the World



Park Avenue’s Nichibei Exchange – and the Japanese Flute


Notes From Japan: From Harajuku to Waseda


Notes from Japan: Shinomori – Mediating in the Woods


Notes from Japan: A Rural Village in Iwate Province


Notes from Japan: Hitchhiking Through the Storm to Hokkaido


Notes from Japan: Japanese and English Language Very Far Apart


Notes from Japan: Living with a Former Samurai Family


Notes from Japan: Fat American (Me!) Races 500 Junior High Students


Notes from Japan: From Zen Life in the Country to Tokyo – Help!



For the complete listing of thematic stories, see Jim Luce Writes.

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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