Not what I expected from the culture that is Japan

by on May 1, 2014 at 12:09 am in Education, Political Science | Permalink

 In a bid to be more globally competitive and raise the level of English education in the country, the Japanese Ministry of Education will soon begin conducting their meetings in the language. As using English in meetings is highly unusual in the country, the ministry will start implementing it slowly, beginning with high-level officials in their department.

To help them with this, the ministry has sought for an English Education Project Officer that will be in charge of coming up with strategies and plans pertaining to English education. The post, though on a part-time basis, would require someone who has taken an English proficiency test called TOEIC with a score of at least 800. The ministry has chosen a candidate who was successful in integrating the English language as a corporate official language to a private company, and will stay with the ministry for a one-year contract. The English Education Project Officer will join top-level meetings within the ministry to assess their capability and suggest improvements. An official from the Education Ministry said, “By using English among ourselves, we hope we will be able to broaden our perspectives on English education.”

The story is here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

1 Steve Sailer May 1, 2014 at 12:17 am

Back in the 1970s, Freeman Dyson argued in favor of the persistence of multiple languages on the grounds that having a single dominant planetary language is like having a monoculture agriculture: you can wind up like Ireland in 1846 if a bad idea rips through a language community. Perhaps the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox about why there isn’t evidence of high-tech alien civilizations in the rest of the galaxy is because they wound up with a single global language and then were taken down by a bad virus idea.

Reading the news over the last few days, Dyson’s fear of stupid ideas infecting an entire language community doesn’t see too outlandish. So, I for one, welcome Japanese resistance to the worldwide elite dominance of English.

2 Rahul May 1, 2014 at 1:54 am

Physicists are prone to crack-pottery when they dabble in things outside physics.

3 Alexei Sadeski May 1, 2014 at 3:32 am

But the rest of us are prone to crackpottery when we dabble in anything.

4 Rahul May 1, 2014 at 3:59 am

Yes but no one believes us. Which is good.

5 affenkopf May 1, 2014 at 4:24 am
6 Rahul May 1, 2014 at 4:39 am


7 Steve Reilly May 1, 2014 at 7:47 am

Because ideas don’t spread from one language to another?

8 Rahul May 1, 2014 at 9:18 am

Maybe Steve Sailer is subtly trying to make the case for more Spanish use in USA?

9 Chris S May 1, 2014 at 10:20 am

Yo hablo Ingles, aber nicht die ganze Zeit, eh.

10 Mark Thorson May 1, 2014 at 10:52 am

As long as he doesn’t become all OCD about H1B visas, I’m okay with that.

11 Portfolio Careerist May 1, 2014 at 8:31 am

The Japanese historically have been very open to adopting some foreign practices that are useful, efficient, etc.

12 Steve Sailer May 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Right, the Japanese have enjoyed what Paul Johnson calls the key to the historical success of his beloved English: the Offshore Islander Privilege. You get to pick and choose what mainland things you want to be involved in and what you want to skip over.

13 Rahul May 2, 2014 at 12:22 am

Commodore Perry’s guns had a wee bit of a role in this? As also McArthur’s nation building a century later?

I wouldn’t sell “adopting useful foreign practices” too much like a natural / unique virtue native to the Japanese.

14 bitdidller May 2, 2014 at 7:15 am

The deadliest idea virus of all, Marxism, emerged in German.

15 mike shupp May 1, 2014 at 12:40 am

And I for one, would like this idea copied within the US. I think it would be a wonderful thing if Congress, let’s say, conducted all its business in foreign languages. Classical Greek, for example — the native tongue of Democracy!

Ideally, Congressional business would be conducted ENTIRELY in the foreign language, both written and spoken, without resort to translators, cellphone apps, or any other cheats. Congressmen not fluent in the language would be forced to remain silent.

Perhaps our government might resume functioning then.

16 ladderff May 1, 2014 at 7:42 am

I don’t know what tone Mike was shooting for but I wholeheartedly endorse this idea.

17 TMC May 1, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I’d only add that we change that language every year.

18 Peldrigal May 1, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I am amazed: this is a wonderful idea. How it pairs with mine: every country in the EU elects a legislative and an executive, say of 200 and 20 people respectively. Then they are assigned randomly to the countries. The system could be expanded to a worldwide scale!

19 Eric Rasmusen May 1, 2014 at 1:19 am

MIke Shupp has a good idea. If people have to use a foreign language they’re not good at, they’ll say a lot less, which is usually a good thing at meetings. Those Japanese are diabolically clever!

20 Aidan May 1, 2014 at 4:40 am

Agreed. And the Piketty debate between American economists might well benefit from being carried out entirely in French. All participants would be forced to make short, to the point arguments or (in the majority of cases) simply remain silent.

21 Chris S May 1, 2014 at 10:23 am

And imagine all the comical laws and decisions that will be made due to tragic misunderstandings of foreign idioms! I see a webisode in the making.

22 Jeff Rensch May 1, 2014 at 1:41 am

This sounded so much like an April Fool’s story or something from The Onion. You don’t even need Dyson’s idea of practical bad effects to hate this — it is like seeing a creek that once had a diversity of species become taken over by a single bullying fish (and its particular food, I guess).

23 Nikki May 1, 2014 at 9:28 am

It’s not like they are going to forget Japanese just because now they’ll be using English as well. Two is greater than one: it’s more diversity, not less.

24 Hasdrubal May 1, 2014 at 10:50 am

The way Europeans have lost their distinctive languages? Pretty much everywhere I’ve been in Europe, the majority of people under the age of 50 or so have had at least rudimentary ability with English (and a lot had a couple other languages as well.) In Japan, outside of the service industry in cities, English is pretty rare. Loan words don’t seem to require much English proficiency, either: More and more words are getting appropriated into Japanese despite the general fluency, or lack thereof, of the population.

Simple anecdote: Ordering from a restaurant in a small town in Nordrhein-Westphalia, Germany, the waitress chatted about where we were from and why we were visiting. Ordering from a restaurant on Awaji Island in Japan was an exercise in pointing and pantomime.

I don’t think Japan is anywhere near ready to give up Japanese within the forseeable future. Even if English becomes prevalent, if they follow the European model, they’ll still keep their mother tongue.

25 Peldrigal May 1, 2014 at 2:22 pm

And remember: most Europeans speak their vernacular/minority language, the standard language of their country, English. I absolutely cannot understand Venetian or Galician.

26 ShardPhoenix May 1, 2014 at 1:42 am

I get the impression that in Japan, learning English is more about signalling one’s sophistication and “internationalness” to other Japanese people than it is about actually communicating with foreign English speakers, and this seems to fit with that.

27 ShardPhoenix May 1, 2014 at 1:56 am

(To be fair this is also the case with high-school foreign language classes in the West, but we don’t try as hard to pretend otherwise)

28 RR May 1, 2014 at 1:44 am

Reading about the TOEIC on Wikipedia, I notice that the max score is 990. 800 does not sound like an impressive score for the English Education Project Officer.

29 guest May 1, 2014 at 1:48 am

its probably the score that whoever they already selected to be appointed to that position in a form of political patronage scored. They still have a lot to learn from the west though, where are the ‘intangibles’ and ‘leadership skills’ that ensure objectivity is completely abandoned.

30 Mark Thorson May 1, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I have a suspicion that this project is part of a plan to downsize the Ministry of Education. Especially for older workers, the choice between learn English or retire might favor the latter.

31 BP May 1, 2014 at 2:09 am

If China is successful in turning East Asia into a Sino-centric cultural and economic zone, it makes sense for Japan to be more culturally conversant with the Anglosphere than in the past. This contrasts with the 1990s when the Japanese were self-consciously proud of their different-ness from the West.

This is not to say that the Japanese wish to become individualistic Westerners, just that they might prefer to enhance trade, IP and cultural links with a network of legally equal sovereign states (loosely centred on the old West) rather than the imperial-tributary type network that may exist in Asia in the next two decades.

English is really hard to learn for native Japanese speakers and I can understand why they might feel their current education system will never get them to the level of English proficiency they aspire to.

32 Peldrigal May 1, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Is hard because they deliberately chose so, with their syllabic alphabet. Do you know that during the Meiji Restoration there was a lively debate about the possibility of adopting the roman alphabet, like the vietnamese did? They lost, because of nationalistic reasons: the Chinese-derived kanji are just more prestigious.

33 Jayson Virissimo May 1, 2014 at 2:27 am

It should be noted that the CEO of Rakutan (pretty much the Amazon of Japan) has made English the official company language (and was heavily criticized in the Japanese media for it).

34 affenkopf May 1, 2014 at 4:28 am

Rakuten has international operations. The use of English makes much more sense there.

35 wiki May 1, 2014 at 9:49 am

Visiting Tokyo, I was told by some Japanese that they felt that their companies were being overtaken by Korean giants like Samsung partly because the Koreans have more US educated leaders and that their companies are more focused on foreign markets than most Japanese firms — even the global ones like Sony. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but this anecdote would seem to match the kinds of things Rakuten has said about his desire to make the culture of his company more international.

36 Chris S May 1, 2014 at 10:26 am

Ok, monkey head.

Agreed that mulitilingualism in the individual leads to diversity in thought as concepts commonly expressible in one language are lacking in the other.

Translation: It’s good to talk like other people, because then you can think a bit like them too.

37 Hasdrubal May 1, 2014 at 10:39 am

Yeah, Rakuten is the first thing I thought of as well. My money’s on this “English Education Project Officer” being someone from Rakuten.

I don’t know if it will help the teaching of English in the country, but it certainly sounds like the kind of stunt executives the world over try.

38 Peter R May 1, 2014 at 2:49 am

Seriously a very bad idea. Any none-native speaker that opened a drawer in a kitchen and tried to find the English words for content therein would probably agree.

39 Nikki May 1, 2014 at 9:25 am

Seriously a very good idea exactly for that reason. If you use those words in your everyday life, you won’t be searching for them when another language is not an option. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been using them since you were one or forty.

40 Trudy Suzuki May 1, 2014 at 3:35 am

The trend continues with East Asians seeking out more ways to be like white people. You will continue to see East Asians with ear to ear smiles confident in their superiority given SAT results above all others meanwhile everything around them is increasingly European/Western and decreasingly East Asian. Eyelid surgery to look “Westerner” meaning white is commonly given as a gift by parents to their children upon completing high school. East Asians believe the farther away they get from their natural appearance and closer to white people they get the better looking they are. We see that mindset with language now as well.

English is already the backbone of Japanese (and Chinese) keyboards. It is not practical to have a true Japanese keyboard because that would require a keyboard for every Japanese character making it too big. English like other Indo-European languages has an alphabet. English has 26 letters. Toddlers can hypothetically spell any word in the English language after they learn the alphabet. That can’t happen with Japanese which requires learning character after character over the course of an entire education. There are other ingenious shortcuts in Indo-European languages which make them very practical. Japanese have also adopted horizontal left to right writing like Indo-European languages foregoing traditional vertical right to left writing.

41 affenkopf May 1, 2014 at 4:36 am

Eyelid surgery to look “Westerner” meaning white is commonly given as a gift by parents to their children upon completing high school. East Asians believe the farther away they get from their natural appearance and closer to white people they get the better looking they are.

Eyelid surgery doesn’t only make one look closer to white people but more importantly closer to other East Asians who naturally have an eyelid fold.

42 Trudy Suzuki May 1, 2014 at 5:34 am

Eyelid surgery is just one of many common plastic surgeries East Asians get to achieve a white-like appearance. Facial contouring of cheek bones and jaw bones (shaving them down to make the face look narrower), rhinoplasty (create a high nasal bridge and narrow nose), silicon forehead implant (make the forehead project out more), and chin implant (make the chin project out more and give the face a longer appearance). Skin bleach, hair dye (usually blond) and colored eye contacts (usually blue) are also common. Many East Asian plastic surgery websites have white women as models.

43 Avery May 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Japanese has 2 syllabaries which are phonetic writing systems. Japanese toddlers learn the syllabaries first and learn to write Japanese with them. They don’t really need to use Chinese characters, but they do. They also still use right to left and vertical writing. Lots of books are published that are written vertically and right to left. It makes no difference. You can read Japanese horizontally from left to right just as easily as vertically from right to left.

Writing systems are independent of languages, and Indo-European languages as languages aren’t necessarily practical for the Japanese nor do they provide ingenious shortcuts for them.

44 Trudy Suzuki May 3, 2014 at 3:22 am

English is more practical than Japanese.

45 Oldie May 1, 2014 at 4:02 am

I think the bureaucracy of the EU should use Latin as their one and only working language. It worked just fine for the European elite for more than a thousand years after the fall of Rome.

46 Todd K May 1, 2014 at 5:39 am

Interesting comments. I’ve only lived in Japan 15 years so don’t quite have the insight some of you have

47 Govco May 1, 2014 at 1:54 pm
48 Adrian Ratnapala May 1, 2014 at 7:02 am

I was going to say that this hints English-speaking has become a kind of “political correctness”. But your version is more to the point.

Not that it isn’t an instance of PC. It can imagine (speculatively) that some nativist-chauvinists might make it a point of pride to not speak English. Thus progressives do the reverse; and progressives always win that kind of culture war because they are being slightly less irrational than conservatives.

49 Adrian Ratnapala May 1, 2014 at 7:03 am

The above was a reply to ShardPhoenix’ impression that “… learning English is more about signalling one’s sophistication and “internationalness” to other Japanese people than it is about actually communicating with foreign English speakers…”

The thread-ordering got muddled somehow.

50 Taeyoung May 1, 2014 at 9:43 am

This is a gobsmackingly stupid idea. I recall hearing LG tried something similar after their royal family decided to bring in a corps of professional managers with fancy MBAs from elite schools. English for all internal communications or some such rubbish. The company still hasn’t recovered.

I can only imagine it would be even worse in Japan, where so many of the managerial corps have such limited English proficiency. At the big companies, even a lot of the managers who get seconded over to the US for four or five years do their level best to forget all the English they learned as soon as they return to civilization.

This would be fine if all they wanted were something like a mandatory language practice lunch session every week to improve fluency, but substantive meetings in a foreign language many of them probably barely speak? Those fools!

51 Finch May 1, 2014 at 10:34 am

It’s starting with the wrong age group. If you want widespread English proficiency, operate the schools in English and start around age four.

But people don’t want solutions, they want effort.

52 Nikki May 1, 2014 at 9:46 am

Here, last week’s instalment of the coverage of language’s impact on personality, including some data (from 1968) on women fluent in both Japanese and English. Here is the tl;dr version.

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