Japan in context: Language skills

English as a foreign language
I’ve already had a bit of a ‘rant’ about the lack of English amongst Japan’s tourist information staff. 95% of the staff in the 25-30 information offices I have visited, up and down the country, had no foreign language credentials. Don’t you find this strange? I certainly do.
(I add as an addendum here that, apart from 2 or 3 cities, I have not been travelling through tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Osaka, where some of the TI staff will certainly speak English. But I have passed through many large cities and towns).


I have always believed that the UK was probably the world’s worst developed country for foreign language proficiency……but no, Japan (I think) beats us hands down on that score. In the UK there is no policy to teach just one single language. It could be one (or two) of several within the EU. In Japan, however, English is the number one language in the schools’ curricula…..and for obvious reasons. So everyone (and I do mean absolutely everyone) will study English for a minimum of 6 years, and most of those who go on to university, will continue for another 3-4 years.


Thinking back to my own teaching days, I would have been very disappointed if my students didn’t have a reasonable degree of confidence in their communication skills after only 3 years of study, let alone 6, or even 10, years. After 5 years of study, I would have expected my advanced level students to have a mature grasp of the language, and be able to communicate at an adult level. So, what’s the difference?

Quizzing a few people about language learning in Japan, I discovered that their teaching method may be still rooted in the ‘grammar/translation’ style, which we discarded back in the 1970s, and Japanese students seldom move beyond a proficiency in only reading and writing. I know I’m going to be corrected on this by people who know better, but this is the message I have picked up over the last 6 weeks, and it has been confirmed time and time again by different people.


But perhaps there is another powerful, historic, reason why Japan only speaks Japanese, has no foreign satellite TV, no foreign press, sells very little (if any) foreign language literature, even in their big book stores….I suspect it is a kind of genetic inheritance from the 2 centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 17-19th centuries, when Japan literally closed its shores to all foreign visitors…..and those that evaded expulsion from Japan, were arrested and many summarily executed…..including the crucifixion of some Christians.

Like Britain, Japan is an island nation….and you may read that as meaning ‘fortress nation’…built on a long history of self defence, of keeping the barbarians at bay.

The Japan I have personally discovered, however,  has moved on a long way from those days. The people I have encountered have been open, kind, generous to the point of embarrassment…..they are a very gentle, smiling, welcoming people who have made my venture of cycling the length of their country an absolute pleasure. And the many many times they have apologised profusely for their poor command English (and I for my minimal knowledge of Japanese)…..that in itself has enhanced the charm of their character as a nation.
You can’t help but love them……

As I was finishing this post, sitting in Wakkanai airport, waiting for the first of three flights, the three ANA staff, who had showered me with noodle meals and biscuits a few days ago, came up to see me in the departure lounge, bubbling with excitement, carrying what was obviously a bag of gifts. They excitedly waited for me to open the bag, and out came a variety of gifts,


all locally made and handcrafted, including what look like kerchiefs with samurai motif, a fan and chopsticks…..and one of them said “For your wife?”. Along with these was a personally drawn greeting/farewell card, with a map of my route through Japan,


and a personally written message from each of them, along with a photo of themselves which they took out on the concourse just minutes before.
I include this PS with this post because most of our (very imperfect) communication has taken place via Google Translate on an iPad.
This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the real world…..


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on April 29, 2015, in End-to-End of Japan 3000kms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. How many staff in Tourist Information offices in London speak Japanese? Or any foreign language fluently?

    • Japanese no….but I would be very very surprised if they didn’t cover the major world languages (mainly European) amongst them. And of course, a huge percentage of foreign travellers will speak English anyway. How many go to Japan speaking more than 20 words of Japanese? It’s not a language spoken anywhere other than in Japan. So, apart from specialists, no one has a need to learn it.

  2. Fantastic. Wet n windy here so don’t hurry back 🙂

  3. Sometimes folk are just so delightful and what a way to finish the trip.

  4. Frank, I’ve enjoyed your posts, I think they would make a good book.

    The Japanese were even more isolationist than us Brits, weren’t they? I seem to remember it was Commodore Perry who forced them to trade with the west in the 19th century.

    I think you’re right about language: the Dutch speak a language which is very little used, so they learn English – and German, usually, living next door. You would think there was a big benefit for the Japanese to do the same.

    Thank you so much…Chris

  5. Hahaha. I think that’s exactly where my Australian foreign language education went wrong too. I studied Japanese at high school for two years. Sure, it was 20 years ago. But seriously, I can’t remember a word. It’s embarrassing. Your explanation probably goes a long way to explaining my inability to use Italian or Japanese (the two languages I studied in high school).

    I heard an English language class going on at a school I passed. It was speak and repeat. And not very helpful phrases either.

    • I remember the old grammar/translation method all too clearly……..at school in the 60s, I failed miserably to learn French, but excelled at Latin and Greek. Explain that one!

      • I am bilingual from childhood (Dutch and English) yet the old method didn’t work. Latin and Greek? Must have been a hoy teacher. Haha. Oh wait, that’s why I remember no Italian. I was too caught up in teenage hormones to pay attention in class. Hahha. Safe journey home.

      • I’m now back home….adjusting to reality…….and wondering my legs continue to go in a circular movement…
        Enjoy the rest of your trip. Will be following you.
        BTW, was your Dutch parent a £10 Pom? When I was cycling in Australia two years ago, I met a few Dutch people who went over as £10 Poms……when the flow from Britain dried up in the 1950s, they accepted people from friendly allied countries (I think).

      • No. I was born in Holland and moved with my parents to Australia when I was 2.5 years old.

  6. One of my prized possessions (which I acquired on an airplane from Japan) is a straw which is labeled “straw for drinking”.

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