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With the Olympics Coming to Tokyo, Will Japan Finally Brush Up on Its English?

The news this weekend that Tokyo will once again play host to the Olympics after a nearly five-decade hiatus was greeted with jubilation on the streets of Japan, where many saw the decision as a vote of confidence from the international community and a sign of a long-struggling Japan's "rebirth."

"My heart was pounding before the announcement -- I am so happy," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Emi Ishii, an office worker in central Tokyo, called the victory "an amazing feeling," while athletes responded to the news with a cry of "banzai!"

It was an occasion to celebrate. But amid all the merriment, some were already pausing to acknowledge at least one realm in which Japan has its work cut out for it over the next seven years.

"English is going to be necessary around town," said one young newscaster on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, according to the New York Times. "Let's start learning English."

Blame it on what some have called an "insular" culture; on teaching methods that emphasize a deep understanding of grammar over practical skills like listening and speaking; on social mores that include a deep aversion to embarrassment -- an inevitability when grappling with the strange sounds and structures of a foreign language.    

Whatever the cause, few dispute the facts: Japanese people, on the whole, can't speak English.

Despite mandatory English lessons for middle and high school students (recently added for primary school students as well), Japanese have a notoriously tough time with the English language. The country was embarrassed last year by a report from ETS, the testing service that administers the TOEFL English-language proficiency test, which showed Japan tied with Tajikistan for the second-lowest average TOEFL scores in Asia. (It was particularly humiliating to be beaten so soundly by North Korea, although, in fairness, it seems like a bad idea to read too much into this: surely the only people taking the TOEFL in North Korea are the country's elites?)

It's an issue that the country's business community has lamented for years, arguing that poor skills in English -- the closest thing the world has to a lingua franca -- make it difficult to expand overseas at a time when Japan has suffered from a shrinking domestic market.

"Japanese study more than 3,000 hours of English," one CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, who heads the e-commerce company Rakuten, told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "And when you study more than 3,000 hours of English and you cannot speak English, there is a huge issue."

Mikitani went so far as to require English be used throughout Rakuten for internal emails, memos, presentations, and meetings -- a decision the head of Honda called "stupid."

Abe is eyeing changes to Japan's English curriculum as part of his business-friendly, globally oriented reform efforts, and it's possible that the Olympics could help give these plans a shot in the arm: China, for instance, embarked on a push to brush up on English in advance of the 2008 Olympics, offering classes to taxi drivers, policemen, and volunteers, and even including an English word of the day on the evening news. Russia, too, has been studying up in advance of this February's Games in Sochi.

How successful these mass education efforts are at actually improving the level of a country's English overall is pretty questionable, however. As Brendan O'Kane points out here, a few service-oriented phrases aren't likely to stick in people's heads for long once an event is over (I lived in Beijing for a year in 2010, and certainly never met a cab driver who spoke good -- any? -- English, for instance).

Where the Olympics could perhaps make a difference is in convincing Japanese people that investing in English is valuable. Abe has sought to persuade Japan it must be less inward-looking; the national reluctance to learn English is seen by some as a symptom of this larger malaise. Perhaps there's nothing like thousands of foreigners descending on your doorstep to convince you that there's a whole -- often English-speaking -- world out there waiting.

flickr/misskoco

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