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.



The Spaghettification of U.S. Foreign Policy: How Many Cases Can Obama Make for War with Syria?

This is what desperation looks like.

With the White House selling an increasingly skeptical Congress and public on airstrikes in Syria, President Obama and his lieutenants have rolled out just about every possible argument to marshal support on the Hill ahead of Obama's big Syria speech on Tuesday evening. It's akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Is Syria's use of chemical weapons a threat to U.S. national security? You bet, says National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Does the United States have a moral obligation to enforce international norms against chemical weapons use? It certainly does, says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Does the current crisis bear a frightening resemblance to Munich circa 1938? Most certainly, says Secretary of State John Kerry. And is there a need to send a strong message to the mullahs in Tehran about their nuclear ambitions? Damn straight, says U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.

Welcome to the spaghettification of U.S. foreign policy.

A case in point: the appearance Sunday of McDonough, the White House chief of staff, on NBC's Meet the Press. First McDonough noted that Congress's decision on Syria "will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in the Damascus -- also in Tehran ... and among Lebanese Hezbollah." Three questions later, the proposal for strikes was all about the importance of discouraging chemical weapons use. "This is a targeted, limited consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition, will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies." Lest the administration be accused of short-sightedness, McDonough was quick to emphasize that strikes would hasten the arrival of a long-term solution to the conflict. "And our effort to target this effectively will only help that political diplomatic resolution."

Got all that? To recap, a limited U.S. military engagement will prevent the use of chemical weapons elsewhere, encourage a political resolution to the conflict, and discourage Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But wait, that's not all. "Israel is at risk, Jordan is at risk, Turkey is at risk, the region is at risk," Kerry proclaimed on Meet the Press the prior week. Then, on Saturday, Kerry went so far as to say that "this is our Munich moment" -- a reference to the 1938 deal in Munich that ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in an attempt to avoid war. According to the White House, however, these risks aren't limited to bloodshed inside Syria. An unpunished Assad regime, Rice, the national security advisor, argued on Monday, puts "Americans at risk of chemical attacks, targeted at our soldiers and diplomats in the region and potentially our citizens at home" (McDonough made a similar point on the Sunday talk shows).

Not only is the White House raising the specter of the Holocaust, it is also warning that Assad's chemical weapons use threatens the U.S. homeland.

The administration's case has evolved significantly since John Kerry first sketched out the rationale for carrying out a punitive strike on Syria in humanitarian terms. "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said on Aug. 26. "It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable." That moral outrage remains -- as when Rice said Monday that "as a parent I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground ... and not think of my own two kids" -- but in selling the argument to an unconvinced Congress, every argument possible has gotten tacked on as well.

The White House, of course, would contend that, taken together, all these arguments add up to a compelling case for intervening militarily in Syria. Its critics would contend that they are emblematic of a muddled rationale for war. Perhaps by Tuesday, when Obama addresses the nation he hopes to once more lead into conflict, the White House will have thrown enough spaghetti against the wall to have found an argument that sticks.

Or, just maybe, war will be averted by the one argument that wasn't in the White House's long list of talking points.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images