Behind the Sand Castle: Implementing English Language Teaching Policies in Japan

  • Masaki OdaEmail author
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Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


In the past decades, English language teaching (ELT) policies in Japan have gone through several major revisions. Each time a policy is revised, policy-makers make their best effort to legitimate the new policies and convince general public to accept them. Very often, however, the FLT policies are made and revised without considering actual learning which takes place at schools. The biggest problem is that the policy-makers often jump to a hasty conclusion when a new policy has been proposed.

This chapter discusses several key educational policies related to ELT, established or modified in recent years as examples, and discusses the reactions of academics, mass media, as well as general public in the process of their implementations. A special attention will be paid to the processes and strategies the Japanese policy-makers utilize in order to legitimate policies and the degree of access to information available to each party involved.

The author stresses that policy-makers often attempt to implement policies without careful preparation as though they were building a sand castle at the beach which would easily be washed away soon. Therefore, some suggestions will be made in order for new policies to serve as a solid foundation of ELT in Japan.


Japan Media discourse Learner beliefs National guideline Primary schools Teacher training Dialogue 


For many years, foreign language teaching (FLT), especially English language teaching, has been among the most discussed subjects in Japanese daily life. In Japan, students normally learn a foreign language as a school subject starting from grade 7 (12 years old) for 3 years in lower secondary schools and another 3 years in upper secondary schools, and if they decided to go to universities, they would continue to study it for a few more years. In both lower and upper secondary schools, English is taught as a subject called “foreign language.” In other words, it is supposed to be just one of the many languages, and the learners are supposed to be given a choice of which language to learn. However, only 23 lower secondary schools (out of 10,557) offer languages other than English as a subject (MEXT 2016). This illustrates the reality of FLT in Japan which is actually perceived as ELT, despite the fact the name of the subject still remains as “foreign language.” In the past years ELT under the name of FLT has been expanded to primary education.

There is a prevailing discourse not only among the FLT professionals but also the general public that English is highlighted as something very important for our life. Many people seem to accept the discourse without any criticism, despite the fact that they cannot confirm its validity in their individual lives. One of the reasons why such discourses are accepted is that they are often reinforced by more “official” statements such as various policies issued by the authority. Hatano (2017: 218–223) employs Bakhtin’s notions of “authoritative discourse” and “personally persuasive discourse” to discuss the discourse of English language teaching in Japan. In his paper, he points out that there are many Japanese people who believe that learning English is important “to survive in the globalized society.” At the same time, they often cite “pass exams” or “earn credits” as their own reason for learning English. This means that there is little connection between what people believe English is good for and why they are actually leaning the language. Hatano (Ibid.) continues that this happens due to the lack of dialogue between “authoritative discourse” and “personally persuasive discourse.”

Similar phenomena are discussed in Oda (2007) who uses Dyrberg’s (1997) notion of power in political discourses. Oda (Ibid.) points out that the Japanese general public has been deceived by misleading discourses on learning English. Very often, policy-makers and the general public “influence each other and be influenced without knowing it” (Dyrberg 1997: 39). In other words, the lack of interaction between the stakeholders of foreign language teaching is apparent.

The two examples above illustrate the major problem in implementing FLT policies in Japan. The policy is issued by the authority, and the schools are required to implement the policies without enough time to even understand the rationales behind them and interact with the policy-makers for the mutual benefits. In the same manner, the schools often implement the policies to the classrooms relying on their own interpretation. Again, they are not given enough time for getting ready. The general public, as discussed in Oda (2017), is also often confused by the prevailing discourses of teaching/learning English as if it were the only foreign language, particularly those of mass media. For many of us, mass media is the major and often the only source of information concerning English language teaching. To make the matter worse, many people are constantly exposed to the discourses without being given any alternatives. Consequently, their beliefs about learning English are formulated even though they are not necessarily aware of what is going on as Dyrberg (1997) discussed.

In this chapter, therefore, I shall focus on the lack of dialogue between FLT policies proposed by the Japanese authority and the F(E)LT profession including classroom teachers who need to face their students directly through their day-to-day teaching. A special attention will be paid to the three major proposals: the new Course of Study (COS), teaching English as a school subject at primary level, and the new “core” standard for university teacher training curriculum that are recently made by the Japanese government and their ongoing impact to the F(E)LT profession in the process of preparation.

In so doing, I shall begin with a discussion of historical and political backgrounds of the FLT policies as well as the debates on the related issues in the past decades, followed by a critical review of the three major issues in F(E)LT in Japan: the new Course of Study (COS), English language teaching at primary schools, and the “core” standard for university teacher training curriculum. I shall conclude the chapter by suggesting what F(E)LT profession in Japan can do to benefit from the policies rather than denying the without providing alternatives.

Public Demands and Language Teaching Policy

Whether it is confirmed true, or not, we often see the cases in which new language teaching policies are put forward citing “public demands” as a legitimate reason to persuade FLT professionals including teachers and school administrators. To start our discussion, it is important for the author to state here that foreign language teaching (FLT) in Japan often only means ELT only. Consequently, the discussion in this chapter is largely limited to ELT. The author realizes this is the problem and thus he will discuss it in the later parts of the chapter.

F(E)LT professionals are often required to study the policies and implement them in their classroom under the time constraints. Whether the new policies are eventually beneficial to the public, or not, this practice often becomes a major obstacle of F(E)LT profession in Japan. The F(E)LT professionals are forced to make a series of important decisions without being given sufficient background information and/or in a very limited time.

What are, then, public demands anyway? A typical discourse for supporting the objective of English language teaching nowadays is “to communicate with people around the world.” This may be partly true; however, it does neither give a special status to English nor exclude many other languages. For example, we rarely hear someone say “Let’s learn Chinese in order to communicate with people around the world,” despite the fact that Chinese is the largest language in the world in terms of the number of its users (cf. Graddol 2006). The problem, therefore, is that, with exceptions of those who are in a position of having access to sufficient information on the issues, the Japanese general public has to rely on the discourses prevailed, no matter whether or not these discourses are reliable. The survival in the globalized society is often used as the reason for the authority to encourage the Japanese people to learn a foreign language. However, English is often regarded as if it were a synonym of “the” foreign language. Moreover, many people are not even aware of the fact that there are many foreign languages other than English which can be taught at schools. As a result, English enjoy its status of being the only foreign language as a school subject.

Given the fact that there is no choice other than English available at Japanese schools, it is natural that the Japanese people need to learn English, the only foreign language available at many schools, in order to survive in a globalized world. Needless to say, those in general public would focus on ELT if they were interested in developing communication skills necessary in the globalized society as though English would solve all the problems. Therefore, ELT will be regarded as if it were on the top of the agenda for the authorities in Japan.

For the policy-makers, this would facilitate their jobs, because they can take advantage of the fact that the general public only talks about English, and thus there is a legitimate reason for them to concentrate on English, even though they also need to cover other foreign languages. In other words, the policy-makers can save their faces for a while, as they appear to be doing what they are supposed to do. This is the biggest chronic problem of ELT in Japan. In the rest of the section, I shall discuss this problem in relation to the three new proposals in ELT in Japan: the new Course of Study (COS), English language teaching at primary schools, and the “core” standard for university teacher training curriculum. The author argues that no matter how promising the new policies look to the general public, we need to examine them carefully in order to optimally implement the policies for the maximum benefits of the Japanese general public. Otherwise, the new policies may end up with a large sand castle, which will be wiped away in a second when a new wave approaches.

Globalization and ELT Policies

In recent years, the term “globalization” is used as a buzzword associated with various new proposals to promote ELT at various sectors in Japan. This phenomenon has been discussed by many scholars (e.g., Seargeant 2009; Kubota 2011) who critically examine the discourse globalization in relation to the promotion of English as an international language in Japan, however, the connection between globalization and the needs for English is not clear.

The beliefs about “ideal” ELT among the ELT professionals have also been shifted over the years. Consequently, the goal of ELT in Japan has gradually been changed. As illustrated in Oda and Takada (2005: 94–95), we saw a boom in the learning of English in connection with the growth of the Japanese economy in 1980. During the period, the attainment of native speaker proficiency was regarded as the goal of the learning of English, and thus many native speakers of English came to Japan to teach English regardless of their qualifications. Then there was a significant turnaround after 1990 when the rapid growth of the Japanese economy since the 1960s came to an end. The government has issued several policies corresponding to the discourse of “globalization-as-opportunity,” highlighting the importance of English for the Japanese people, despite the fact that there has never been any clear explanation on the connection between globalization and the needs of English as opposed to other languages. According to Stewart and Miyahara (2011), these policies prioritize English “in the name of globalization, the shift to more communicative language teaching reflected in school teaching and testing” (p. 62). Stewart and Miyahara (Ibid.) continue that these policies have been reflected on further emphasis on English in exchange of “cut in provision of other languages” (Ibid.) and an emergence of departments and/or programs which emphasize communication and culture.

Many universities as well as private schools stress how their English program leads the students to the right pathway to success by emphasizing advantages in career building. In other words, their English language programs are expected to contribute to the developments of “global human resources.” The discourse of “globalization-as-opportunity” was intact among many educational institutions, and thus many of them have attempted to distinguish their programs from others by describing their programs as with colorful adjectives such as “global,” “innovative,” and/or “multicultural” which coincides with the examples presented in Yamagami and Tollefson (2011).

The institutions align the position of their foreign language programs to the discourse of “globalization-as-opportunity” (Yamagami and Tollefson 2011) not necessarily because they have solid philosophical beliefs, but to give their potential applicant an impression as though the institutions are working seriously in order to meet the demands of the society. In other words, the institutions themselves do not have a convincing reason why they associate globalization with the aggressive or even frenzy promotion of English in their educational programs.

More recently, Terasawa (2017a) attempted to illustrate the complex relationships among globalization, the global spread of English, and the growing enthusiasm for ELT, by providing some counter-evidence to deny the commonly held beliefs including “Globalization increases the demand for English language use” and “People’s enthusiasm for ELT is direct outcome of perceptible global changes such as the increased and more widespread use of English” (3). He analyzed the datasets from the Japanese General Social Surveys (JGSS) conducted to determine “what behaviours, attitudes, and experiences are prevalent among the Japanese” (Ibid.). Terasawa (Ibid.) used the 2006 and 2010 versions of the surveys. What is noteworthy is that he is among the first scholars who have used the statistical database of nationally representative surveys as evidence against the prevailing discourse of ELT in Japan which often assume a strong connection among globalization, the global spread of English, and the necessity for ELT.

From his study, it was found that there was no connection between globalization and the need of English. Instead, he found that “the decline of English use resulted from the ‘globalized’ recession in the late 2000s” and the “enthusiasm for an ELT reform was prompted by enhanced images of global communication” (Terasawa 2017a: 8–9). The results can explain the oversimplified association between globalization and the needs of English by the Japanese general public discussed in the previous section.

Terasawa’s study (2017a) above made a significant contribution to the discussion on ELT policy as it was among the first studies on the topic using quantitative database of nationally representative surveys as evidence against the prevailing discourse of ELT. In other words, it is evident that we need to review the mechanism of the prevailing oversimplified connection between globalization and an aggressive promotion of English as if it were the only foreign language for global communication. While the author sees that teaching English is not necessarily as problem, it does not mean that English takes care of global communication. At this point, we need to reflect on the role of English in the Japanese society including its potential and limitation in global communication. It is important for us to identify the chronicle problem underlying the discourses of ELT policies in Japan. Therefore, the next step for the scholars is to take steps to raise awareness among the Japanese general public by engaging more actively in this very important issue.

Language Policy, Learner Beliefs, and the Role of Mass Media

In the previous section, the author has argued that there is little connection between globalization and the needs for English. It seems that the Japanese society has repeated the same routine whenever a new language teaching policy has been proposed. As discussed in Oda (2017), a new language teaching policy often is proposed and presented to the public without context. While there are always some discussions between those for and against the new policy, the discussions tend to be superficial because of the limited access to relevant information (cf. van Dijk 1996). The general public including the learners themselves accept whatever proposed realizing that these policies comes from the authority. In addition, most of the learners do not even attempt to analyze the new polies, and thus, they never have any clear idea of why they are learning English as discussed in Hatano (2017). This phenomenon is illustrated in Hatano’s model (2017: 224) of the patterns of learners’ reaction to authoritative discourse concerning English and ELT including the policies issued by the authority as well as prevailing discourse among the general public. Hatano (ibid) stresses that we need to pay attention to the fact that there are substantial numbers of learners who believe English is important not because they have concrete idea of why learning English is beneficial to them but because of the authority of the prevailing discourse. Hatano continues (222–223) that the majority of the respondents of his survey cited “globalization” as the major reason why the Japanese people should learn English. When he asked the same group why they learn English, only 37.5% cited “globalization” as at least one of the reasons. On the contrary, 83.3% cited “entrance exams” and 58.5% cited “pass the course (requirement)” as primary reasons. This indicates that there is a lack of dialogue between the “authoritative discourse” and “personally persuasive discourse” as Hatano (Ibid.) states.

Oda (2014) discusses the formulation of learner beliefs through in-depth interviews with three Japanese university students. He analyzed the narratives of the students who had been asked to talk about their encounter with languages including English and how they ended up continuing to study the language in the university. From the study, he found that, in early stages, they had been constantly told by their parents that English would be beneficial for their future. In addition, until they became old enough to find out that English is just one of the many languages, they had believed as though English had been the only language they could use in order to communicate with the people outside Japan. In relation to Hatano’s (2017) discussion above, the students must not have even been given any information but “learning English is beneficial for them” so that they had not been aware of the reality until much later. In other words, they had not been given any choice between whether or not to learn a foreign language and which language(s) to learn.

The ELT policies, including the decision for making English as “the” foreign language, is an “authoritative” discourse by default. It is often reinforced by mass media and affect the beliefs of the general public particularly of those without sufficient background information as discussed in Oda (2017). The phenomenon is particularly significant when the general public is given a limited time to make a decision. Because the information accessible by the general public is limited, people only rely on the pieces of information which have been exposed to them, for example, the discourses produced by mass media. They are not given enough time to check the reliability and the validity of the information nor they think if there is any alternative. This would prevent them to engage in dialogue between their “personally persuasive discourse” which contributes to the formation of their beliefs and the “authoritative discourse.”

To the general public, any recent new ELT policy in Japan appear to be solid and authoritative regardless of whether one agrees with it or not. The new policy certainly looks as if it would change ELT, hopefully in a positive way. In reality, however, ELT professionals, with an exception of those involved in policy-making themselves, are not necessarily convinced by the policy-makers.

Widdowson (1994: 384) argues that, “[r]eal proficiency is when you are able to take possession of the language, turn it to your advantage, and make it real for you.” Even though the learners believe English is important because of “globalization” no matter how they define it, it is important for each of them to make their learning of English real for him/her. Therefore, to help increase dialogues between the policy-makers and the learners is certainly an important goal of ELT professionals. In the next sections, I shall present how the discussion on the three new proposals in ELT in Japan, the new Course of Study (COS) with a special attention to the status of English as a school subject, English language teaching at primary schools, and the “core” standard for university teacher education curriculum focusing on how each issue, corresponds with the discussion in this section.

The New Course of Study (COS)

The Course of Study (COS) is a national guideline revised and published approximately every 10 years. It is usually available in Japanese. However, English translations of some key documents are occasionally available as well through the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) website ( It has four different editions: kindergarten, primary schools, lower secondary schools, and upper secondary schools. In each edition, the requirements for completion include the list of required and elective subjects as well as detailed descriptions of items to be covered in each of the subjects are listed. Teachers teaching at educational institutions are required to have a valid license for each level which is usually issued after a completion of an appropriate teacher training programs at higher education institutions whose teacher training courses have been authorized by MEXT which will be discussed later.

Although English has been taught at almost all the lower and upper secondary schools all over Japan for a long time, it is not a required subject. According to the Course of Study (COS), a curriculum guideline issued by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) almost every 10 years, English itself has never been a required subject of secondary schools. Instead, it is “foreign language” which is a required subject for secondary schools now, and the schools have to choose which language(s) to require their students to take. In most cases, however, English is the de facto required language (see Oda and Takada 2005), and most schools offer English as the only foreign language their students can take.

The problem is that many students as well as the general public do not realize the fact that English is not a required subject, unless they were closely engaged in ELT. In many of the official policy documents including COS, policy-makers carefully select the term “foreign languages” as the name of the subject, but the description is always based on the assumption that English is “the” foreign language. Very often, we encounter a description “refer to English” when we are trying to find information about teaching a foreign language like Chinese.

The proposal for introducing English in the primary school curriculum was originally made by a special committee to the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2007 as a part of its mid-term statement concerning the school curriculum. The MEXT accepted it in 2008, with a slight modification as far as English was concerned. Instead of making English as a school subject, the MEXT decided to add foreign language activity. There are two issues in this proposal to consider. First, the term “foreign languages” was used as was the case of secondary schools. Second, “foreign languages” at the primary level was not defined as a subject but an activity. The former left a possibility of teaching languages other than English, and thus it appeared “politically correct,” while the latter made it possible for anyone to teach as far as the school approves. This was the first step of introducing English to primary schools. As expected, English was the de facto language for foreign language activities. The MEXT also published English textbooks Hi Friends! 1 and 2 in 2012 for foreign language activities, but not in other languages. Strictly speaking, these are not considered as authorized textbooks, but as “suggested teaching materials.”

The new COS will be in effect in 2020 for primary schools, 2021 for lower secondary schools, and 2022 for upper secondary schools after 2 or 3 years of transition periods prior to these dates. The introduction of foreign languages (English) as a subject of the primary school curriculum is certainly a highlight of the new COS. However, there are also numerous changes concerning foreign language teaching both at lower and upper secondary schools. Naka (2017), in his publication in Japanese, points out several important issues and gives his critical reflection on the new COS. To begin with, Naka (Ibid.) commented that he had thought that the new COS would be promising for several reasons. When the outline of the upcoming revision was announced in an interim report by a subcommittee on school curricula in August 2016. This report was a summary of the discussions at previous committee meetings. Naka (2017: 102–106) pointed out that it was possible to assume that committee’s serious commitments to the upcoming revision in several areas. First, the committee had reflected on the gap between the objective of foreign language teaching which had been set for the current COS and what are actually taking place in the classroom.

Then, the committee recognized the fact that many foreign languages class had only focused on how much the learners had gained their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary (Kyouiku Katei Bukai 2016: 253) and suggested that we need to integrate the learners’ knowledge with their ability to think, decide, and express as all of them are important elements for communication. The committee also indicated that it would be necessary to reconsider the traditional for skills in language teaching, including reading, writing, speaking, and listening, which had often been referred by language teaching professionals. They suggested that speaking skill should be divided into two: speaking (interaction) and speaking (production) as with the case of CEFR. The five skills, according to the report, would be used as a framework, and the learning objectives would be set in each of the five skills. This was a positive indication as the committee has apparently been aware of the gap in interpretation of the term “communication” between the descriptions in the current COS and what is actually happening in the real world. By revisiting how we define “communication,” we should be able to reflect it to what we should teach in the classroom. From this report, along with the proposal for revising policies regarding teacher training programs discussed later, it was possible to assume that the policy-makers were more serious and organized than ever as Naka (Ibid.) also suggested.

Secondly, it was apparent from the report that the committee had been trying to clarify that English is just one of the foreign languages, and thus it would be important to emphasize the importance of teaching/learning foreign languages other than English (Kyouiku Katei Bukai 2016: 257), probably with an influence of the notion of plurilingualism discussed in Europe in relation to CEFR. Naka (2017: 104) stated that he had expected at that point that the discussion in the report would reflect on the new COS. In other words, there was a hope at that point that the policy-makers would officially clarify the validity of the prevailing false assumption as though English being a synonym of foreign language.

What was actually came up as the new COS which was published in 2017 by MEXT was disappointing. In other words, MEXT has missed an opportunity to realign one of the major gaps between its foreign language policy and the reality, some of which had been discussed in the interim report (2016).

First of all, the traditional “four skills” are still intact. The author would like to point out that, despite the discussion appeared on the interim report, the traditional four-skill framework remains in the new COS, even though the validity of “four skills” as an ideological framework of foreign language teaching has been criticized as it is “a culture icon in English-speaking Western TESOL” (Holliday 2005: 42). Holiday (Ibid.) continues that the discourse of “four skills” reflects “how ‘we’ (the Westerners) are and how ‘we’ see things in ‘our’ culture and how ‘we’ intend to see , and indeed construct students and TESOL people from other cultures” (Holliday 2005: 43). Toh (2016) in the context of ELT in Japanese higher education also points out that English language courses are “invariably broken down into Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening components” (141), which would affect time tabling, staff development, and textbook adoption. It would also affect the construction of various English language tests including entrance examinations at different levels and the framework for teacher trainings. The prefabricated framework continues to give a potential threat to foreign language teaching including ELT as it still leaves each of the skills discretely without any clear guideline for teachers and learners to positively attempt to integrate them for communication. In the lower secondary edition of the new COS (MEXT 2017a), for example, the primary and overall objective of learning foreign languages is stated. While the official English translation has yet to be published, “Understanding the sounds, expressions, vocabulary, grammar and use of foreign languages and acquire skills to apply the knowledge to actual communication including reading, writing, speaking and listening” (129) is listed as one of the overall objectives of the subject “foreign language,” even though speaking skills are subdivided into presentation and interaction under the section for English (129–130). In other words, while the new COS shows some good signs as it attempts to narrow the gap in interpretation of the term “communication” between the descriptions in the previous COS and what is actually happening in the real world discussed above, the policy-makers seem to have published the new COS prematurely without firmly agreeing on what they mean by communication and what they expect the learners to learn from foreign language lessons at schools.

Second, despite the fact that the importance of learning other languages was mentioned in the interim report (2016), the new COS does not even provide much information about teaching foreign languages other than English. The foreign language section of the new COS for lower secondary level (MEXT 2017a: chapter 2, section 9, 127–138) provides detailed guidelines including, the objectives specific to the language, the items to be covered and the planning of instruction. This section will also serve as a guideline for the publishers of authorized textbooks which will be used at schools when the new COS has been put in effect. Contrary to the description on the interim report (2016), it is apparent that English is still “the only” foreign language for the school subject. In the section of the new COS for lower secondary schools (MEXT 2017a), nine out of ten pages are spent for English, while there is only a three-line paragraph with a heading “Other foreign languages” which basically ask the readers to refer to the English section (and figure out what are the requirements yourselves) (138). Furthermore, there is a statement under the heading of the planning of instruction saying that, in principle, English should be selected as “the” language for the subject (Ibid.). Although it appears that the students in Japan have a choice of learning any languages provided that there are sufficient resources available to them, this statement on COS is strong enough to discourage us to believe that there is an option other than English. In other words, these descriptions contradict the interim report (2016) mentioned above, even though the name of the subject is “foreign language,” and thus have totally ruined the discussion of promoting languages other than English in Japanese schools for at least next 10 years.

English at Primary Schools

In Japan, primary school teachers are expected to teach all the subjects by themselves, and thus teacher training programs at universities are organized accordingly.

Therefore, teacher training in teaching foreign languages including English was not included in these programs. At that time, Oda (2009) warned that it would be difficult to train as many as 416,000 primary school teachers at that time (MEXT 2018) to be ready for the foreign language which was due to start in 3 years. The reality was that the policy-makers did not have any intention to make many of these teachers to be ready for foreign language activities at that point, because what they were proposing was not a “subject” but an “activity.” The difference between English as a school subject and English as an activity is as follows. First, the former needs to be taught by licensed teachers for primary schools. The teachers need to use authorized textbooks and give grades to their students. This means that MEXT had to train enough primary school teachers, including those who are active and those who are new. Second, MEXT needed to have authorized textbooks ready. It was apparent that neither of them could be achieved within the given timeframe. While there was no official explanation for the decision of introducing an “activity” instead of a “subject” in relation to the timeframe, it is apparent that the time was too short for the policy-makers to begin foreign language classes at primary schools in a short time.

Since the introduction of foreign language activities at primary schools in 2012, MEXT has not issued any nationwide reflection of the effectiveness of the activities (see Terasawa 2017b). Instead they are about to move a step further at the time of writing. In March 2017, MEXT announced the details of the next revision of COS including the introduction of foreign language as a subject for fifth and sixth grades at primary schools. This will replace the existing foreign language activity for fifth and sixth grades. Instead, foreign language activities will be required in third and fourth grades in primary schools nationwide. The new COS for primary schools will be in effect from 2020 academic year after 2 years of transition period starting April 2018.

As with the case, many primary teachers are anxious about the proposed change, as it would all the sudden add one more subject to teach. A majority of primary teachers had never been trained to teach English or other foreign languages when they were licensed. It is, therefore, natural for anyone to assume that teachers are needed to be given a clear guideline for how they should prepare themselves to be ready for the implementation of the new policy. MEXT has issued various documents and supplement materials in a section dedicated to foreign language teaching/activities on their official website ( To this date, however, very few comprehensive document is available to primary classroom teachers.

In a recent issue of local commercial journal of English language teaching, Eigo Kyoiku (English Language Education, June 2017), Naoyama (2017), a subject inspector in charge of English at MEXT, addresses the issue in her article. She acknowledged primary school teachers’ concerns and described what MEXT is trying to do before the new policy is put in effect in 2018 when the transition period is due to start. She focused on the two main issues: teaching/learning materials and teacher training. As for teaching/learning materials, Naoyama (Ibid.) listed the list of materials, both printed and digital, MEXT would provide along with the schedule as of November 2016. This was followed by a rationale as well as a brief history behind the developments of these materials. Throughout the article which is written in Japanese, Naoyama (Ibid.: 14–15) consistently use the term Gaikokugo (foreign languages) emphasizing that she is talking about foreign languages in accordance with COS. Nevertheless, the main policy document she cites is English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization (2014), which, as its title suggests, only talks about English. There has never been any explanation of why only English is given a special status among the many foreign languages.

A more serious concern, however, is the second section of the article in which Naoyama talks about teacher training (2017: 16–18). According to the plan described in the article, MEXT has a master plan called Eigo Kyoiku Suishin Riidaa (English language education promotion leaders) program and forms an in-service teacher training program based on the above master plan. It is important to stress that this program is not to aim at training foreign language teachers but English teachers, even though the subject which will be added is foreign languages, not English.

Naoyama (Ibid.) continues that MEXT provides intensive training programs for around 200 primary school teachers nominated by boards of education of different regions in Japan. They are called “English language education promotion leaders” who are expected to implement what they have learned in the national training program to their own classrooms. Then they will undergo another phase of training at the national level to be certified as a leader and will be expected to train teachers in their region. MEXT expects to train at least one leader per school, although they are not certain when the goal has been completed. In other words, MEXT leaves its responsibility for training teachers in a limited period of time to these leaders most of are teaching full time. The details of the training program are yet to be decided, and thus, at the time of writing, we only know that the leaders are supposed to teach what they have learned in the intensive trainings to the colleagues in their schools; however, it seems apparent that it would take a few years to complete training for nearly 312,131 school teachers teaching full time in primary schools nationwide excluding administrators such as principals and vice-principals, in 2017 school year (see MEXT 2018).

Terasawa (2017b) provides a critical review of the plan. Among the many points discussed in his paper, he stresses that English should not be added to the primary school curriculum, unless sufficient budget has been secured. As discussed above (Naoyama 2017), MEXT has presented a plan to train primary school teachers to be ready for the new subject. Yet, as Terasawa (2017b) points out, it is not clear how to provide the teachers with the opportunity to participate in the training programs. If the teachers were to attend the training programs, their teaching assignments should be reduced in order to guarantee enough time to participate in the programs. While some local authorities have already established a system to do so, there is no national policy on this matter. As a result, some teachers would have to participate in the programs while teaching full time, even if they were selected as English language education promotion leaders. Terasawa (Ibid.: 16–27) believes this problem is largely attributed to the issue of budget and thus stresses the importance of securing financial resources. This is necessary not only to cover expenses for trainings but also to provide sufficient financial resources to hire extra teachers for replacements when teachers are attending training programs.

Another point Terasawa (Ibid.) makes in his article is the rationale of the new policy of transforming foreign language activity in fifth and sixth grades to a subject and introducing foreign language activity to third and fourth grades. More specifically, he argues (2–7) that no official reflection on the effectiveness of the current foreign language activity in fifth and sixth grades had been published before the new policy was proposed. In addition, there was no convincing explanation regarding the reason why only English was spotlighted among many foreign languages, even though MEXT keeps utilizing the term foreign languages as the name of the activity/subject. This corresponds with the points the author has made earlier.

ELT at primary school has always been supported by the particular set of discourses prevailed among the general public as pointed out by Butler-Goto (2005). These are as follows:
  1. 1.

    The earlier we start, the better the results.

  2. 2.

    Oral skills (listening, speaking) should be given a priority.

  3. 3.

    Native speakers are the best teachers.

  4. 4.

    No evaluation is necessary for ELT for children in early stages.


These discourses are often disseminated to the general public through mass media and more recently through social media as discussed in Oda (2017). He continues that people in the general public often encounter with these discourses without being given sufficient background information and thus “it is often the case that the discourses are accepted without any criticism” (Oda 2017: 104). Butler-Goto (2005) has done extensive review on the discourses above and concluded that none of the above is convincing. First, the “earlier the better” argument. Despite the recent advancement of neuroscience, it is still too early to conclude if puberty exists in language acquisition and/or what the mechanism of language acquisition actually is (125); therefore, we cannot say that the earlier we start, the better the results.Next, “the oral skills” argument. While we understand that it is important to teach oral skills, particularly because they are not taught sufficiently at secondary schools, it does not mean that we should exclude teaching written skills. MEXT has kept emphasizing that teaching English at primary schools should be restricted to oral skills, as teaching written skills would give too much burden on children, which would result in them losing motivation to learn the language, without any evidence (155). This is derived from the prevailing discourse formulated by the oversimplified association between communication and oral skills, even though we depend a lot on written communication in our daily life. Third, the “native speaker” argument. This often goes with the discourse of “English should be taught in English only,” both of which correspond with the fallacies of ELT discussed in Phillipson (1992). The discourses appear to legitimate teaching English in English only and thus enable monolingual native English speakers to qualify themselves to teach English to children. Yet, there has been no scientific research to claim that learning English in English only by native English speakers would give pupils better results. Butler-Goto (2005) presents various counter-evidence (e.g., Auerbach 1993; Cook 1999) and suggests that using the learners’ native language would help children learn English more effectively as it would reduce anxiety, provide meaningful interaction, and reduce drop-outs (161). Again, an oversimplified dichotomy on whether to conduct a class in English only or not, or whether or not native English-speaking teachers are better, contributes the formulation of the discourse. Finally, the “no-evaluation” discourse. This was an idea originally related to the establishment of foreign language activity, and we will not have to worry about it at this point, as foreign languages (English) will become a school subject at primary schools. Nevertheless, the discourse illustrates the problem exists behind foreign language activity. As discussed earlier, it is possible that the policy-makers have disseminated this discourse in order to legitimate the rationale of adding foreign languages as an activity, not as a subject. They must have known they would not be able to provide a sufficient number of trained teachers by the time they were going to introduce foreign languages (English) at primary schools.

The problem of the shortage of qualified teachers, however, has been inherited to the upcoming policy change. As with the cases of other recent foreign language policies, MEXT and its advising body, including the special committee who had originally proposed the plan to the Ministry, do not seem to have studied the impact of the addition of the new subject to primary schools well enough. It is unrealistic to expect that they can train more than 300,000 primary school teachers (MEXT 2018) to be capable of teaching an additional subject while expecting most of them to continue to work full time as discussed earlier. In the document titled English Education Reform Plan Corresponding to Globalization (2014) issued by MEXT, which has served as a base for the new policy of introducing foreign languages from third grade, we can find the following statement: “Timed with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in order for the full-scale development of new English education in Japan, MEXT will incrementally promote educational reform from FY2014 including constructing the necessary frameworks based on this plan” (MEXT 2014, Underlined in the original). The supporters of the plan often cite “globalization” as a reason for teaching English and the 2020 Olympics as a reason for implementing the new policy in a short time. However, it is hard to believe that fifth graders who learn English for the first time become able to function in English by the Olympics (when they will be in seventh grade), especially because it is unlikely that we do not have enough time for universities to establish programs to produce new primary school teachers who can teach English either.

For current primary school teachers, the rapid implementation of the new policy will not necessarily do any good either. It is hard to imagine for someone who has been working hard as a primary school teachers for a long time to be asked to teach an additional subject of which she/he has never been trained to teach. Even though she/he is willing to take a teacher training program, a majority of teachers have to wait until the 200 selected “leaders” have been trained and qualified to train local teachers. On the contrary, the discourse of the necessity of English is prevailed among the general public and is further reinforced by its oversimplified association with the discourse of the 2020 Olympics. It would give tremendous pressures on primary school teachers, as the society may regard them as incompetent if they were not ready to teach English by the time the new policy is implemented. In reality, it is hard to expect that primary teachers receive sufficient help either directly or indirectly from MEXT before they start teaching a foreign language, in most of the cases, English.

The “Core” Standard for University Teacher Training Curriculum

The third example discussed in this chapter is related to preservice teacher training at universities. In order to obtain a license to teach at schools in Japan, one has to complete a teacher education program called Kyosyoku Katei at an accredited institution while complying with the requirements of their own majors. While there are some variations, the students are normally required to take a certain number of courses both from the subject matter group and the teaching profession group. In the case of teacher training programs for secondary school English, the former includes courses in English linguistics, literature, or intercultural communication, while the latter refers to pedagogical principles, educational psychology, lesson planning, educational law, and/or the Constitution of Japan. The latter group also applies to teacher training programs for all the subjects and levels. It should be noted that this “core” standard is not proposed exclusively for foreign languages or English. It is a part of the reform involving both preservice and in-service trainings for primary and secondary school teachers.

Although MEXT still uses the term foreign languages for the subject, it is apparent that their focus is exclusively on English. This move shows how enthusiastic policy-makers in Japan have been on the promotion of English. In August 2017, MEXT held its first orientation to higher education institutions with teacher training programs. In one of the materials distributed at the orientation (MEXT 2017b: 10), it was clearly stated that the core curriculum for English (not foreign language) training programs would be available in August 2017. This is strongly related to the report of a major project discussed below. In fact, a majority part of the recommendations made in the report (Tokyo Gakugei Daigaku 2017) has been integrated to the new standard for MEXT to approve English teacher training programs at higher education institutions nationwide.

Compared to the cases of other subjects, English is the first and the only subject with concrete plan for teacher training programs as of November 2017. In comparison with the case of ELT at primary schools discussed earlier, this is a completely different approach. According to MEXT, they secured a budget of 581.13 million Japanese yen in 2015 ( for this project in order to investigate various issues related to the classroom teachers’ English language proficiency and preservice and in-service teacher training programs for both primary and secondary levels. As a result of the comprehensive survey involving researchers, classroom teachers, as well as administrators from different parts of Japan, the report Eigo Kyouin no Eigo ryoku・Shidou ryoku kyouka no tameno chousa Kenku Jigyo Heisei 28 nenndo hokokusyo (The 2016 report on the Research Project on Improving Proficiency of English and Instruction by Teachers of English) was made available to the public in March 2017 (Tokyo Gakugei Daigaku 2017).

The book length document starts with a series of surveys, and then concrete proposals for teacher training programs based on the outcomes of the surveys are presented. The proposals include preservice teacher training programs for primary schools and lower and upper secondary schools and in-service teacher training programs for the both levels. The project timely considers the changes in various aspects of foreign language teaching policy in Japan over the past few years. In this section, the author focuses on the three proposed teacher training curricula. As with the cases of other policies, the term “foreign language” is carefully selected throughout the report, even though it is apparent that the authors of the report talk only about English. This is consistent with the case of the new COS discussed in the previous section. One chapter (chapter 3) is devoted to the overall structure of the “core” curriculum of teacher training programs, while detailed explanations for specific areas to be covered at different levels appear on another chapter (chapter 4). This is followed by various examples of syllabi (chapter 5).

It has been many years since MEXT began talking about introducing foreign languages to primary schools; however, the Ministry has kept the status of foreign languages ambiguous. Besides the issue of English being the only language many schools can choose to teach, which has been discussed throughout this chapter, it seems that MEXT has tried to avoid being criticized for the shortage of qualified teachers. This was done by making foreign languages as an activity, not as a full subject. However, this tentative strategy became a further obstacle for introducing English as a school subject a few years later. Many of us who are involved in ELT in Japan, including the author himself, have been against the adding of English as a school subject named “foreign languages.” Now we are facing shortage of qualified teachers of English at primary schools in addition to those of foreign languages other than English both at primary and secondary levels. In other words, MEXT had failed to establish a firm policy to train English teachers at primary schools since the introduction of foreign language activities in 2011, while other foreign languages are not even in the option at both primary and secondary levels.

This proposal, therefore, should have been presented and implemented when foreign language activity was added about a decade ago, so that the institutions with preservice training programs for primary schools were able to add the subjects: a course on foreign language instruction (two credits) and that on background knowledge such as classroom English, second language acquisition, literature in English, or intercultural communication (one credit). Consequently the institutions could have produced more primary school teachers with some preservice training in the past few years (65–69). It is also possible to say that the reform of primary school teacher training curriculum at universities should have been more effective than the proposed “English language education promotion leaders” training program mentioned earlier.

As for secondary school teacher training programs, both upper and lower, the biggest change is the lineup and the categorizations of the courses the students are required to take. In addition, the credits required for foreign language instruction has been doubled (a total of eight credits) in order to add components of second language acquisition and evaluation, both of which are offered as electives at many institutions. What is noteworthy is that English as an international language (EIL) or English as a lingua franca (ELF) is listed as an item to be covered as a part of English linguistic category (77). In addition, while both literature in English-speaking world and intercultural understanding remains as required subjects and the latter includes communication using English, the importance of English as a lingua franca to understand cultural diversity through reading and/or interaction is stressed (115–116).

As stated in the beginning of this section, the recommendations made in the two parts of the report discussed above have been integrated to the new standard for MEXT to approve English teacher training programs at higher education institutions nationwide. In other words, the institutions must make sure all the items recommended in the report be covered in their programs.

Finally, there are proposals for in-service teacher training programs which have been a weakness in Japanese educational system for many years, as there is no systematic structure of in-service training programs for school teachers with an exception of the series of courses required for the renewal of license every 10 years. A large part of these courses focus on the teaching profession in general, and a very few choices can be made for courses related to teaching English and/or foreign languages, if any, to fulfill the requirements. The proposed in-service training programs are not aimed at replacing the programs for license renewals. They are provided as models for teachers both in primary and secondary schools with different lengths of experience. For example, the programs for novice teachers include more components on understanding COS and/or material preparation, while the programs for those with more teaching experience involve courses on networking with other levels and mentoring novice teachers (80–91). We still need to find a way to guarantee all the teachers to participate in appropriate in-service training programs, and school administrators must work out how to make it possible in their contexts. However, this is a major step to encourage dialogue among the policy-makers, administrators at different levels, and school teachers.


In this chapter, the author has highlighted the three major proposals concerning ELT recently made by the Japanese government: the new Course of Study (COS), teaching English as a school subject at primary level, and the new “core” standard for university teacher training curriculum and their ongoing impact to the ELT profession. The author attempted to focus on the lack of dialogue between these ELT-related policies proposed by the Japanese authority and the ELT profession including classroom teachers who need to face their students directly through their day-to-day teaching. By reviewing the three proposals, the new Course of Study (COS), English language teaching at primary schools, and the “core” standard for university teacher training curriculum, it was found that there were both positive and negative issues.

In the past years, the policy-makers, notably MEXT, have come up with numerous brilliant proposals. To the Japanese general public, many of them look like a big, gorgeous castle which appears to be very solid and strong. With the help of mass media as well as public discourses formulated often without firm principles, the castle looks as though it gets stronger and stronger every day. In reality, however, there is a potential danger that the castle falls down in a moment without warning.

For example, we have heard a lot of debates between those for and against teaching English at primary schools. These debates are not simple: Some are against teaching English at primary schools, but for children learning English, while others may have problem about selecting English as “the” language. Nevertheless the general public is often exposed to the oversimplified Yes-No dichotomy of the issue through mass media, and thus very few are aware of the complex issues behind. As a matter of fact, this must have been the reason why many ELT professionals were hesitant to make a move. As for teacher training, things are moving to the right direction. We wish the core standard for teacher training programs had been proposed a long time ago, so that we would have had more primary school English teachers by now. Therefore, we need to wait patiently until a sufficient number of primary school teachers have been trained.

The issues discussed in this chapter could be applicable to the contexts outside of Japan as well. For example, the gap between what policy-makers considers as “ideal” for various aspects of ELT and what is practiced in the actual teaching at schools is observed in other countries. Wang (2014: 195–201), for example, talks about the relationship among the national curriculum requirement, textbooks, and the nationally unified tests to illustrate the gap between the “ideal” and the “real” in China.

Regardless of where we are, more active dialogues between the policy-makers and foreign language teaching professionals are necessary. The learners should be given access to all the necessary information available in order for them to make right decisions about their language learning. The topics of dialogue include various issues, but the priority should be given to the dialogue of the validity of the prevailing discourses in relation to foreign language teaching, for example, the connection between English and globalization and/or the relevance of learning languages in addition to or instead of English. In other words, it is the responsibility of both the policy-makers and foreign language teaching professionals to help the learners with opportunity to encourage the learners to engage in dialogues between “authoritative discourse” and “personally persuasive discourse” themselves (Hatano 2017). This will certainly reinforce the castle and, consequently, be beneficial to all of those involved. We cannot afford spending time to just say “Yes” or “No” to particular issues nor seeing the debate as bystanders. All of us should engage in dialogues for the solid foundation of foreign language teaching in our communities.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tamagawa UniversityTokyoJapan

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