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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Increasing Japan’s Birthrate Through Better English

English-language teaching

There is a very amusing skit by the late Japanese comedian Shimura Ken where he plays a befuddled high school English teacher assigned to a class full of native English speakers. When these clearly American students recite perfectly from the textbook, Shimura corrects their readings, reminding them, for example, that the word “father” is pronounced “faah-daah” in his class.


The sketch is both entertaining and insightful, a satire on the state of English-language education in Japan. The Japanese government, which manages school curricula nationwide, has promised to address deficiencies, primarily by introducing the language to younger students, but otherwise maintaining course goals. If you ask the general public about their goals, you will hear, “To be able to speak to foreigners,” or, “To be comfortable speaking English on a trip overseas.” But if you ask foreigners hired by school systems to help with these courses what the de facto goals are, the response would be more like, “To get better grades on the English portion of Japanese college entrance exams.”


Given the difficulty that typical Japanese have with everyday English content, I suspect these teaching assistants are correct. As such, even though the government will throw more money at schools to deliver English to younger students, it won’t do any good because the curriculum is not designed to meet the public’s goal of speaking English well with foreigners. It’s concerning, given how many decades and how many billions of yen the government has consumed trying to impart the language to the population. Even worse, it makes me convinced that the Kishida Administration’s announced plans for grappling with the declining birthrate will fall short.


The focus of the Prime Minister’s plan for dealing with declining population is to assist young families with the costs of raising children. His concern is admirable, and no doubt these programs will help some families to grow larger. But I predict that it will be a lot of money spent for little result. That’s because the key reason for birthrate decline is not primarily personal finances, but personal priorities. Affluence, not poverty, is more commonly linked to smaller families. When young people pursue social, domestic, and work plans that would be difficult with one or more children—or even a spouse—growing families take a backseat.


The only way that Japan can bring its natural population growth numbers back up is to make the public believe that that having children is one of the most important priorities for them and for society, even if it is a financial burden. And the most effective way to make the public believe that is to instill it in the nation’s youth during their formative years. Decisive, goal-oriented programs would need to be made a core part of the nation’s curriculum, supported by like-minded politicians, TV and film producers, journalists, and business leaders. If the entire nation speaks with one voice, the kids will hear it.


The situation with English-language training, however, makes me doubt whether this is possible. Japan has had ample time to redirect the focus of such courses from college exams to general communication, but it never made the switch. The nation has oodles of college graduates, few of whom would be comfortable in an English-speaking setting. If the government can’t do anything to improve the population’s English ability despite current investments, what hope does it have to impart the more important demographic knowledge that will stabilize the nation’s population?


Despite my concerns, if there is any country that can make such society-wide changes, it is Japan. By the will of its people, it transformed itself during both the Meiji and post-WWII eras, both to the amazement of the entire world. And it did so with smaller populations and fewer resources. This time around, it only needs to hammer out a few educational goals and dedicate itself to communicating those goals consistently over the next decade or two.


Japan already has a national curriculum capable of getting the word out. It also has a population of foreign supporters, immigrants who work both in and out of the school system, most of who have a passion for Japan and a desire to see its society thrive. These and other resources can make a difference if they are directed toward a national pro-family mindset. I don’t fault Kishida for his announced spending plans, despite the limited value they will likely bring. But if his administration really wants to turn the population numbers around, it’s time to get everyone on board with some clear national goals.


[Image Credits: ねこ魔人/photo-ac.com]

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