Our series on English as a lingua franca continues with a post from Japan. We asked Jim Ronald, Professor of English Linguistics at Hiroshima Shudo University, to provide a perspective on Japan’s engagement with English. Jim has discussed the subject with four of his students, and they give their views here.
What impact is English having on Japan? In various ways, English is profoundly affecting the lives of people in Japan, although things are often different from how they may seem to a visitor to the country. As a long-term resident here, my experience of English in Japan differs from that of most Japanese people, so I asked my four graduate students, Eiji Takeda, Sae Asaoka, Miyu Yokota and Ryota Hiura to add their voices to this account.
Eiji Takeda tells of his British fiancée’s impressions when she first came to Japan:
“One of the things she was startled by was the flood of English writing in various places. She said, ‘I don’t know why you Japanese can’t speak English when it’s everywhere here.’ She was shocked to see little girls wearing T-shirts that said ‘touch me now’, ‘creature’ or ‘love child’, or a building in Tokyo just named ‘BIG BOX’. And when she saw the signboard of the little off-licence surrounded by beautiful green rice fields in my village, ‘Liquor Shop Urban’, she was lost for words.
Living in Japan, we are almost blind to all these English words that scream out confusing messages to her and to other visitors. We might gain a vague impression from them – something lovely or stylish or modern – but very few people would stop to read them and think what they mean.”
Two related issues that do directly affect many people’s lives are English proficiency tests and workplace requirements for English.
In Japan, there are many kinds of English proficiency tests. These days, above all, the business-oriented TOEIC test, produced by an American company, is considered an important tool for measuring people’s English ability, as well as for getting a job. As many as three quarters of companies now require specific TOEIC scores as a condition of employment or promotion. As Sae Asaoka says, “We often hear people, especially university students, say ‘I want to get a higher TOEIC score.’ I used to say something similar when I was an undergraduate, but now I’ve got a relatively high score, I feel different. For one thing, a high score does not mean that someone is good at communicating in English. People just want a high TOEIC score and there are plenty of books that help them do just that. But surely the important thing is not simply to get a high score, but to enjoy learning something you did not know, to study for your own growth, to study with the goal of becoming a good language user. Pursuing these goals – enjoying learning English and finding ways to communicate better – is surely more meaningful, and will also give us higher test scores. And really, what employers are looking for are people who can use English.”
Miyu Yokota points out that while some companies just see English in terms of a test score, others have gone a lot further. “International companies, such as the clothing company UNIQLO or Rakuten which specializes in Internet commerce, have adopted English as the official working language in their offices. They are already international companies and as they plan to expand and build more branches around the world, they need a global workforce, with English as the common language for the staff from many different countries. For Japanese people wanting to work in these companies, English is essential.”
Finally, Ryota Hiura looks at English in the world of popular music:
Many Japanese bands use English words in their names, and in their song titles and lyrics. It somehow gives a cooler image than Japanese. For example, Bump of Chicken is a well-known Japanese band, but most Japanese people have no idea what the name might mean. If we try to work out the meaning, it could be about cowardice or maybe goose pimples. In either case, if this were expressed in Japanese it would sound old-fashioned or somehow frumpish. And English names like these are far from exceptional. In a recent local festival of up-and-coming bands, around 50 of the 55 bands’ names include some kind English – usually a deliberately wacky kind. It seems that a band’s name almost has to be in English in order to appeal to a young Japanese audience, but at the same time this restriction does seem to enable the freedom to be creative and playful… Here, to finish, are a few more entertaining examples of bands’ names, including their creative grammar, word breaks, and capitalization: the band apart, Hello Sleepwalkers, TOTALFAT, Scott goes for, another sunnyday, overthedogs, Indigo La End, and zippy ZIPPER.”Email this Post