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Wall Street Journal Graphic for Friday, August 6, 2010 illustrating that while most Japanese high schoolers graduate with 6 years of English study, few are comfortable holding conversations in English. Here is the WSJ graph illustrating Japanese TOFEL scores measured against nationals other countries.

It is interesting to see the difference between the Japanese scores and those of the neighboring countries of China and South Korea which are better. While this chart does not show it, I know that the TOFEL scores of North Koreans for tests taken on the internet are also higher than the Japanese.

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Interestingly, running somewhat counter to the TOFEL trend above: By 2012, the nearly 2,000 employees of Rakuten Inc., Japan's biggest online retailer by sales employees will be required to speak and correspond with one another in English. For the past few months the weekly meeting, like much of Rakuten's other in-house business, has been conducted in English, by order of its founder and chief executive. Not only must work documents be written in English, so must the menus in Rakuten's cafeteria and signs in its elevators.
No problem -- Japanese is on its way to becoming the world's lingua franca!
It's actually worse than the TOEFL data show, I think. TOEFL is mainly for those who apply to US colleges. So I would think people who take TOEFL are already somewhat proficient in English. Considering the fact that the number of TOEFL takers in Japan is far less than that in Korea or China, I would guess, in average, the level of English proficiency in Japan is much lower than the other countries...
This whole discussion has to do with weakness in the instructional side of Japan's English teaching coupled with a reluctance on the part of Japan's strategic corporate leadership to, unlike Rakuten Inc, get onto an English platform for global business purposes.

Notice, for instance, that the air traffic control in Japan is on the world English standard but its business community lags behind most of Asia in this respect.

Depending upon the measuring tool that you use, Japan is actually fighting with North Korea for the bottom place in English proficiency among Asian countries.

Sadly, this weakness impairs the ability of Japanese business to expode globally. It is a huge problem which most Japanese companies are reluctant to admit and change.
Check out the interesting video on Rakuten's conversion to English only posted by Ben Ward.
Hi David,
It is a shame that Japan is at the bottom place. I think whole system of English education needs to be changed dramatically in order to improve the situation. How? I don't have very clear idea, but at least I can say from my experience that they need to hire more native speakers to teach speaking and listening skills. Also, IF I were to teach a English class, I would use a manga comics and anime movies translated in English instead of boring old-style textbooks.



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