The History of English Education in Japan and What it Means for the Future

  • If you’re a native English speaker living in Japan, chances are that you work as an English teacher.


    Have you ever wondered about the history of your profession? How long has learning English been popular in Japan, and what do current trends actually mean in practice?


    You would think that English learning in Japan is a recent thing, but the first record of a foreigner in Japan was actually in the 1600’s. William Adams (1564 – 1620) was an English sailor and the first ever Western Samurai in Japan, who was on friendly terms with the future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

    But this friendliness to foreigners was short lived – in fact, when Adams arrived in Kyushu he was mistaken for a pirate and imprisoned. The English Merchants Office was closed in 1623, a decision which forced many English to leave Japan. At this point in history, there is no record of formal English lessons taking place in Japan, though it’s likely that Adams taught his high-ranking friends a few words and phrases in his native language.


    The first formal lessons of English occurred in 1848, when the American Ranald MacDonald taught English to fourteen official interpreters of Japan. In the mid 1800’s, we begin to see the first language schools of Japan. The Yokohama Academy was founded in 1865. By the mid 1870’s there were almost 100 language schools in Japan, and over 80 of them offered English lessons. It could be said that this was the Golden Period of English learning in Japan – English was new and exciting, it was a popular thing to learn and there was little opposition to the language, or the people who taught it.


    By the 1880’s, Japan was modernizing at an astonishing rate. While many people welcomed the changes and influences from other cultures, there were those people who preferred tradition and didn’t agree with the way their country was changing. Around that time, several books were written that aimed to warn Japanese people about the West and how it was changing Japan for the worst. This national pride escalated sharply around the time of World War 2.

    In modern times, views of Westerners and of English language are split. Learning English is now compulsory for school children, and many Japanese people these days have a natural interest in learning languages and experiencing new cultures. However, there are several factors that make English Language learning less necessary than it is in other places around the world, such as the geographical isolation of Japan which makes it one of the most independent nations of the world.

    Current Trends


    Despite the lack of necessity to learn English, eikaiwas (English schools) are doing a lot of business in Japan these days – but it fluctuates. Nova was the biggest eikaiwa in Japan with almost 1,000 schools, but in 2007 the company collapsed and thousands of English teachers were stranded here without homes or income.

    These days, Nova has about 250 schools but is not considered one of the TEFL giants – those positions are held by ECC and AEON. Aside from the private sector, the JET Programme provides teachers to assist with language learning in regular schools. As of April 2011, it became compulsory for all children over the age of 10 to have English Language lessons at school.

    The Future

    While most young people in Japan these days have learnt English in school, by the time they graduate they will still have little to no fluency in actually using the language. The way in which English is taught in Japan is very much focussed on grammatical accuracy and “teaching for the test”. Japanese students have very little chance of acquiring useful language skills without attending a communicative focused eikaiwa.

    The popularity of English learning very much depends on which part of Japan you’re in. In Tokyo, lots of people speak English and want to learn more, but if you go out to more rural places (or even just to a smaller city where there are fewer foreigners) people are both less able and less interested to speak English. As the globalization of the planet continues and more young people are brought up in multi-cultural environments, with opportunities to travel and study abroad, perhaps we will see an increase in the popularity of English learning in Japan.

    Related Articles:

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    How to work as English teacher in Japan