On Wednesday 26 September 2018, the University of Tokyo (or Todai), Japan’s highest-rated higher education institution, rejected the Japanese Ministry of Education’s proposal that Universities accept private-sector English entrance exams with an added speaking component. Although foreign-language examination papers might appear a relatively uncontroversial topic to outsiders, for many involved this issue is critical to the country’s education system, its relationship with other countries, and the future of Japanese society itself. In order to better understand this, I spoke to University of Tokyo Professor of English Masahiko Abe, author of a book attacking the government reforms entitled Shijō saisaku no Eigo seisaku—“The Worst-Ever English Policy”.

Abe is a slender, energetic figure who looks spookily younger than his actual age of fifty-one. Abe makes clear that the current system is by no means perfect: “I don’t think the Japanese entrance exam is ideal, it’s a necessary evil”. Nonetheless, he argues that the famous everyday conscientiousness displayed by Japanese people can be credited in part to the punctiliousness instilled by the education system: “you can rely on people almost anywhere because of this entrance exam system”. In his view, the peculiar combination of meticulousness and fearlessness required of candidates reflects the exam’s historical origins as a test devised by Meiji-era reformers to give employment to former warriors within the new centralized national administration: “what’s behind the entrance exams is this warrior spirit plus bureaucracy”. Indeed, so arduous and combative are these nyūgaku shiken or Entrance Exams tests that Japanese has a specific noun—jukensensou—meaning “entrance exam war”. Over the course of two days, jittery, frazzled students endure the so-called “Centre Test”: a series of papers in the sciences and humanities. Those bone-weary cadets who survive and score well must take another series of Exams in February and March, which allow entry to coveted institutions, including the “National Seven” ex-Imperial public universities, and well-regarded private universities. In addition to attending compulsory high school, many Japanese teenagers spend evenings, weekends and holidays in cram-schools called jukus to prepare themselves. And although English is not a compulsory subject, almost all prestigious schools identify the subject as a requirement.

According to Abe, the government’s proposal to introduce a new speaking section is based on a simplistic view of linguistic competence in which “speaking has nothing to do with listening, reading or writing.” Abe traces the government’s stress on speaking to the image of a “beautiful English conversation” promoted by language schools from the 1960s onwards: “a scene…of somewhat lightly dressed people sitting on a sunny lawn and chatting with each other cheerfully in American English”.[1] While such an image presents speaking as an isolated acquirement, in reality “speaking is not just speaking…it involves various skills.” At the same time, the government ignores the contexts in which Japanese people have to use English: “those who actually need to use English for their work or in their research must patiently devote themselves to the solitary tasks of studying vocabulary, practicing listening comprehension, and reading aloud.”[2]

Abe insists that the current changes will put further pressure on strained candidates: “Japanese students are not really prepared for that kind of testing.” Whereas, in virtually all classes in the US and the UK, students will be required to make spontaneous verbal comments in reaction to class content, in Japan this happens less often, meaning that, even in Japanese, students are not as practiced at “speaking”. “I am not saying that Japanese people are not intelligent enough to deal with thinking abstractly but just that we tend to do it in a written form.” He claims that the modern Japanese language has yet to develop a mode well-suited to debate. Moreover, Abe points out that comprehension and conversation are very different things: “someone who can read a very complex article may not be able to utter a word”. For an institution such as the University of Tokyo, a student’s capacity for intricate abstract thinking may be more important than informal communication skills.

Abe highlights the fiendish complications of assigning a grade to a spoken conversation. Which is better: a clear and direct response that demonstrates nuanced thinking; or an overly complicated utterance that displays a wide vocabulary and mastery of advanced grammar? Moreover, if the examination board is to avoid students simply repeating set answers they will need to reward creativity, yet how can individuality be accommodated in standardized tests for a huge number of candidates with varying abilities? Abe observes that “when speaking matters, it is when you have something to say. And when people don’t have anything to say, only conditions and checking-points, that wouldn’t really build up students’ confidence or their skills”. Abe suspects “speaking” of being a Trojan horse: “speaking is the excuse for introducing privatization”. He observes that employing private companies to both run cram schools and set the test creates an obvious conflict of interest: “they take money saying that ‘if you take our courses you can get high scores’.” In his view, if the government were serious about improving students’ speaking ability, they would have provided better resources: “we need more teaching training. But what the government is trying to do is the opposite”.

Importantly, Abe’s viewpoint is by no means universal. When the Ministry first made these proposals in June 2017, Robert Aspinall, a Professor at Doshisha University Centre for Global Education, asserted that “putting speaking on the university entrant tests may be the best thing that has ever happened to English speaking in Japan” [3] on the grounds that Japanese people have the lowest average test score for the TOEFL IBT Speaking section in all of Asia [4] and the proposed alteration would compel schools to encourage students to speak more often. In Abe’s view, there are several reasons why Japanese people have been less successful in acquiring spoken English. Most obviously, Japan was never colonized and has managed to become a rich country without widespread Anglicisation. A further factor is the significant differences in English pronunciation: “we don’t have a stress accent system.”

Nonetheless, given the high level of financial investment Japan makes in learning English, is the government’s search for different approaches as unreasonable as Abe suggests? Abe argues that much of the current investment is made not by the government, but by private citizens. He asserts that one of the reasons for the lack of success is that the “English industry” sells English as if it were a diet or an exercise program: “they always want more customers so they deceive you by saying it’s easy…But what you really need is motivation and discipline.” I point to the August 2018 scandal, in which Tokyo Medical School was found to have manipulated the entrance exam results of women since about 2011 to keep the female population low and its former director accused of having granted admission to the son of a senior education bureaucrat in exchange for favors. Instead of hundreds of different departments setting and marking completely separate exams, would it not be easier to monitor a smaller number of private companies, which could be fired if they had been found to have engaged in corrupt practices? However, Abe responds that the proposed system is even worse since the behavior of private companies “is impossible for a university to check”. Nonetheless Abe is far from complacent about the current system, stressing that “I am not saying we should stay where we are” and suggesting increased teaching of phonetics and allotting more time for discussions in class.

Abe welcomes the University of Tokyo’s rejection of the Ministry changes as a movement in the right direction: “I don’t think Todai’s decision is a final, fatal blow to the new system, but it is a big step forward towards rectification.” In his view, the main reason for the University’s decision to resist the government proposals is the difficulty of overseeing and checking the testing companies: “Todai does not trust the system the government is trying to introduce…Todai trusts the teachers rather than the testing companies.” For Abe, one of the major benefits of learning another language is that it enables one to examine one’s own culture from a fresh perspective: “you manage to relativize certain things by standing away from them.” He claims that education best achieves this when student and teacher collaborate in a search for mutual enlightenment: “I think I discover a lot by teaching students…I have to start by telling them what interest means and why people get interested in certain things”. In his own case, when he was growing up as young student in a Catholic Seminary in the seaside town of Shizuoka, his English-learning was nourished by his fascination with the spiritual qualities he identified in poetry: “poetry for me was something like an experience of trance.”. Abe argues that forcing students to speak would prevent them from finding their own entry-point into English: “the first thing is to encourage them and let them forget about this compulsion…allow them to be themselves”.

For more on this topic in Masahiko’s own words please click here

[1] Abe Masahiko, The Ill-Considered Reform of Japanese University Entrance Exams, Nippon.com, 13 July 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Quoted James McCrostie, “Spoken English tests among entrance exam reforms Japan’s students will face in 2020” Japan Times, July 5 2017.
[4] Can Japan, with Asia’s Lowest TOEFL Speaking Score, Change?, Ayako Yokogawa, December 18 2017.