The reason why Japanese people don’t speak English

It is not as simple as being ‘just shy.’

Aug 3, 2019 · 3 min read
Photo by Cory Schadt on Unsplash

Japan seems like one of the most developed countries in Asia. However, you may be surprised that people in Japan don’t really speak English very well, except for some touristy areas such as Kyoto or Tokyo.

Some of my friends asked me “why is that?”

I have a ten year old niece. Maybe because my boyfriend is British, she has been interested in learning English since she was much younger. Now she happily goes to English classes every Saturday which her mother never forced her to go.

But even now she doesn’t feel comfortable speaking English to my boyfriend, even if it was her who wanted to start to go to the English classes.

Do you think it is because she is too shy? I don’t think it’s only about ‘shyness’.

The difference is so big

First of all, if you are a native speaker of English, I want you to know that English is a very different language from Japanese.

In English, you have 26 letters in the alphabet, while in Japanese we have 50 Hiragana and 50 Katakana letters. We need to learn at least 2000 Kanji characters to read basic Japanese.

We have to learn all of them at school before we are 16 years old. Japanese children are always busy working on learning them.

The grammar structures are also different and so is the pronunciation.

English education in Japan didn’t focus on communicating

Learning a second language in Japan used to be mainly improving the ability to read, not speak or listen. No matter whether it was French or German, they learned it because they wanted to be able to read. It is changing slightly now though.

For those living in Japan, being able to speak Japanese was enough and it is more or less same nowadays.

Thinking about my school experience, we learned how to translate between English and Japanese in the English classes, but not how to speak or communicate. We learned lots of techniques on reading comprehension, but not expressing opinions.

They don’t want to be laughed at

I think this is the biggest reason why people don’t speak English in Japan.

Recently I read an article; in a TV show, the presenters talked about non-native-speakers of Japanese who are working in convenience stores in Japan, and they joked about their ‘funny’ Japanese.

The consolation is that some people start criticising the presenters now. It is normal to make some mistakes when you are learning a new language and no one should laugh about it.

Japanese people think that making mistakes is stupid and embarrassing, even when they are trying to speak non-native languages. It is a mental barrier for Japanese people to speak English.

They don’t want to make mistakes and they also don’t want to be laughed at by others.

Japan officially opened to foreign countries in 1853, after 200-years isolation. Today, some people minds are not entirely open.

They are mentally blocked and so are afraid to be laughed at. That is the reason why people don’t speak English comfortably. It is not as simple as just ‘shyness’.

The Japanese government has started accepting more and more immigrants to cover the lack of labour population. More English speakers are needed.

Hopefully, they can be truly open to non-Japanese people and understand what ‘diversity’ means.

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HANA is a Japanese born writer who writes stories and poems in both English and Japanese. If you are an English reader, you can follow her English publications, ‘Etude of Creativity (poetry, haiku, fiction)’ and ‘Japanese Writer (blogs & essays)’ or on Twitter.

Japanese writer

A view from Japanese writer, about Japan, to decode its…


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Used to be named as Hana. A Japanese born blogger and writer who currently lives in Canada.

Japanese writer

A view from Japanese writer, about Japan, to decode its society and to glimpse the culture.

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