The Role of English in Contemporary Japan

Insightful Studies in Different Contexts

Patricia Savon Meras, PhD Student, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 31 March 2014.

A review of: Seargeant, Philip (ed.) (2011) English in Japan in the Era of Globalization, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-23766-7, hardcover, 224 pages.

English in Japan in the Era of Globalization is the latest publication by Philip Seargeant, a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University’s Centre for Language and Communication. Seargeant has extensively investigated the study of world ‘Englishes,’ partially through his time working in Japanese higher education (e.g. Seargeant 2009). Here, he offers an edited work compiling the research of different scholars on the status of English in Japan in a time of globalisation. The book consists of nine chapters, grouped into two sections. Part 1 (chapters 1 to 5), entitled ‘English in the Education System,’ examines the role of English in the Japanese education system, providing research on high school as well as university contexts. Part 2 (chapters 6 to 9), entitled ‘English in Society and Culture,’ looks at the current role of English in Japanese society and culture.

Following the introduction, chapter 1, co-authored by Mai Yamagami and James W. Tollefson, focuses on the social position of English in Japan by examining the representation of globalisation in elite discourses. The study is carried out through a careful analysis of discourses from some elite Japanese universities and selected speeches in the Japanese Diet (parliament), with the two authors discussing how globalisation can be represented through discourse in two ways: “as an opportunity” (page 22) and “as a threat” (page 26). Drawing conclusions from both representations, the authors find that many Japanese universities “praise” (page 33) globalisation through the spread of English discourse on their Web sites. On the other hand, the analysis of the Diet, as an example of elite political discourse, shows how they see the spread of English through globalisation as threatening. The authors point out the importance of examining this kind of discourse as it has a broader impact in society. It is usually aimed at a larger audience, thus entailing more aims and forms of discourse such as “politicians seeking votes, political parties seeking advantage in the next election, and demagogues exploiting and manipulating citizens’ fears and prejudices for political gain” (page 33).

In Chapter 2, Aya Matsuda shows the readers how “not everyone can be a star” (page 38), by examining students’ and teachers’ beliefs about English teaching in Japan. In particular, Matsuda focuses on students’ and teachers’ perceptions of English as an international language (EIL). The analysis, which is done through interviews of the students and teachers, considers the role of English as an international lingua franca, the importance of learning English, the goals of the required English class, and their assessment of each other’s contribution toward learning (pages 41–49). The study is well supported by the data and explanations, although readers might have benefited from a more substantial review of the relevant theory.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the issue of globalisation in English language teaching. The first of these chapters provides an analysis of the presence of globalisation and identity in English language teaching at the university level, with Alison Stewart and Masuko Miyahara examining English curriculum at a Japanese university through interviews and discourse analysis. The responses of students and teachers, along with the identity of the university as an institution in terms of English language education, are explored in detail. The authors argue that that there is an important link between English language teaching, globalisation, and identity in Japanese universities. Accordingly, their study will be useful for those who are familiar with, and do research on, the Japanese higher education context.

The following chapter, by Yvonne Breckenridge and Elizabeth J. Erling, looks at the much debated topic of the native speaker English teacher and the politics of globalisation in Japan. In particular, it explores “the native speaker ideal” and how it has been seen in Japan through the years (page 82). The research data come from a qualitative study based on interviews with Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program teachers, specifically the Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). Indeed, it offers some interesting conclusions on the problems faced by ALTs in some schools and how much their native speaker status is “wrongly” idealised in Japan. Breckenridge and Erling point out that these “essentialised” ideals of the native English speaker should be seen as taking into account “national ideologies such as nihonjinron,” which can work to perpetuate these essentialised identities (page 97).

To conclude the first part, Ryuko Kubota discusses the relationship between immigration, diversity and language education in Japan. Kubota specifically reflects upon a “glocal approach” to English language teaching—a combination of the global and local dimensions (page 115). Making use of records of English conversations between Japanese and non-Japanese English learners, she reflects on the fact that, “as local diversity grows and global/local communicative demands become increasingly multilingual, English language education must problematise the traditional norm of Inner Circle standard English and white native speakers of English” (page 119). Thus a glocal approach to language teaching in Japan is necessary for wider communication.

The second part of the volume begins with two chapters that examine English as an “international” language in Japan. In chapter 6, Yasukata Yano looks at the relationship between English and Japanese society and culture. The aim is to analyse the role of English as an international language and “Japanese English.” Examples of different variants of English are provided, with the focus being on the influence and presence the language has had in Japanese language. By conducting a linguistic analysis of the lexis and phonology of articles taken from the Japanese press, Yano concludes that English continues to have a great influence in Japanese culture, language and society no matter how Japanised it has become. The author defends the idea that Japanese “must free themselves from the ‘native speaker syndrome’” (page 134). They must, Yano suggests, speak English freely no matter how close (or not) their accent is to that of native speakers. Yano believes that Japanese have great potential as speakers of English as an international language. In Chapter 7, Laurel Kamada examines the “position of English in Japan through the lens of a growing sector of Japanese youths” (page 143). Kamada is especially interested in the spoken conversations of a friendship between six girls of Japanese and “white-foreign” mixed parents (commonly referred to as ‘half’, see page 143). Kamada shows how ethnically mixed Japanese adolescents “discursively construct the position of English in unfixed and multiple ways, often drawing on alternative discourses of ethnicity in Japan” (page 162).

The last two chapters of the volume provide studies on the role of English in Japanese media and visual English, specifically “language entertainment” (page 166) through television and the display of signs, animated billboards on the streets and train stations throughout Japan. Andrew Moody and Yuko Matsumoto look into the “psychology of Japanese English speakers” (page 168) on Japanese television and explain what the Japanese perceive as an ideal English speaker. In order to do this, they examine the discourse of “language entertainment programmes” and show how these focus on the psychological characteristics of good language learners rather than on the development of language proficiency. This leads to an examination of the three characteristics of Japanese English speakers: yĆ«ki (courage), jigyaku (self-effacement) and genki (enthusiasm) (page 184). The volume concludes with a chapter by Philip Seargeant on the visual display of English in Japan. Seargeant surveys “attitudes towards such language display by considering how it is that citizens whose lives are led within this social environment perceive the widespread use of English in the public sphere” (page 187). Using a method drawn from folk linguistics and language ideology theory, Seargeant analyses the responses of the nine informants, demonstrating in the process how “the prevalence of English within the social landscape is interpreted as being the result of multiple roles that the language plays” (page 203).

English in Japan in the Era of Globalization builds significantly on Seargeant’s previous (2009) contribution to field, The Idea of English in Japan. It offers a comprehensive examination of the role of English language in the Japanese education system, and has a particularly strong focus on studies conducted in the fields of both secondary and tertiary education. The volume also provides a range of frameworks for analysing the role of English in different Japanese contexts, and is thus likely to become an indispensable source for any researcher looking either at Japan or the broader field of sociolinguistics. For English teachers in Japan, the volume presents a number of excellent studies on Japan’s different teaching environments. All the volume’s authors are leading scholars in the field with significant publication records. Although the scope of the volume is limited to the Japanese context, the theoretical frameworks could be usefully applied to a far wider range of contexts from around the world.

Chapter Details

Philip Seargeant, ‘Introduction: English in the Era of Globalisation’

Part I English in the Education System.
1. Mai Yamagami and James W. Tollefson, “Elite Discourses of Globalisation in Japan: The Role of English”
2. Aya Matsuda, “‘Not Everyone Can Be a Star’: Students’ and Teachers’ Beliefs about English Teaching in Japan”
3. Alison Stewart and Masuko Miyahara, “Parallel Universes: Globalisation and Identity in English Language Teaching at a Japanese University”
4. Yvonne Breckenridge and Elizabeth J. Erling, “The Native Speaker English Teacher and the Politics of Globalisation in Japan”
5. Ryuko Kubota, “Immigration, Diversity and Language Education in Japan: toward a Glocal Approach to Teaching English”

Part II English in Society and Culture
6. Yasukata Yano, “English as an International Language and ‘Japanese English’”
7. Laurel Kamada, “The Position of English for a New Sector of ‘Japanese’ Youths: Mixed-Ethnic Girls’ Constructions of Linguistic and Ethnic Identities”
8. Andrew Moody and Yuko Matsumoto, “The Ideal Speaker of Japanese English as Portrayed in ‘Language Entertainment’ Television”
9. Philip Seargeant, “The Symbolic Meaning of Visual English in the Social Landscape of Japan”


Seargeant, Philip (2009) The Idea of English in Japan: Ideology and the Evolution of a Global Language, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

About the Author

Patricia Savon Meras is a PhD student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. She has a Master in Asia Pacific studies and a Bachelor in English Language and Literature. Her current research is on English language curriculum evaluation in Japan in an international higher education context. She also conducts research in discourse analysis, socio-cultural studies on contemporary Japan, British, American and Japanese literature.

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