Giving a hand for improving English: Makoto Ishiwata

As you might have noticed by now, every week my goal is to give someone else a voice to provide further insights in regard to Japan. This week’s local insider is Makoto Ishiwata the president of Kaplan Japan: A globally known English school allowing preparation and training for tests like TOEIC, SAT, GMAT… Kaplan is one of the world’s leading providers of lifelong education. Ishiwata san is in a unique situation of having experience in teaching English for 30 years.

Sibylle Ito: I believe the Japanese younger generation is very much interested in trends from abroad. On the other hand, I see a big gap between the actual interest in foreign topics, compared to the willingness to seriously learning English. How do you see the situation?
Makoto Ishiwata: Yes it is true that the younger generation is very much interested in foreign trends and goods. Definitely the attraction runs high, but looking at the behavior over time I think the fascination with the world abroad is decreasing. I believe the reason behind this is that the attraction of anything related to the US has decreased. On the other hand, I don’t think the willingness to learn English has actually decreased. I believe that the desire to learn English has not changed, but it has become much more challenging for the younger generation to improve their language abilities.

SI: From what I have heard many Japanese know that there is a need to learn more English, but I think the passion and desire for learning is rather low. Do you actually experience a high number of motivated English language students?
MI: The young generation is very interested in learning English, but might be perceived as not so dedicated to learning compared to previous generations. From my point of view this has not so much to do with the individual students, but much more with the previous changes in the educational system. For the last 5 to 10 years the trend of being “easy on the student’s schedule” has caused the students to experience troubles now with higher English learning, because the gap of what is needed and expected is so big. Having such a high hurdle in front of you, then it is not surprising that some students give up and might be perceived as not willing to learn English; when actually they are simply overwhelmed. For many young Japanese it seems so hard to catch up.
Hopefully with the most recent educational changes to increase the study load for students in long term we can see a higher ability of English of Japanese students after graduation.

SI: Recently the media talks about a new trend of younger people preferring to stay close to their roots and showing less interest in studying or working abroad. From your experience is this really a new trend?

MI: Yes, there is actually a decline in students wanting to study for example in the US. Partially I believe there are two reasons: Compared to the past, the young generation is experiencing a comfortable living in Japan. Therefore the desire to change one’s life for something just seemingly marginal better is less common. I believe the second reason is that you don’t really have so much of a gap between the rich and the poor in Japan. In case the status quo is already very comfortable for the younger generation, so from their perspective why is it necessary to push for much more?

SI: In the last eight years living in Japan I have noticed more elder women start talking in English. For example elder women are approaching me now more often during business travel on the plane. About eight years ago I was enjoying quiet time on the plane heading abroad (in economy class), but in the last two years similar type of group travelers are now trying to get a conversation going with me. Have you done any similar observations that seniors are increasing their English skills recently?
MI: For the seniors raised and educated before the 2nd WW, they had very limited opportunity for English language study at school. So the elder women you are talking about must have gone through education afterwards. For sure seniors have become much more powerful and outgoing. They have much more time on their hands, therefore having time to learn more topics and travel more seems logical. For sure seniors are a growing consumer group. Personally, I have not seen a change with an increased number of female seniors speaking English.
What I have noticed is an increased interest in test taking like TOEIC. It could be based on the Japanese passion for test taking and getting each time a high score, or then work related that the company is demanding a certain TOEIC score for the employees.

Ishiwata san, thank you so much for letting me know your unbiased view on English learning in Japan. For sure, I have learned to look at the younger generation with a different viewpoint. Instead of wondering why the language skills might be low, I am asking myself now how I can help to make a difference.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

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