Changing times brought renewed enthusiasm for learning English in Japan

Courtesy of NHK
Yasuko, played by Mone Kamishiraishi, center, speaks with a U.S. military officer using English she learned through a radio program.

NHK’s current morning drama “Come, Come, Everybody” depicts three generations of women and their connection with English radio programs.

Japanese people are still said to lack proficiency in the English language, but a look back at the approximately 100 years covered by the show — spanning from the Showa era (1926-1989) to the Reiwa era that began in 2019 — reveals that there were several English-learning booms spurred by the changing times.

“Come, come, everybody…,” goes the song for the English radio program “Eigo Kaiwa (English conversation),” which the NHK drama presents as having many listeners in Osaka just after World War II. The radio show has a significant impact on lead character Yasuko, played by Mone Kamishiraishi.

“Eigo Kaiwa” is based on an actual radio program of the same name that NHK broadcast from 1946 to 1951. Tadaichi Hirakawa, the lecturer whose voice is provided on the drama by singer Masashi Sada, was also a real person.

Yasuko began learning English through the radio before the war, but after hostilities broke out between Japan and the United States, all English radio shows were suspended because English was regarded as an “enemy language.”

The situation changed completely as the war ended and English became necessary to interact with U.S. occupation forces in Japan. A scene broadcast on Dec. 8 shows Yasuko translating what a U.S. military officer says while he’s shopping, an illustration of the changes that occurred in that period.

The current drama was planned with an eye on the internationalization of Japanese society after the Tokyo Olympics, according to NHK.

“In the past, English was a necessary tool for life, but now it’s become a means of self-expression,” said Reijiro Horinouchi, a chief producer at NHK Osaka broadcasting station. “We want to use English to show families that survived different times.”

Publishing history

Japan’s changing enthusiasm toward English learning over the years can also be seen in its publishing history, an element that does not appear in the NHK drama.

The Anglo-Japanese Conversation Manual published in September 1945 was a best-seller, with about 3.6 million copies sold in three months. Few materials and records regarding the book have survived, but its 32 palm-size pages contained phrases that could be used while shopping or giving someone directions. It also introduced words like “military police” and “gay-quarters,” which referred to a brothel.

The book was created by the publishing company Seibundo. Founder Kikumatsu Ogawa wrote in his autobiography that after he heard the Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s surrender, he decided to publish a textbook that would help Japanese people communicate with the occupying forces.

The next English-learning boom was triggered by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Written by English-language researcher Kazuo Iwata, “Eigo ni Tsuyoku Naru Hon” (Book that makes you stronger in English) became a best-seller in 1961, several years before Japan’s hosting of the largest international event since the end of the war, according to an Annual Report on the Publication Market released by the Research Institute for Publications.

The book was a how-to volume for English conversation, giving tips on how to talk with foreigners in simple English. In the three months after it was published, 1.05 million copies were sold.

The seventh best-selling book of 1961 was “Nandemo Miteyaro” (I’ll go everywhere and see everything), written by author Makoto Oda about his travels while studying abroad. This suggests a growing interest in foreign countries among Japanese people ahead of the 1964 lifting of restrictions on leisure trips abroad.

Third boom underway

The third boom in English learning is said to be going on right now, partly in reaction to English education so far placing too much emphasis on reading and writing.

Calls to develop global human resources have been heard since 2010 as the number of foreigners visiting Japan surged. Enthusiasm for English learning further increased after Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the development of various media has made online lessons by foreign teachers and smartphone apps have become popular ways to learn practical English.

More and more people began to use online tools during the coronavirus pandemic, which seems to have caused many Japanese people to feel closer to foreign countries.

“If communication with people in foreign countries becomes a part of our daily life, enthusiasm towards English learning will not be called a ‘boom,’” said Yoichi Hareyama, 71, an expert on English education. “We’ll likely be called on to actively participate in the international community, rather than learn English as needed.”

Virtual learning growing fast

The market for language learning has fluctuated wildly in recent years.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Although it had been growing steadily, it shrank by 10.8%, or ¥781.7 billion, year on year in fiscal 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on language schools and companies that arrange study abroad, according to Yano Research Institute Ltd.

However, the online learning market ballooned 41%, or ¥22.5 billion, year on year, rising to 2.8 times the level five years before. The market for teaching materials maintained a growth rate of 2%, or ¥39.8 billion.