Japan’s English education needs new head start

I am writing this from the trenches of elementary school with students wrestling, horsing around and getting ready for lunch.

Last week I had in mind to do a short piece on Japan’s foremost test for English proficiency and Okinawa’s newest experiment on Education: Okinawa AMICUS International.

I am a supporter of the AMICUS vision since its inception and have helped in their Summer Camp.

Although I knew there was a connection to the publishing industry and the government ministry in charge of education “MEXT”, I soon realized that the EIKEN and AMICUS have their roots in “one” publishing company run by the Obunsha family, an old aristocratic dynasty.

This family business has capitalized on their monopoly under MEXT protection as the EIKEN Foundation of Japan that manages the “Test in Practical English Proficiency” or EIKEN.

Obunsha Publishing Inc. led by its visionary patriarch pioneered the EIKEN test in 1963.  The need was identified by MEXT in 1961.  This move was greatly motivated by the planned 1964 Olympics, symbolic of Japan’s postwar miracle of economic resurrection.

The EIKEN Foundation has done a fantastic job of creating a familiar and teacher friendly infrastructure that is present in every corner of Japan’s school system.  The EIKEN has a series of tests with 5 STEPs.  From the easiest STEP 5 to the coveted STEP ONE.  By passing the STEP ONE level, English teacher trainees in university can bypass English tests.

The STEP ONE has proven to be difficult even for native speakers due to its sometimes quirky questions and unfamiliar word usage.  Of course, native speakers break all kinds grammar rules as soon as they open their mouths. (writing needs work too, me included).  We all strive for the best communication from set patterns as English expands and contracts, breathing society and ever changing.  Yet, there is a central core from where our English flows as we communicate.  In Japan, that core has not been able to take root paralyzing effective use of the language.

Last year the EIKEN Foundation of Japan celebrated its 50th Anniversary.  The STEP tests have been a stairway, “not” to English communication heaven, but to an English proficiency world ranking of – 26th place with TOEIC levels a little above North Korea.

What happened?  Who are the “Dear” board members steering this Titanic effort of English torture.  Is this language learning hell?  We have opened the “Obunsha/MEXT/EIKEN Pandora’s Box.

How can we make this work?  At the 6th Okinawa English Education Forum held last month, I was lucky to meet, in person members of the EIKEN Foundation Leadership.  The website does not make it clear who and how this public foundation is being managed.  I will do my best with the help of YOUR questions and comments to help shed some light on this issue as we strive towards a better level of transparency and “Olympic 2020 Vision”.  Lets help the EIKEN Foundation of Japan get a head start and re-boot English education in Japan from Okinawa.

The Okinawa AMICUS International is the other microcosm which reflects how education is being handled in Japan.  This is also another experiment, which could benefit Okinawa.  In its three years or so of operation, the turnover of principals and talented teachers has motivated the Okinawa Prefecture Assembly to begin an investigation.  Details will follow.

March 5th was CORAL DAY in Okinawa and we are celebrating “CORAL WEEK”.  Lets pray that our government leadership can find a 3rd Alternative towards “New Diplomacy” to balance out passions, needs and expectations for a strong U.S.-Japan Alliance “with” democratic values at the forefront which included the voice of Okinawa.  The future of the Asia-Pacific starts here.

Comments please! edo@okinawaocean.org