Return on your Yen

The going rate for a private English tutor in Japan is about JPY3000, or nearly US$30. Being on the winning side of this equation, I am not complaining. I teach English a few hours a week - as somone once told me, I'd be a fool to forego this goldmine. When I teach, it is not uncommon to see another Japanese-Western pair with the obligatory dictionary and notebooks.

Likewise, nearly every station in Tokyo has a NOVA, GEOS, or Shane's English school within walking distance of the station. Some stations have all three, or even several offices of the same company. Japanese job boards for foreigners list hundreds if not thousands of English teaching jobs.

Since 1987, the Japanese government has imported Assistant English Teachers who in turn teach at Elementary, Junior High School, and Senior High Schools across the country. As of the last year, there are over 6,300 individuals, mostly from English speaking countries, on one to three year stints. Universities too hire non-Japanese instructors to teach their English classes.

In short, the Japanese government and people spend what amounts to the GDP of several small nations in order to support this army of native English speaker college-graduates working in Japan. What do they get for their money? Not much.

According to ETS, the Japan ranks second from the bottom for average TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores in Asia. North Korea squeeks in just below Japan. Around the world, only Niger, Mali, and a few other poor nations do worse. Korea, China, and Taiwan all do much better than Japan, for much less money.

What is the problem here? There are thousands of critiques of the Japanese education system, however, this single demonstration of English ability attests to very poor investments. Perhaps the quality of teachers could improve - usually the only qualifications sought are that one be a college grad and a native speaker. (Non-native experts in English language education, Linguistics, or other expertise need not apply). This is true, however, that still does not explain such a low performance. The college admissions tests and thus the primary and secondary education systems that are tailored for such test also must be revised. This too does not fully explain the poor performance. Many test takers are post University students. Why then, I ask, does Japan spend so much money but have so little to show for it?

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