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English Education:

Preparing Students to Function in a Multicultural Society


WRITTEN BY: Junji Nakagawa, Osaka Gakuin University      ADDED: March 26, 2009    EDITED BY: Tatyana Safronova



I. Introduction

English Language education in Japan focuses almost solely on language acquisition and accuracy. After all, this is what the school and company entrance examinations measure and this is how success is determined in Japanese society. As a result, the English teaching curriculum has been shaped to focus on language test proficiency, rather than communicative competence. As Japan becomes more globalized, however, and communication with people in other countries becomes commonplace, we must ask whether the current focus on acquisition and proficiency can satisfy our national and international needs. There has been an increasing focus on “Internationalism” in Japan, learning about other cultures, but maybe it is time for us to further refine this concept into something more appropriate for our future needs. Since dealing with the people of the world means that our youth must learn to live in societies with more than one culture, and master the communication techniques required for doing so, let us change the focus from mere “Internationalism” to “Multiculturalism.”


Multiculturalism can be defined as the knowledge, interactional skills and attitude required by people belonging to culturally different groupstolive together on an equal footing while accepting their respective cultural differences.


For example, in the case of Japanese students who go to the United States to attend school, the degree to which they are accepted by the local community greatly depends on each student's individual character; but it is also important for these Japanese to understand the people and the society, or, in other words, the fundamental factors that have shaped the country. How well they understand these fundamental factors is directly related to their progress in adapting themselves to living in the United States.


To begin with, there is no special term in American English to say “many cultures living in symbiosis,” because the fact is so common that there is no need for a special term.The fact that Japan has a phrase that means just that, “tabunka kyosei,” might reflect a way of thinking unique to Japan. The United States is already a multicultural society, so there is no need for the concept “tabunka kyosei.” Expressed in another way, Japan is not familiar with the idea of people  from different cultural backgrounds living together. In today’s globalized world it is necessary to give thought to how to live together in a multicultural society.


This paper will 1) compare Japan, traditionally a mono-cultural society with the United States, an archetypal multicultural society and discuss the language skills needed for living in a multicultural society; 2) examine the English language training foreign students living in the United States received at home and the language training they found necessary for living abroad; and 3) propose a reform to language education in Japan to better prepare our learners for the multicultural world.


II. The Nature of a Multicultural Society

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the land area of Japan is 37.5 million square kilometers, slightly smaller than California and about a 25 times smaller the size of the United States.  Japan has a population of 127,078,679 (July 2009 est.), which is less than half the population of the United States. [1]


People in the United States live in a huge country, and most of them have roots extending back to other countries. Therefore, American society is made up of multiple cultures. To consider briefly some aspects of such a multicultural and multiracial country, the following sub-sections will examine the different religions, ethnic groups, and languages in this “melting pot,” as the United States is sometimes referred to.


i. Races

Originally, American Indians (now called Native Americans) lived in the area that is now called the United States. In the 16th century, settlers came from Europe. From the 17th to the 19th century, black slaves were brought from Africa in the slave trade. Beginning in the 19th century, the country had immigrants from Asia. Constant arrival of people from all over the world led to the international nature of the United States. Furthermore, because of racial intermingling and procreation, the country became a kind of ethnic patchwork, what was sometimes called the “melting pot,” a place where races and cultures become joined and assimilated.


However, the diverse ethnic and cultural groups did not always choose to form a “melting pot” society, but preferred to maintain their own racial and cultural identities in a more of a “salad bowl” society where, similar to a salad, each ingredient is still recognizable but contributes to the whole. Currently, in the United States, which is a multicultural, multiracial society, there is no general agreement among its citizens whether it should be considereda “melting pot” or a “salad bowl” society.


The history of the American people can be said to be the history of Native Americans and diverse groups of settlers and immigrants. The number of immigrants the United States has accepted is larger than the number accepted by any other country. It has accepted over 50 million people so far, and continues to receive nearly seven hundred thousand immigrants annually[2]


The distribution of the U.S. population by race and ethnicity in 2006 was as follows:

  • White: 74%
  • Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, of any race: 14.8%
  • Black or African American: 13.4%
  • Some other race: 6.5%
  • Asian: 4.4%
  • Two or more races: 2.0%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.68%
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander: 0.14% [3]


In the case of Japan, historically Koreans and Chinese immigrated into Japan, where, except for local Ainu people in Hokkaido, there was one race of people – the Japanese – resulting in an almost racially homogeneous nation. As for immigrants, according to the census of Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in 2005 the number of foreign residents in Japan was about 1.55 million, 1.2% of the total population. The great majority of them were Koreans (30.0% of total foreign residents,) followed by Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos, and Peruvians.[4]


ii. Religions

Although slight differences appear in numbers according to various surveys and statistics, the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS), in one survey on religious identification, conducted in 2001 with a sample size of 50,000, showed that 76.5% of Americans were Christians. Among Christians, 53% of them were Protestants, and 24.5% were Roman Catholics. In addition, there are various Protestant denominations such as Baptists and Methodists.


Next to Christians, non religious / seculars were 13.2%. The third largest group was Jews, which was 1.3%. The next largest groups such as Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus were all under 0.5%. [5]


In Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism are the two main religions. The Japanese consider themselves both Shinto and Buddhist (84%) and other (16%) including Christians (about 0.7%.) [6]


Most Japanese are Buddhist, but they are not devout; most of them pray only at funerals and the anniversaries of a person's death. They don’t have a strong consciousness that Shintoism is a religion. To many Japanese, Shintoism and Buddhism seem to be more customs than religions, but they still observe Buddhist services and commemorate their ancestors.


Furthermore, religion is seldom discussed among Japanese in daily life. In this way, the Japanese view of religions is very different from that of Americans.


As noted above, many different religions exist in the United States. Do they exist harmoniously? Based on the evidence, the answer to the question is yes. One reason is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is frequently quoted when people talk about religion. It states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceablyto assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [7]

Another bit of evidence shows that it is true that religions coexist in the United States. There are several pages of listings if you look for “Churches” in the yellow pages of the telephone directory. Similarily, if you search “Churches” on the Internet, you’ll find information on thousands of churches.


There are violent clashes between different Islamic groups in Iraq, but not in the United States. Even though there is very little open conflict between individual religions, many people believe that their religion is superior to all others. [8]


In Japan, Buddhism, Shintoism, and other religions exist harmoniously. Most families have a Buddhist altar, but on New Year’s Day, they go to worship at a shrine. People hold a Shinto ceremony to purify a building site when they build a new house, and some people have a wedding ceremony in a Christian church even though they are not Christians. They participate in various religious ceremonies in their lives. Since these occurrences are very natural for Japanese, they don’t feel it is necessary to discuss them, but if they go to a multicultural society, they may be required to explain the Japanese view of religions.


iii. Languages of the United States

In the first United States census in 1790, approximately 80% of all Americans traced their roots back to England. African-Americans were about 20% of the population: 700,000 slaves and 60,000 “free Negroes.” (Nakagawa & Serafin, 62)


That ratio has been changing since that time, and today Hispanic and Asian groups are growing in numbers. Today’s immigrants come for the opportunities available to them. They come to escape war, famine, persecution, and lack of economic opportunity. They feel they will be able to build better lives for themselves and their families than in the “old country,” the nation of their birth. (Nakagawa & Serafin, 82)


Although the United States does not have an official language, English is the primary language, and the majority of the population speaks English as a native language. Therefore, it is only natural that immigrants from other countries have to learn English. If they are taking English classes, skills such as public speaking, discussion, debate, critical thinking and logical thinking are very much stressed. Because the United States is a country where people have different backgrounds, different cultures, and different ways of thinking, its people need to communicate with each other by expressing their thoughts verbally.


There is a constant need to achieve mutual understanding by determining through conversation the people’s similarities and differences. Accordingly, to learn how to participate in discussion and about the give and take of disagreement is considered important. From kindergarten through college, students are encouraged to express personal opinions. They are trained to express their ideas, and to interact with people by agreeing, disagreeing, or countering arguments in all kinds of situations.


On the other hand, in contrast to the United States, Japan doesn’t have a history of accepting immigrants on a large scale. That made it possible for Japanese to communicate more easily with each other due to similar perceptions, ideas and ways of thinking. Therefore, they have not traditionally needed to express their thoughts and ideas through discussion. Thus, discussion and debate are not highly valued in Japanese education.


From the Edo period (1603-1867) until the beginning of the 20th century, reading, writing, and arithmetic were emphasized in school education in Japan, but speaking and listening were not. It has only been in recent years that cultivating listening and speaking abilities has been emphasized.


Ishin denshin, or “telepathy,” “tacit understanding,” “communion from mind to mind” is a Japanese expression that refers to nonverbal communication. Ishin denshin is a very important way of communication in social and business situations; but it is effective only when those involved share the same culture, concepts and values, or when they have a close relationship. This way of communication is reflected in the style of teaching of English in Japan.


On the other hand, assertiveness, discussion, oral personal expression, and debate are important goals in education in the U.S. Therefore, practice in self-expression, as stated above, for Japanese students preparing to live in a multicultural society is important. It should be a must in the teaching of English.


There are many people from overseas, not only from Japan but also from other countries, who are studying English at institutions in the United States. I distributed a questionnaire to determine the opinions of these students about learning English. Based on the results of the questionnaire, I intend to question the goals of English education in Japan in respect to how well it prepares students to communicate in English-speaking multicultural societies.


III. Results of the Questionnaire Assessed Language Training Needs

756 students responded to the questionnaire:

  • 432 Japanese
  • 97 Chinese
  • 92 Korean
  • 75 Germanic (Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, German)
  • 60 Romanic (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) [9]


I asked them what was emphasized while they were taught English in their home countries, and what was helpful while learning at schools in the United States. The following two questions were asked:

  • "What was emphasized when you were taught English in your country? Check all that apply."
  • "What was most helpful while you were learning English at school in the United States? Check all that apply."


The respondents could choose from the following options:

  • A) Grammar
  • B) Reading
  • C) Writing
  • D) Speaking
  • E) Listening
  • F) Expressing your view
  • G) Discussion
  • H) Understanding different cultures
  • I) Developing communication skills
  • J)  Preparing for exams such as entrance exams, TOEFL, and TOEIC
  • K) Others


I divided the students into five groups: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Germanic, and Romanic. First, let’s examine responses from Japanese students.


Before starting to study in the United States, it is very important to learn English grammar, reading, and writing while in Japan. These skills would surely have become the basis for all areas of studyfor these students. It would be a waste of time to spend much time studying grammar, reading, and writing while staying in the United States. Students should have reached a certain level in these areas before coming to the United States. In the U.S. the students should devote their time to speaking, listening, and verbal communication in English, so that they can take advantage of opportunities to talk with native speakers.


In the question, “What was emphasized while you were taught English in your country?” “grammar” was the top choice in the Japanese students’ responses; next was “preparing for exams such as entrance exams, TOEFL, and TOEIC,” while “discussion,” “understanding different cultures,” and “expressing your view” were the bottom three choices. The results of this question show that a large majority of English teachers in Japan teach English mainly for preparing for examinations and not as a communication tool.


In the question, “What was most helpful while learning at schools in the U.S.?” the top three answers from the Japanese students were “speaking,” “listening,” and “expressing your view.” “Discussion” came next. These skills are the ones they need to acquire when they use English as a tool for communication.










Korean students answered that in Korea grammar and reading were most emphasized, followed by “preparing for exams.” Speaking, listening, and expressing views were not emphasized. On the whole, English education in Korea and Japan seems quite similar.















In the case of the Chinese, the top choice was grammar. Reading and writing were also emphasized, followed by “preparing for exams.” On the other hand, “expressing your view,” ”discussion,” “understanding different cultures,” and “developing communication skills” seems not to have been emphasized at all. Based on the students’ responses, the teaching of English in China appears to be very similar to the way English is taught in Japan and Korea. These Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese came to the United States to study English after having studied English in a similar way in their home country. Are there any differences among them concerning English acquisition while they learn English in the U.S.?




Sammy Takahashi, CEO of Pacific Gateway International College in Vancouver explains the differences as follows:

It is commonly known that both Japanese and Korean students placed an emphasis on learning grammar when they studied English at school in their home countries. We don't have many Chinese students, so it's hard to generalize about them. However, through my observation, both Korean and Chinese students are quite vocal in terms of expressing their opinions. This may not have anything to do with the way English is taught. However, this strongly indicates that they have ideas which they would like to express using English as a means of communication. Their grammar as well as pronunciation is as poor as that of their Japanese counterparts, but the biggest difference is their confidence when they speak in front of other people. To summarize this, their method of learning English in these countries may not be so different from a linguistic point of view. The difference could lie in the cultural aspect. [10]





The results of the questionnaire show that the English education of the Germanic group of students in their home countries was quite different from that of the Asian group: Japan, Korea, and China. “Grammar,” “reading,” and “writing” were emphasized there, but at the same time, “speaking” and “listening” were also emphasized. The students were accustomed to discussing, and that’s why “discussion” was not a heavy burden for them. They seem to have already cultivated a basis of expressing their own thoughts in public before coming to the United States, which must have made it easier for them to learn English in the U.S.








The Romanic group showed a similar tendency to the Germanic group. In their home countries, grammar, writing, speaking, reading, and listening were all emphasized, but expressing their views, discussion, understanding of different cultures, and development of communication skills were not taught as much as in the Germanic group.


It is very interesting to note that they felt that being taught grammar, reading, and writing in the U.S. were more helpful than being taught such verbal communication tools as expressing their views and discussion.






In the responses to the next question, “What helps people learn English quickly?” the results differed slightly in each group. The respondents could choose from the following options:

  • A) N
  • B) Individual ability
  • C) Similarity of native language to English
  • D) English education in home country
  • E) Internal motivation
  • F) Personality
  • G) Other factors


The top item each group chose was as follows:

  • Internal motivationJapanese and Romanic)
  • Similarity of native language to EnglishKorean)
  • English education in home country Chinese and Germanic)




According to the All Responses chart, Japanese students heavily selected “individual ability” and “personality”. They consider English-language acquisition to be an individual matter, and don’t expect much English education in their home country. However, the English education in their home countrymust be emphasized, and the following attitude toward English-language acquisition could be a useful guideline for studying English. In an interview for a TOEIC Newsletter, Oki Matsumoto said:

"Communication" and "conversation" are different things. To have a talk merely or to exchange information is conversation. On the other hand, to state each others intention with a sense of purpose and draw a certain conclusion is communication. Chinese people study English thinking this way, but Japanese people try to learn conversation just to be able to speak English well with less emphasis on communicating ideas. If Japanese people dont alter their state of consciousness, Japan will risk becoming a country that cannot transmit information to the global community. [11]

IV.Necessity of Discussion in Japanese Language Education

On March 28, 2008, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced a revision of the Ministry's curriculum guideline for elementary schools. Under the Ministry's new guidelines, starting in the 2011 academic year, English will betaught one period per week in the 5th and 6th grades. [12]


In contrast to this, there are many who claim that English education for elementary students is not necessary, and instead of teaching English, there should be more emphasis on teaching Japanese. However, if students are taught English as a tool of international communication in elementary schools, it will certainly benefit not only Japanese language study, but other subjects as well, by cultivating student desires to discuss, to debate, and to express their own opinions clearly in Japanese.


The homepage of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology points out some problems students have in basic communication and language activities in their own language. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of students who cannot comprehend or express themselves adequately in spoken Japanese. [13]


Students who cannot express their own feelings and opinions adequately in Japanese stand out. Teachers feel it is necessary to educate them so they can express their own thoughts and feelings in order to deal with problems in daily life. In order to improve on the present situation in Japanese language classes, there should be a major focus on improving the ability of students to express themselves verbally. This kind of emphasis would not only lead the students to stand up for themselves, but would also improve their abilities to present arguments.


If changes to Japanese language teaching result in students becoming able to express their thoughts and feelings, it will have a spillover effect to other classes, including English and other subjects. Let us hope that a greater emphasis will be put on speaking skills in Japanese language classes which will become the basis for teaching all other subjects.


In order to teach students how to engage in discussions and exchange ideas, what kind of specific skills are necessary? The following web sites are the examples which offer some practical suggestions for group discussions.


There are also many textbooks that teach and describe ways to encourage students participate in give-and-take communication:

  • Impact Issues
  • Global Issues Today
  • J-Talk, Identity
  • The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook
  • Stimulating Conversation
  • Make Your Point!


V. Conclusion

America is a country where people speak various languages and have different cultural values and backgrounds, yet they live and speak English as a common language. When Japanese people communicate with those in multicultural societies, it is important for them to present their views, their opinions, and perspectives. They need to convey their opinions openly even when those they are communicating with have different opinions.


It is absolutely imperative to ask questions and clear up points of uncertainty when interacting with others. It is important for people to reach understanding through discussion. Cultivation of verbal skills, specifically the engagement in the give-and-take of discussion and the expression of opinions, should be one of the main goals for Japanese language education. Eventually, this should alsobecome one of the main goals for English education in Japan.


Today, not being able to give oral presentations, being hesitant to speak up, and being generally ill at ease in meetings are some of the traits that are considered weaknesses of Japanese people who are working in multicultural societies. If they remain silent at meetings, they must realize that they may be thought of as having no opinions.


As societies are slowly blending to create a more global community, it is becoming evident that one of the core aspects that shapes Japanese culture is handicapping their youth of tomorrow by encouraging a society where asseration is not necessary either in school or the workplace. However, as Japan becomes a multicultural society, it will become necessary for the Japanese to be assertive to persuade and convince others that they must change.


Living in a multicultural society makes it easy to understand how necessary it is to have discussion skills. As seen in the results of the questionnaire, this is something students studying in the United States clearly understood. They must have keenly felt just how little they had been trained to engage in discussions while in Japan.


At the present time, with Japan gradually moving toward becoming a multicultural society, there are more and more people with different languages, cultures and values becoming a part of Japanese society. So far, the Japanese have been inept at communicating in heterogeneous groups. To remedy this situation, there is a pressing need to nurture the Japanese students who are good at participating in the give-and-take of communication.


Still, communication and discussion are lacking in English education in Japan today. However, it will not become a reality by means of English education alone. Instead, the Japanese need to consider how Japanese language education should be changed to prepare Japanese youth for a multicultural society. This will be no small task; it involves changing the way the Japanese communicate with each other.



Mr. Nakagawa graduated with a master in education from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota (USA).  He is currently teaching English and cross-cultural communication at Osaka Gakuin University.  Mr. Nakagawa has generously granted permission for the Englipedia website to host his paper. 




Reference List

  • Day, R. R., Joseph Shaules, J. & Yamanaka, J. (2008).Impact Issues -. Tokyo: Pearson Longman.
  • Goodmacher, G. (2009). Stimulating Conversation, Tokyo: Intercom Press.
  • Lee, L., Yoshida K., & Ziolkowski, S. (2000). J-Talk. Tokyo: OxfordUniversity Press.
  • Lubetsky, M. H., (2005). Make Your Point!,Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Nakagawa, J. & Serafin P. (2003). Eyes on the United States: its roots & soul. Tokyo: Sanshusha.
  • Randle, J. H., Gerard-Sharp, L. & Yagi, Y. (1997). Global Issues Today. Tokyo: Seibido
  • Rooks, G. M. (1988). The Non-stop Discussion Workbook, Tokyo:Cengage Learning.
  • Shaules, J., Hiroko Tsujioka, H., & Iida, M. (2003). Identity, Tokyo: Oxford University Press.
  • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2008. (2008). New York, NY: World Almanac Books.
  • Matsumoto, O.,(2008). “The Essential in Communication: A Firm Idea You Really Want to Convey," the prefatory interview of TOEIC Newsletter, No. 103, November 2008. Tokyo: The Institute for International Business Communication.

[3] These figures add up to more than 100% on this list because Hispanic and Latino Americans are distributed among all the races and are also listed as an ethnicity category, resulting in a double count.

[8]Since 9/11, it is not easy to be a Muslem in the United States because many people suspect that Islam, especially fundamental Islam, does not have any desire to coexist with other religions.

[9] The respondents were students in the HPU English Program from Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the ELS Language Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

[10] S. Takahashi, personal communication, September 20, 2008.

[11] Oki Matsumoto, the prefatory interview of TOEIC Newsletter No. 103.  TOEIC Newsletter No. 103, November 2008 Original sentences are written in Japanese.



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