A Little Language Goes a Long Way

Opinions - April 17th, 2009

by Ian de Stains OBE

In a column several months ago now, I wrote of the need for Japan finally to grasp the nettle of English language education. For all the government’s claims that it wants to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) here and despite the much-touted Yokoso Japan campaign aimed at attracting more tourists, it is difficult to believe that much can really be achieved when the levels of English are as poor as they are at even the most fundamental levels of international interface.

I am the first to agree that those of us who choose to live and work in Japan should make every effort to learn the Japanese language to the best of our abilities. But the fact remains that English is the international language of business and Japan sadly lags behind such competitor countries as China, South Korea, and Taiwan in this regard. Japan has been my home for over three decades and it is most likely where I shall end my days. It is a country I care about deeply and I find it sad that the nation’s still-great potential is hampered by something so simple as people’s inability to communicate effectively.

This was brought home to me most sharply when I recently set out on a business trip to the UK. I arrived at Narita only to find that the check-in counters were eerily closed and that there was a noticeable absence of staff. I did not know at that point that an accident—the first fatal one since Narita opened in 1978—had occurred just an hour or so before and that no one really knew whether and when the runway would open again.

The point is that when the airport began broadcasting announcements giving information on what was happening, I was able to follow with no difficulty the Japanese. However, when the English announcements were made, I literally could not understand a word of what was being said (and bear in mind I am used to Japanese accented English). It was as if the Narita announcers had mastered a few standard scripts in English, but when it came to having to give unfamiliar information, they reverted to a ‘katakanaized’ rendition. Those passengers with no Japanese were left looking bewildered, frustrated, and ultimately angry; in my view, rightly so.

The authorities ought to be thoroughly ashamed. I can think of no other international airport serving a major world capital that could not have done better and I shudder to think of the consequences if the incident had been such as to pose a threat to people’s safety in the terminal buildings.

Returning home in the knowledge that my flight would not get off the ground for at least another 24 hours—thus making my entire trip redundant—another thought occurred. How is it that an airport designed to serve one of the world’s largest (and still important) capital cities still has only one runway long enough to handle today’s long-range aircraft? Yokoso Japan!