At a Japanese Ministry of Education seminar for English teachers held in August 2000, one of the guest speakers was a Prof. Kanatani of Tokyo Gakugei University. This prominent academic stunned his audience by revealing that the total sum of all English input during three years of junior high school (i.e. the total length of all sentences printed in the textbooks) only amounts to the equivalent of 20 pages in a regular paperback book. According to Kanatani, even the following three years at senior high school still only involve around 60 pages of text.
This rather low ambition level is cause for concern when one considers how late Japanese kids start to learn English in the first place. Although a smattering of English has recently been added to the curriculum at elementary school level, this has not resulted in any raising of the complete-beginner level on entry to junior high school at age 12.
Japanese publishers say they would like to produce better English textbooks but, in the case of junior high school, are held back by the education ministry's rigid insistence on limiting vocabulary to around 900 pre-selected words.
The language taught also has to be relevant to life in Japan. So, rather than allowing students to enter fully the world of English and see our language in its own cultural context, it is as if textbook publishers and authors of proficiency tests felt forced to keep students on the outside peering in through a window.
A good illustration of this policy of detachment can be seen in the use of names. If you were to study French in any Western country, you would expect the main characters to be called something like Monsieur et Madame Duval, or in the case of German, Herr und Frau Schmidt. Similarly, if you were a student of Japanese, your textbook might focus on a Sato-san and a Tanaka-san who run into each other in some beautiful temple garden in Kyoto.
If, however, you learn English at school in Japan, you are likely to meet up with the very same Mr. Sato and Ms. Tanaka, this time speaking English while on a shopping spree in the Ginza. Indeed, so many of the characters in Japanese English textbooks (and examinations) are either natives or overseas residents of Japan that it doesn't seem natural. The end result is that young Japanese become thoroughly adept at explaining their own culture to foreigners, while learning next to nothing about everyday life in English-speaking countries.
On the left, some evidence that things weren't always this way. I was granted access to a rare copy of one of the very first high-school English textbooks to be released in post-war Japan. Although published by none other than the Ministry of Education itself on January 8th, 1948, the characters and settings are most certainly not homegrown.