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Reviewed by:
  • International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk by Robert W. Aspinall
  • Peter Cave (bio)
International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk. By Robert W. Aspinall. Global Oriental, Leiden, 2013. xiv, 207 pages. $120.00.

Why can’t the Japanese learn to speak (English)? Why is their engagement with international society so badly hampered by linguistic shortcomings and inadequate intercultural competence? Why have the efforts to remedy this situation been so consistently feeble? And why do so few people in Japan seem really to care? These questions may have floated through the minds of many readers of this journal. Other readers may have asked them with frustration, as a result of practical struggles to teach a foreign language in Japan. Robert Aspinall’s tight and wide-ranging study will deepen their understanding of the issues and provide a valuable foundation for further research.

Given the significance of this subject, and the large number of foreign researchers with first-hand experience of its practical manifestations, it is surprising that it has attracted relatively little scholarly attention, at least in English. (Perhaps others have been put off for the same reasons as this reviewer—possessed by a sense that the whole topic is too deeply depressing.) One of the merits of this book is that it gathers together the fruits of many other smaller studies to present an unusually comprehensive overview of the current state of affairs. It will certainly be an essential reference and point of departure for future research on the topic.

The focus of the study is foreign-language education and study-abroad programs. After an introduction and a chapter that sets the theoretical framework, the remaining chapters deal with the history of international education policy from the 1850s to the 1960s; English-language education policymaking; the implementation of language education policies, one chapter each on teachers and learners; the role of the private sector; and policies and practices in study abroad.

The first chapter deals with theoretical considerations, focusing on theories of policymaking in Japan, globalization, individualization, and risk. As throughout the book, Aspinall writes with admirable lucidity in outlining these theories. However, the chapter would have been improved by a discussion of institutional theory. It becomes evident as the book proceeds that institutionalization and path dependence are major explanations for the lack of change in foreign-language education, and the theoretical contribution of the book would have been made clearer and stronger if these theories had been elaborated at the start. In fact, the immobilism and ineffectiveness [End Page 545] of international education policy in Japan seem to demonstrate the limits to the power of globalization to bring about change, and this could have been explored more deeply.

The second chapter deals with the history of international education policy from the 1850s to the 1960s. The massively constraining hand of history becomes very clear in this chapter. Aspinall points out two particular problems. First, the adoption of the U.S. junior high model resulted in a curriculum with hours for foreign-language teaching that might have been adequate to allow U.S. students to learn another Indo-European language but was only about half the time needed for speakers of Japanese to learn English. Second, the need to train large numbers of English teachers with little access to the oral language after 1945 resulted in a bias toward reading in the early postwar decades. The limited abilities of teachers would have a particularly enduring influence, given the length of teachers’ careers and the increasing influence of teachers as they aged (due to seniority norms).

As Aspinall relates, there was a serious, U.S.-funded effort to make English-teaching methods more communicative in the 1950s and 1960s, involving the establishment of the high-level English Language Exploratory Committee (ELEC) stuffed with the Japanese elite, the publication of junior high textbooks, and a series of summer teacher-training programs. This well-organized, well-funded, and well-supported initiative was nonetheless a dismal failure: its textbooks were considered “‘too revolutionary’ and ‘too progressive’ for most teachers to handle” (p. 58) and captured a mere one per cent of...


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