With the 2020 Olympics only four years away, the big question is: Will Tokyo be ready? Considering Japan’s sterling reputation for punctuality—its famed bullet trains average less than a minute delay per train, after all—few people worry about whether games preparations will proceed on schedule, but some big question marks still linger, especially regarding language. With this in mind, Rakuten Research surveyed 1,000 of their 2.3 million monitors on their attitudes towards English, with some surprising results.

Women more likely to use their English in travel and social interaction

The survey revealed some vast discrepancies between men and women in Japan regarding attitudes to English. When respondents who felt that they were good at English were asked how they put their English skills to use, the most common responses were “travel abroad (44.8%),” followed by “sing English songs (29.9%)” and “regularly interact with foreign people (27.6%).” But hidden in those averages were some significant gender gaps, with an 18.8-point difference in opinion on travel abroad (women: 55.0%; men: 36.2%), and interacting with foreigners showing an even greater gap at 32.2 points (women: 45.0%; men 12.8%) – suggesting that when it comes to interacting with people of other nationalities, Japanese women are far more comfortable than their male counterparts.

And the differences don’t end there either. Despite agreeing that other than English, Chinese was the language respondents most wanted to learn, women were next most interested in learning French and Korean, while men expressed interest in Spanish and German – perhaps indicating that a recent boom in Korean television drama among Japanese women may still be impacting their language preferences, and that Japanese men’s interest in soccer is impacting theirs.

30% of respondents don’t have the opportunity to communicate in English

Respondents were also asked whether they considered learning English to be important or not. Only 28.7% felt it was important, while 36.7% deemed it unimportant. Of those who said it was unimportant, the most common reason seemed to be indifference (“no particular reason” – 37.9%). Other common responses included “because I have no plans to travel abroad” and “because I have no opportunity to communicate with foreign people” (each at 30.5%), followed by “because it is not necessary in Japan (28.6%)” and “because I have no plans to go abroad for business trips or transfers (26.7%).” It would seem that despite being one of the world’s largest economies, in some ways Japan remains very isolated.

Sportspeople such as Ichiro and Kei Nishikori provide inspiration

When asked which Japanese people currently or previously active on the global stage they most respected, athletes came out on top, with the respondents choosing baseball player Ichiro Suzuki and tennis player Kei Nishikori for the top two places. Interestingly, in third place was the late diplomat Chiune Sugihara, known for his work in helping Jewish refugees from Europe escape to Japan.

The secret to success might be found in karaoke boxes

The study established that 43.9% of people dislike studying English, more than double the percentage of those who enjoy it. But it seems those who do like it may have found the secret to enjoying studying in one of Japan’s most popular pastimes – karaoke! Well, singing at least. Other than studying by traditional educational materials, studying by listening to English songs was one of the most popular methods, at 24.4%.

So, for those people who feel language study is not up their alley, perhaps heading to the nearest karaoke box to “study” is the best bet.


See here for a more in depth analysis of the results.