Should Japanese be taught in British schools?

Japanese language is taught at more than 280 schools across the country (both primary and secondary) and has become an increasingly popular option among British school children. Official data for 2001 to 2011 shows that, although the number of entrants for GCSEs in Modern Foreign Languages decreased, the number of those sitting for GCSE Japanese actually increased over the same period.

Despite the growing demand for Japanese at GCSE level, the relevance of teaching the language at British schools has come under question with the decision not to include Japanese in the list of Key Stage 2 (7 to 11-year-olds) language choices recently introduced by the British government for language learning in primary schools.

The following comments give some interesting and different perspectives on the debate on the relevance of Japanese in British schools today.

Helen Gilhooly
Senior Director and Derbyshire Schools Japanese Co-ordinator

As a longstanding teacher of Japanese I don’t think I can overstate the huge impact that learning Japanese has had on the lives of my pupils (mainly from a monocultural background) nor how successfully it has engaged and enthused them. As well as being an important business language, I consider Japanese to be a language which has immediacy and relevance to British students academically, vocationally and socially.

I teach at a specialist language college which was one of the first schools in Derbyshire to teach Japanese in response to the building of the Toyota factory and the development of a Japanese community. We teach Japanese from primary to A level and many of our students have gone on to study Japanese at university or to secure a job directly or indirectly because of their knowledge of Japanese. 

The enrichment opportunities have also been wide-ranging, including a very successful annual Japanese exchange with Toyota City. The students at my school have relatively few opportunities to travel and so the positive effect on their global understanding and on widening their horizons has been significant. Most importantly, it is a fascinating culture and language to learn, it is relatively easy to pronounce and children are captivated by Japan.  It offers so much to the whole school curriculum, too, in terms of art, food, geography, history, sport, music, literacy, technology. . . .. the list is endless.


Sachiko Yamaguchi
Japanese Teacher, King Edward VII School, Sheffield

In my view, there is a case for any language to be taught in school, as it is really eye-opening to learn languages and cultures other than your own. I have found that the students who are good at the compulsory European languages are not necessarily good at Japanese - everyone gets a fresh start and has an equal opportunity to shine.

The Japanese economy may not be as strong as before but it is still one of the strongest, and there are plenty of job opportunities related to Japan. Particularly younger learners are attracted by manga, anime, games, and martial arts, and those provide good motivation to carry on learning.

Our school offers Japanese from Y8 to Y13 as an extracurricular subject including GCSE and A Levels, which means most of the lessons are during lunch-time, after school and on Saturdays. Generally the students react very positively. They are fascinated by the differences in the language itself or the culture, and often learn more about their own culture and grammar through learning Japanese.


Jason James
Director General, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation

Children benefit in various ways from learning foreign languages at school. I will mention three of the most important.

(i) Most people think using language. By learning different languages, with their different grammars and nuances of vocabulary, children discover the possibility of thinking in completely new ways.

(ii) Language is one of the most effective keys to a different culture, opening children’s minds to the possibilities of other, equally valid, ways of living and ordering society.

(iii) Foreign languages may be of practical value for children in their future careers. On all three fronts Japanese has more to offer than almost any other foreign language. Linguistically, Japanese is a long way from English, and the unusual way in which the written characters interact with the spoken language is particularly thought-provoking. Japanese culture is very different from our own, but offers exceptional sophistication and aesthetic appeal. And on the final practical point, Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, and one of the largest inward investors in the UK. 

I studied Japanese at university and it has led me to a lifetime of both career satisfaction and fascination with the culture.

Dr Rachel Osborne
Head of Science, St Columba’s College, St Albans

We offer Japanese as a G&T option (gifted and talented), and those motivated students that attend the lessons do gain a lot. However, along with the plethora of other minority subjects, such as astronomy and computer programming, keeping the motivation is difficult. Students are bombarded with options, and those keen to learn will flit from one subject to another. Coupled with the pressures of gaining good exam results from their core subjects and time-hungry sports commitments, minority subjects stand little chance of being pursued after an initial rush of enthusiasm. There are huge time constraints on an already full timetable, with the core subjects struggling for adequate time. When subjects like physical education are already massively squeezed, how would Japanese fit?

Another thing that schools must think about is: As an option, does Japanese have enough students to make it viable? German is already on the way out for this reason. Students don't understand the need to learn languages as tv/Internet is in English, and the US dominates. For this reason, Europeans are not seen as 'cool', and for most, Asia barely registers on their radar - it is too far and distant. Even Mandarin does not excite them despite the numbers that speak it round the world. They live in quite a sheltered environment and thinking forward about benefits and consequences of study doesn't really kick in until post-18. Perhaps Japanese as an adult course rather than in schools might be more successful?


Hisaka Bunting
Teacher of Japanese, Newstead Wood School, Orpington

If I ask my students why they have chosen Japanese, they respond “It is because I want to.” Why not? There may be an underlying interest such as manga, anime, J-pop, or more traditional culture, such as origami or judo, but ultimately when it comes to learning, it is important that you want to learn.

Learning Japanese expands students’ horizons through its language and rich culture. I believe learning completely different scripts and grammar makes them think from a different angle, challenging their intellectual curiosity. It also helps them to understand other cultures and people.

There are currently more than 20 modern foreign languages offered at GCSE level from Arabic to Welsh. We live in an increasingly diverse society and for this reason I think it is important that the number of foreign languages being taught is not limited. Among the languages currently offered, Japanese keeps a unique position in that is not just a community language, although it is important that these are maintained. Nelson Mandela once said,   “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Kevin McKellar
Headteacher, Hendon School, London

Japanese is the most successful subject at Hendon School and has enjoyed the best results for the last 10 years. The boys love learning Japanese. They love the mathematical element to it, the logical thinking, and the fact that it is quite creative with the pictures, etc. Our students are also obsessed by the Japanese culture. They love manga and they love the fact that Japan is such a technologically advanced society. Our students visit Japan twice a year and we have one of the best student exchange programmes in Britain because of this. When our students visit Japan, they come back completely transformed, with a greater attitude towards learning and achievement. I regularly describe our school as ‘Japantastic’. It is an incredibly popular subject because of the high-quality teaching and the fact that our students gain so much from learning about the Japanese culture and tradition.


Anchal Prasher
Mother of two boys (aged 4 and 1), London
I think just having exposure to different languages both spoken and written can only benefit children of any age. Japanese culture and food is so different that so much more can be learnt whilst learning the language. I think if my 4-year-old can start with singing songs and looking at the very different notation it will expand his mind for other languages and give him options in the future. He loves watching TV programmes on YouTube in many different languages and loves making up words. Japanese should be taught in British schools. Learning one Asian language surely opens your mind to being able to learn others.