Review of English-Medium Instruction in Japanese Higher Education


This review appeared originally in the LINGUIST List at


English-Medium Instruction in Japanese Higher Education, edited by Annette Bradford and Howard Brown, considers the policy context, curriculum and classroom implementation, challenges and potential impacts of the current government-sponsored drive to offer more English-taught programs in Japanese higher education. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, or MEXT, over a third of Japanese universities now offer courses taught in English (MEXT, 2015). English-Medium Instruction programs are defined in this volume as “courses and programs delivered through English with no consideration to establishing language learning goals” (xviii), thus distinguishing the focus from approaches that aim to incorporate content and language, foremost among them CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) and CBI (Content-based Instruction).

The introduction by Annette Bradford and Howard Brown sets out the current context in the Japanese university sector. Worldwide, the increasing competitiveness of the university sector, combined with the rise of English as the international language of cooperation and competition, has contributed to an enormous global growth in EMI, likened by Macaro to an “unstoppable train” (2015:7). At the same time, Japan’s low birth rate has seen increased domestic competition to fill university places, while government projects have created incentives for universities to offer EMI courses.

The rest of the book features eighteen chapters divided into six sections. Section 1 gives further social and policy context, while Section 2 considers the planning and development of EMI courses. Section 3 addresses some of the challenges to effective implementation, and Section 4 focuses on the experiences of students and faculty engaged in EMI education in Japan. Section 5 comprises three analyses of specific EMI practices at universities in Japan. Finally, Section 6 brings these strands together in considering future directions for EMI in Japan.

Section 1: English-Medium Instruction in Context

In Chapter 1, the editors provide more detailed background about the growth of EMI in Japan’s higher-education institutions. Arguing that this growth has largely been uncoordinated, they apply the ROADMAPPING framework devised by Dafouz and Smit (2016) to understand its development across six dimensions: Roles of English (RO), Academic Disciplines (AD), (language) Management (M), Agents (A), Practices and Processes (PP), and Internationalization and Globalisation (ING).

The role of English in Japanese higher education continues to be primarily an academic language between students and teachers, and a tool for internationalization. The majority of international students in full degree programs are required to study some courses in Japanese, and there may thus be some resistance among students and teachers to teaching and learning in English. Few explicit statements exist at government or institutional level regarding the role of English, or proficiency requirements for entry, graduation, or instructors (language management). Although EMI is seen as a tool for boosting Japan in the world market while also attracting domestic students looking for a more international education, in reality it has proved difficult to address both aims comprehensively (internationalization and globalization).

The key stakeholders, or agents, in the Japanese higher education context include students, faculty, and administrators, but on the national level the biggest driver of change is the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which has established a number of funding schemes to encourage EMI development. To a lesser extent, change has also been driven by the business community calling for more globally minded graduates, often known as “global jinzai”.

In the classroom, the adoption of EMI has created a challenge to the traditional lecture-based approach to teaching (practices and processes), not least because many faculty members lack confidence in lecturing in English and thus prefer to incorporate more group-work into their classrooms. In terms of academic disciplines, the authors highlight the danger that EMI classes as they are currently organized may fail to develop academic literacies due to poor coordination with language courses, other subjects, or to lecturers teaching courses that fall outside their discipline.

In Chapter 2, Hiroko Hashimoto argues that the Japanese government’s promotion of EMI has been primarily reactive, based on a sense of demographic crisis and the decline of Japan’s ranking on global competitiveness indexes since the 1990s. Calls from business to educate culturally competent “global jinzai” have also spurred the development of EMI in Japan. Despite this sense of crisis, budget constraints have led to MEXT repeatedly supporting the EMI programs of a limited number of universities, and holding them to strict quantitative standards. The author argues that the pressure of these criteria may lead to universities adopting easy fixes such as isolated EMI programs and fixed-term foreign academics, rather than completely overhauling curricula or training and employing tenured academics. She poses the question: shouldn’t truly globally excellent universities be independent of such government control?

In Chapter 3, Bern Mulvey presents increased MEXT control in a somewhat more positive light, arguing that changes made between 2001-2014 allow the Japanese government much greater control over funding, curriculum and hiring decisions. This has enabled them to push much more forcibly for English as a medium of learning rather as a target of line-by-line translation. He notes that foreign advisors hired in the nineteenth century to teach their skills and technology using English or German were replaced by Japanese teachers in a nationalistic backlash, and that the same top institutions were responsible for most of the resistance to government-led reforms in the 1980s. Perhaps, he suggests, the undermined self-governance of such universities will give the government greater opportunity to reform the higher education system in the future.

Section 2: The Implementation of English-Medium Instruction in Japan

In Chapter 4, Hiroyuki Takagi considers the role of EMI in internationalizing curricula in Japan. He focuses on case studies of two universities, one national and the other private, analysing them in terms of their approaches to internationalization (competition-type or cooperation-type) and to curriculum (product- or process-oriented). Broadly speaking, Takagi sees a shift in Japan away from a competitive-product model towards a cooperative-process model that takes greater account of complexity, multiple perspectives and interpretations, rather than transmitting a fixed body of knowledge. He argues that, while this may pose a challenge to existing ways of doing things in Japan, fundamental curriculum reform is required to support new methods of delivery, assessment, and learning support.

Chapter 5 discusses the 2009 Global 30 project, which aimed to increase the number of international students in Japan to 300,000, and the extent to which it has contributed to internationalization within Japan. Beverley Anne Yamamoto and Yukiko Ishimura first consider the (often critical) literature on the subject, which raises such concerns as whether students and instructors are able to cope with academic study in L2, whether they have the cultural competencies needed, and whether the few internationally-competent instructors and students will have an impact on the majority. However, the authors find much to be positive about in their case study of Osaka University, with student numbers increasing both domestically and internationally, and largely positive evaluations from students and MEXT. They conclude that support for students and faculty, and responsiveness to student feedback, are essential elements in creating a successful program.

Section 3: Challenges and Solutions for English-Medium Instruction in Japan

In Chapter 6 Gregory Poole considers ways in which practices in university administration create institutional identities which stand at odds with the aims of English-medium programs. Impediments include inflexible finance rules, student recruitment methods that fail to supply appropriate students for English-medium courses, and a staff recruitment philosophy that does not allow staff to specialise in one department, and prefers Japanese-educated Japanese nationals to those more likely to have transnational experience. Poole concludes that Japanese bureaucratic practices actively impede innovation and the development of effective EMI courses.

Chapter 7 explores the issue of admissions procedures in greater detail, with particular focus on international students. Hiroshi Ota and Kiyomi Horiuchi find that despite the increase in the number of English-medium programs, international student enrollment is still limited by issues such as availability of scholarships, accommodation, the need for a certain level of Japanese proficiency, and the small numbers of places open to overseas students. Nine factors making courses more accessible to international students are examined, including admission based on document screening (not requiring interview in person), possibility of fall entry (domestic programs begin in spring), cost of application fees, and online application. Tellingly, the authors find that the four most accessible institutions are private universities that had established their programs before government projects such as the Global 30.

In Chapter 8, Sarah Louisa Birchley analyses EMI through the lens of marketing. While elite universities in Japan are likely to maintain their position, and thus have less incentive to adapt to the needs of their consumers, there is considerable competition among less prestigious universities. Nonetheless, she finds that few universities have dedicated PR offices, and that web-based promotions aimed at international students tend to take very similar approaches, making it difficult for students to differentiate between programs and institutions.

Section 4: The Student and Faculty Experience

In Chapter 9, Christopher G. Haswell considers the perceptions of EMI students in Japan regarding non-native Englishes, in particular the dialects of other Asian countries. Students from these countries make up over 90% of overseas students in Japan, and it is likely that students who use English in their future jobs will also interact with a substantial number of Asian speakers of English. Nevertheless, the author’s research discovered significant negative perceptions of Asian varieties of English among the student body. Haswell suggests addressing these perceptions more proactively, and encouraging acceptance of various forms of English.

Chapter 10 looks at the international students within English-taught programs who lack familiarity with the Japanese language. Juanita Heigham highlights ways in which these students feel their academic and non-academic needs are not being met. She argues multilingual support staff can be a huge benefit to such students when they arrive in Japan needing accommodation, cell phones and bank accounts. International students also experience significant difficulties socialising with Japanese students, and interacting with administration. Her research participants also raised questions regarding the quality of academic instruction when instructors lack English proficiency.

In Chapter 11, Sae Shimauchi considers the gender imbalance in English-taught courses in Japan. Although more males enroll in four-year undergraduate programs and postgraduate study, women are overrepresented in English courses and other international activities such as study abroad programs. Interviews with male and female students revealed similar practical goals regarding English proficiency, but different understandings of how international awareness developed. While male students seemed more protective of Japanese identity, and tended to put their identity in a counter-position to ‘international’ others, female students emphasised adjustment and becoming ‘international’. The author concludes that this may relate to male students’ expectations that they will become stakeholders in Japanese society, while women may feel excluded from or wish to be free of dominant social expectations.

Chapter 12 provides an insight into the kind of changes in mindset that instructors may experience as a result of teaching EMI courses. Bernard Susser describes how he stopped thinking of himself as a language teacher whose focus was helping students to move towards native speaker norms, and began to see learners as users of the language, whose main concern was effective communication of meaning.

In Chapter 13 Miki Horie explores some of the issues faced by Japanese faculty members who are asked to teach their specialist areas in English, to a diverse student body that may include students who are more linguistically confident than they are. A significant structural issue is the workload that these courses entail, and universities should be prepared to support faculty in course and material development. In terms of psychological barriers, interviews conducted by the author suggested that English is primarily a problem when it comes to classroom management. The research group thus developed a handbook with tips such as accepting the idea that perfect English is not the goal, and that effective course design can compensate for an instructor’s lack of fluency. They advise instructors to be aware of the linguistic and cultural diversity of EMI classrooms, to see the value of student participation and the need for multiple channels to convey meaning.

Section 5: Curriculum Contexts

Chapter 14 considers the factors behind creating a successful EMI program. Bethany Mueller Iyobe and Jia Li describe a three-stage curriculum that moves from EAP programs, through a bridge stage taught by pairs of language and content teachers, to EMI content courses offered to third and fourth year students. They consider collaboration between teachers to be essential in offering specialist subjects with appropriate language scaffolding, and argue that it also acts as a needs analysis for language teachers designing the initial EAP courses. Students performed better overall the more EMI classes they took, but many students felt the workload of EMI classes to be too high. Potential solutions to this would include making EMI classes compulsory, greater collaboration between instructors and more effective content integration across the curriculum.

In Chapter 15, Jim McKinley considers the approaches of three professors towards EMI classes. In the English Studies department, assignments were chosen carefully and students were given many opportunities to work in groups. In the Liberal Arts classroom, lessons were more lecture-driven, and language support given only outside the classroom. The professor of Green Science, a non-native speaker, utilized a ‘sink-or-swim’ approach. In all cases, a shift towards a global English and away from a native speaker norm was observed. The multicultural interactions observed in the Faculty of Liberal Arts could be one way to encourage greater integration of international and domestic students, providing adequate language support is available.

Chapter 16 discusses the experience of setting up English Taught Programs in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. Nilson Kunioshi and Harushige Nakakoji describe the International Program in Science and Engineering, which runs parallel to the regular program, but with a September start date to match the academic calendar in other countries. As the number of participants have grown there has been growing pressure on facilities, in particular laboratories. There have also been language-related issues, which the university has aimed to improve by developing an online corpus database of academic lectures called OnCAL.

Section 6: Future Directions for English-Medium Instruction

In Chapter 17, Akira Kuwamura sums up the challenges and possibilities in the future for EMI in Japan. Questions have been raised as to whether students can learn content satisfactorily in English, and whether students and faculty are ready to undertake such courses of study. Students may lose confidence in their abilities, it is argued, while faculty may lose authority when unable to communicate effectively in their L2. However, the writer argues that many of these challenges are also possibilities. EMI provides a natural opportunity for discussion and negotiation of meaning that L1 classes may tend to lack, and allow students to engage with research directly rather than in translation. Communication with students from diverse backgrounds may also better prepare students for international careers. To achieve these benefits, however, it will be essential to provide support and training programs for faculty and students, and to create a sustainable environment in which tenured, full-time faculty from Japan and overseas can collaborate effectively.

In the final chapter, the volume editors turn to the example of the implementation of IT in Japanese higher education in the 1990s, arguing that there are a number of instructive parallels between this change and the current implementation of EMI. The first parallel is that change in both instances was provoked by a sense of crisis and declining Japanese competitiveness, with EMI being seen as a way to both attract more international students and internationalise domestic students. In both cases, government funding to support the transition has fallen mostly to elite universities, leaving smaller institutions to adopt later and on a smaller, less coordinated scale. Another parallel is that support structures are frequently inadequate, and existing university support structures may not see the value of EMI for the institution. In both cases, numerical targets have tended to emphasize implementation rather than planning, coordination and training.

A final, critically important parallel is the sense that in both cases, forces for change appeared to be swimming against the tide. The idea of an internationally-minded young generation runs counter to a belief in national identity, and changes to classroom or institutional practice may meet opposition from entrenched bureaucratic interests, or educational tradition. Coming back to the example of IT, there are many who question whether it was ever truly integrated into institutions, or just layered on to existing structures. Faced with numerous challenges, universities chose the easier path of short-term planning and reactive problem solving. EMI may fall into these same traps, although there is still time for change.


English-Medium Instruction in Japanese Higher Education offers a range of viewpoints on EMI in Japan, both optimistic and pessimistic, but succeeds in bringing these together in the final chapters to give a clear picture of the challenges and possibilities in EMI’s future. As a teacher in Japanese higher education who has designed and taught several EMI courses, some information was familiar to me, but the research presented here helped to clarify or challenge many of my assumptions. In particular, understanding Japanese government programs enabled me to better understand the kinds of numerical targets introduced by many universities, even where their relevance to students and classrooms is not clearly articulated.

The book’s most obvious limitation is in its title: this is a book about content instruction delivered in English, in the particular national context of contemporary Japan. As such, it is likely to be of the greatest interest to stakeholders in Japanese higher education, but it also offers insights for those seeking to implement EMI programs in other similar contexts – those where English is not a lingua franca – outside Japan. It also offers an excellent example of how to identify and conduct research on the perceptions of key stakeholders.


Dafouz, E. and Smit, U. (2016) Towards a dynamic conceptual framework for English-medium education in multilingual university settings. Applied Linguistics 37 (3), 397-415. DOI: 10.1093/applin/amu034

Macaro, E. (2015) English Medium Instruction: Time to start asking some difficult questions. Modern English Teacher 24 (2), 4-7.

MEXT (2015). Heisei 25 nendo no daigaku ni okeru kyouiku naiyoutou no kaikaku joukyou ni tsuite [About the state of affairs regarding university reforms to education in 2013]. Retrieved from

Caroline Hutchinson is a lecturer in International Liberal Arts at Juntendo University, at Nihon University College of Economics, Japan, and has worked in Japanese higher education since 2012. She has also taught in Vietnam, Hungary and the UK, where she is originally from. She has designed and taught several English-Medium courses relating to Japanese Studies. Other research interests include autonomy, motivation, and the psychology of language learning.




Job description:

Harness energy
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From Flickr cc by Kevin Dooley

Archive: On language learning


A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.

Archive: The causes and effects of intelligence


I like learning. And I like teaching. But until I taught, I never thought about what it meant to learn, and how differently we do it.

We learn differently as people, and we learn differently based on how we’ve always learned. I’ve sat through explanations that were crystal clear in the eye of the explainer, but which made me feel like such a fool. I’ve probably given a fair few too. Hazards of the profession.

But the cultural thing, that gave me a fresh surprise of late. I don’t think I’d ever really questioned the principle that you never put someone on the spot unless they are capable of doing the task, unless they know the right answer, could be a model to others. But then I read this.

A Japanese classroom

The scene of Kousuke’s triumph (possibly) – by Bobo12345 via Wikimedia Commons

The writer describes an American researcher’s shock, in a Japanese maths classroom of the late ’70s, at seeing the only kid who couldn’t get his 3D cubes straight called to the board, his mounting anxiety as the boy continued to fail, his certainty that any minute, the boy would dissolve into tears. And his astonishment when, at the end of the period, the boy got it right, concentration dissolving into a smile as the class dissolved into applause. Kousuke had got it!

For all my alleged cultural smarts, this was something I had completely failed to pick up on. But once I thought on it, I realised that this is something that I’ve encountered in Japan, just without recognizing it. And every time I’m called on to do it, I just freeze. You see, sometimes in my drumming group, I’m asked to do something, badly, in front of everyone. And every time, I, like Stigler in the article, feel so nervous I can’t possibly concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. My palms sweat, it’s hard to grip the drumsticks… it feels like an ordeal, and I’m glad when it’s over.

Like Stigler, I feel a little bit like I’m being bullied. Like I’ve been singled out for the dunce’s cap. And I feel this despite knowing that these are not people who would do that. They’re not sadistic. They’re just trying to help me learn.

When I was growing up in the UK, it was inevitably the brightest who were called up to the board. And while it should feel like praise, it felt no less awkward than Stigler did sitting in the back of the classroom perspiring on Kousuke’s behalf. Why could that be?

The answer may lie in another idea in the article, this time courtesy of Professor Jin Li. Li has spent a decade recording the conversations of American and Taiwanese parents about their school life, and has come to the conclusion that where parents in America tend to attribute success to smartness, Taiwanese parents speak of practice, persistence and struggle.

I’m ever-wary of grand generalisations, with their tendency to gloss over individual differences and slide neatly into stereotypes. East vs West is a neat catchphrase, and has been exploited too many times by people with nefarious agendas to have any real meaning. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that Japanese classrooms are perfect.

But here’s what I do think it’s important to take from this. If smartness is a cause, is inherent, it’s fixed. You either got it or you don’t. Smartness as the result of effort is something each and every individual can control. Being singled out, in these two situations, then becomes a very different proposition: show us how smart (or not) you are so everyone can hate you and/ or laugh at you vs stick at this and you’ll get better at it. Studies have been done on just these two mindsets, and found no correlation between mindset and school success until students encounter a challenge or setback. And it’s there – the change of school, the move to university, the task you just can’t get your head around, Kousuke’s 3D cubes – where it pays to try harder, try another way, get help, and not to say “I’m just not cut out for this”.

So next time I’m put on the spot, I’ll be channeling Kousuke*, in search of my untapped potential.

* Kousuke’s real name probably isn’t Kousuke. Sorry.

From here on November 29th 2012.

Archive: Death by hobbies


Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.

The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.

Bored souvenir seller

No no, go on… (by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.

If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.

I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.

But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally. 

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: Enthusiasm makes my day

Student sleeping on desk

Teach. Inspire.

Asked to reflect on his school days, one student ushered in a new course together by writing “I wasn’t a good student in school because I am my personality are very lazy and I miss school for 6 months. I didn’t have any favourite subject because I didn’t like study and or also teacher because I don’t didn’t like school”.

Nice to feel needed, is it not?

From here on October 14th 2010.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.