URI Yokomori, 12, is a typical Tokyo pre-teen. He likes hanging out with his friends at school. He enjoys cracking jokes with them. He argues fiercely while playing in the breaks. One thing, however, sets him apart. Unlike the majority of children in a seriously English-deficient Japan, Yokomori is fast gaining fluency in English. What’s more, he is learning the language from Indian teachers at a CBSE curriculum school in Tokyo.
“When I joined this school two-and-a half years ago, my English was horrible,” said Yokomori, speaking in carefully constructed sentences. “Now I am improving, I feel I can catch up,” he said. His parents are happy that he has finally started getting ‘A’ grades in class, he said.
Yokomori studies at the Global Indian International School (GIIS) in Tokyo’s Edogawa ward, where as many as 35 percent of the students are Japanese. The school is part of a chain that operates CBSE curriculum schools in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and several other Asian cities.
Until the Japanese started knocking on its doors a few years ago, GIIS Tokyo was catering to Indian expatriates. But with India’s math and computer skills extolled in Japanese newspapers, the demand for Indian school education is rising. As Japanese look to a system they see as perfected in what they view as an ascendant India, an emerging economic superpower, the demand has picked up.
If math and computer science initially drew students to the 375-student school, it is now a craze to learn English. “We have been flooded with inquiries from Japanese parents who want their children to pick up the language,” said Rajeshwary Sambathrajan, principal of GIIS Tokyo. “They tell me that a lot of foreigners are expected to come to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics and they want their children to be fluent in English before the Games.”
Its tall skyscrapers, its neon street signs and its bullet trains give Tokyo an ultra-modern feel but when it comes to English, Tokyo is no New York or London.
English-speakers are hard to find at the train stations and the neighbourhood supermarkets and the few who do speak the language, labour over it. Signs such as “Today is under construction” at building sites have given rise to a language trend that foreigners refer to as “Engrish”. As the Olympics loom, the lack of fluency has become a collective concern of the government and the citizens. That sense of urgency is manifesting in the new clamour for the half dozen Indian schools in Japan. In fact, GIIS Tokyo will launch a new campus in Tokyo in the coming academic year.
“My parents wanted me to study English and this is the best school they could find,” said Shiori Ogino, 13, a seventh grader at the GIIS Tokyo whose father owns and rents apartments. Her mother is a homemaker. “Many Japanese feel English can help them better at communication and presentation,” she said.
Japanese parents fret that their children’s English deficiency could set them back when it comes to a career, agreed Sambathrajan, the principal.
It is not easy for the Japanese to compete against Indian children, however. “Their challenge is with English,” said Vrinda Prasad who has taught math and physics at the school for five years. “Those kids who join the school when they are very young find it a lot easier.” For local children, she supplements the teaching with additional lessons and worksheets.
Seventh grader Shojin Harada, 14, said he understood nothing in class when he transferred to GIIS from a Japanese school three years ago. He was forced to step down a grade. “After a year, I started asking questions to the teacher and it became easier,” he said. Now he understands the lessons and does better in his tests.
“My mother is so happy about my English,” said Harada, who wants to study overseas. His parents supplement his studies with kanji (the Japanese language script that uses Chinese characters) and Japanese history lessons at home.
There is another difference however, a cultural one, between Indians and Japanese that manifests itself at the school. At the very core of the Indian education system are the pushy parents who drive their children to study hard. In contrast, Japanese parents are laid back and do not dictate study times at home.
“My parents do not force me to study for five hours every day,” said Noah Miyazaki, 14, a ninth grader at GIIS Tokyo, but the peer pressure is obviously getting to him. “Now I feel I should study, I started studying and am beginning to like it.” He, however, disapproves of parents who dictate their children’s career choices. “It should be the student’s choice,” said Miyazaki
who wants to either study engineering or be a professional football player.