What the 2003 MEXT Action Plan proposes to teachers of English

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Yoji Tanabe, President, Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET)




The Road to the 2003 Action Plan


  • July: The Monbusho Courses of Study for primary and secondary education are revised; yutori, or "being free of pressure/allowing room to grow," is introduced.


  • December 22: The Report of the National Commission on Education Reform.


  • January: 130th anniversary of the Foundation of the Ministry of Education; the "Working Group for the Promotion of English Teaching Method Improvement" (The 2001 Working Group) report is released.
  • January 6: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is founded.
  • January 25: The MEXT announces the Seven Priority Strategies, or the Rainbow Plan for the 21st century.


  • January 18: The MEXT announces that the Course of Study represents the lowest limit (until now it was believed the Course of Study indicated the highest limit, and all the textbook writers followed this guideline).
  • June 25: Cabinet resolution is issued for the "Basic Policies for Economic and Fiscal Management and Structural Reform 2002" (the Basic Policies); "Developing a Strategic Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'" (the 2002 Strategic Plan) is included in the "Basic Policies" as part of "Human Power/Resources Strategy."
  • July 12: "Developing a Strategic Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'—Plan to improve English and Japanese Abilities" (the 2002 Strategic Plan) is officially publicized.
  • August: MEXT Minister Atsuko Toyama announces the "Human Resources Strategy Vision" (the 2002 Vision).


  • March 31: "The National Action Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'" (the 2003 Action Plan).
  • July 28: The Central Council for Education officially recognizes the fact that the Course of Study represents the lowest limit.
  • December 26: Part of the Course of Study for primary/secondary education to be revised; the concept of yutori is reconfirmed.

The 2003 Action Plan: Specificity

On the last day of the fiscal year 2002 (March 31, 2003), the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) officially announced an action plan entitled "Regarding the Establishment of an Action Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'" (the 2003 Action Plan). The original document is written in Japanese, and its English version is available as a 7,000-word-long paper at the MEXT homepage (Ministry, 2003b). This plan was preceded by a plan entitled "Developing a Strategic Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese With English Abilities'—A Plan to Improve English and Japanese Abilities" (the 2002 Strategic Plan), dated July 12, 2002 (Ministry, 2002). The 2003 Action Plan, like the 2002 Strategic Plan, maintains only two objectives in spite of its large quantity: in short, (1) to have Japanese acquire English abilities, and (2) to have them develop their ability to express themselves in their first language, Japanese. To attain these objectives, the plan also proposed to establish a system for cultivating those abilities specifically in five years. All language teachers found it quite unique that an action plan which promotes English language teaching also includes promotion of the Japanese language education.

All plans, official or unofficial, have merits and demerits. So does the 2003 Action Plan. One of the merits can be said to be its specificity in terms of financial basis and its descriptions for implementation. The plan is filled with specific numerals, specific dates, and specific places. Those concerned hardly believed such specificity, since they were used to seeing plans with few specifications. Some were amazed, and others perplexed. Some welcomed its meticulousness, and others got angry at it.

Specificity brought about demerits as well. First of all, quite a few teachers tended to feel like rejecting the ideas expressed in the plan, because they felt the description was too specific. Take teachers' English skills, for instance. According to the announcement, all English teachers are expected to have a TOEFL score of 550 or over. This specification apparently bothers quite a few teachers. This type of specific description might turn out to be a demerit, because it could cause individuals' unnecessary uneasiness leading them to lose confidence in education. This might produce an adverse effect on education in general.

Actually, the 2002 Strategic Plan came out as part of the "Basic Policies for Economic and Fiscal Management and Structural Reform 2002" (the 2002 Basic Policies). The 2002 Basic Policies included a provision stating that the Ministry of Education should settle on an action plan for improving English education during the fiscal year 2002 as part of a strategy to enhance human potential. And for the 2002 Basic Policies, a Cabinet resolution was made on June 25, 2002. This means that the 2002 Strategic Plan was budgeted. The total budget came out about four times as much as that of previous fiscal years, 11 hundred million yen (approximately 10 million dollars) even after all kinds of governmental budgetary cutbacks. That was the first time that educational reform guidelines were successfully budgeted. This financial feasibility is the first and most important specificity.

In August 2002, MEXT Minister Atsuko Toyama announced the "Human Resources Strategy: Cultivating the Spirit of Japanese People to Carve out a New Era—From Uniformity to Independence and Creativity" (the 2002 Vision), a basic vision for human resources development from compulsory education, to advanced education and lifelong learning (Ministry, 2003a). The 2002 Vision included a "Human Resources Strategy," and it mapped out six main sub-strategies:

  1. Develop "Academic Ability"—Educational standards of the nation as a foundation for competitiveness;
  2. Cultivate "Richness in Mind"—Ethics, public awareness and warm-heartedness;
  3. Provide Excitement and Fulfillment;
  4. Nurture Top-level Brains and Diverse Talents—Human resources that will lead the world;
  5. Implement University Reforms That Will Lead the Century of Knowledge—To become distinctive universities in a competitive environment;
  6. Develop Japanese Who Will Live in a New Era.

The 2002 Strategic Plan, which contains the same principles of the 2003 Action Plan, was included in item 6 with the statement: Cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities." English is seriously considered to be one of the essential tools for human resources in the new era for the new generation. This idea was finally crystallized into the new action plan, that is, the 2003 Action Plan.

Some Specific Descriptions Extracted: Implementation with Future Research

Some headings and descriptions are extracted from the 2003 Action Plan below. The Action Plan contains two major parts, designated by I and II, and Part II consists of seven sections such as follows (Ministry, 2003b):

I. Goals to Cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities"

II. Action to Improve English Education

  1. Improvement of English classes
  2. Improvement of the teaching ability of English teachers and upgrading of the teaching system
  3. Improvement of motivation to learn English
  4. Improvement in the evaluation system for selecting school and university applicants
  5. Support for English conversation activities in elementary schools
  6. Improvement of Japanese language abilities
  7. Promotion of practical research

The following are some descriptive examples of the specifications revealed in the 2003 Action Plan.

I. Goals to Cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities"

  • English-language abilities for junior high school graduates should be at the third level of the Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP) on average.
  • English-language abilities for senior high school graduates should be at the second level or the pre-second level of the STEP on average.
  • Each university should establish attainment targets from the viewpoint of fostering personnel who can use English in their work.

II. Action to Improve English Education

1. Improvement of English classes

  • Promotion of criterion-based evaluation (so-called "absolute evaluation") The establishment of criterion-based evaluation will be further promoted through means such as "Reference Materials for Creating Evaluation Standards and Improving Evaluating Methods" for the junior high school level, instruction manuals, and the progress of deliberations concerning evaluation in foreign language education at the senior high school level.
  • Promotion of the Super English Language High School Program. By 2005, a total of 100 Super English Language High Schools to be designated. (16 schools in 2002, and 50 schools in 2003)
  • Innovative education by making unified secondary schools.

2. Improvement of the teaching ability of English teachers and upgrading of the teaching system

  • Almost all English teachers will acquire English skills (STEP pre-first level, TOEFL 550, TOEIC 730 or over) and the teaching ability to be able to conduct classes to cultivate communication abilities through the repetition of activities making using of English.
  • A native speaker of English will attend English classes at junior and senior high schools more than once a week.
  • People living in the local community proficient in English will be positively utilized.
  • Promotion of intensive training in a five-year plan will be undertaken. All English teachers can undertake training in the five years from 2003 through 2007.
  • The scheduled number of teachers for overseas training in 2003: 12-month duration = 15, 6-month duration = 85, 2-month dispatch (new) = 200.
  • Promotion of the hiring of ALTs with advanced abilities as full-time teachers. From 2003, by making an additional quota to the fixed number of teachers at junior high schools, the aim is to appoint 300 people as full-time junior high school teachers over the next three years with the future goal of appointing a further 1,000 junior and senior high school teachers.

3. Improvement of motivation to learn English

  • 10,000 high school students will study abroad every year.
  • Opportunities to use English outside the class will be enhanced.
  • International exchange will be further developed through such means as communicating with the world using English.

4. Improvement in the evaluation system for selecting school and university applicants

  • Introduction of a listening test in the University Center Examination (targeted for implementation from 2006).
  • Promotion of the use of results of external proficiency examinations in the entrance examinations of universities and high schools.
  • Consideration will be given to the content and levels of various external proficiency examinations and the actual conditions of the applicants regarding the selection of students at universities and high schools. Based on the results of research relating to English education mentioned in section 7 of the 2003 Action Plan, the further use of STEP, TOEFL, TOEIC, University of Cambridge ESOL examinations, and other measures will be promoted through various meetings and conferences.

5. Support for English conversation activities in elementary schools

  • At elementary schools where English conversation activities take place in the Period for Integrated Study, approximately 1/3 of these sessions will be guided by personnel such as foreign teachers, those who are proficient in English and junior high school English teachers.
  • Publication of a handbook to promote activities for English conversation at elementary schools to improve teaching methods, to implement a status report on the situation of activities for English conversation, and to promote the system of pilot schools for research purposes.
  • Enhancement of training for teachers in charge of English conversation activities: English conversation activities will be implemented on an intensive basis. The scheduled number of teachers taking part in this training in 2003 is 600.
  • Promotion of the placement of ALTs with excellent experience.
  • From the viewpoint of promoting links between elementary schools and junior high schools, as well as supporting English conversation activities at elementary schools, the use of junior and senior high school teachers for English conversation activities at elementary schools will be promoted.

6. Improvement of Japanese language abilities

  • In order to cultivate communication abilities in English, the ability to express appropriately and understand accurately the Japanese language, which is the basis of all intellectual activities, will be fostered.
  • Realization of the aims of the new Courses of Study.
  • Implementation of model programs to improve Japanese language studies.
  • Review of the "Japanese Language Abilities Required for the Future Age."
  • Promotion of reading activities for children.
  • Raising of awareness of language.
  • Implementation of training to improve the teaching of the Japanese language.

7. Promotion of practical research

  • Practical research on the following will be comprehensively implemented (a report was scheduled to be issued in the autumn of 2003 including initial conclusions):
  1. Levels of English ability required at the junior and senior high school levels
  2. English education at junior and senior high schools and teacher training programs
  3. The target goals for the English ability required for English teachers
  4. English education at universities
  5. Approaches to English education in other countries.

How and Why the Action Plan Came Out: Yutori Education

This unusual Action Plan came about because the MEXT seriously wanted Japanese, all teachers and students in particular, to act for the improvement of English language education for the future of Japan. It is indeed noteworthy that the Ministry made such essential and specific measures for English education.

The 2003 Action Plan finally showed us comprehensive targets and goals for the language education of Japanese learners. In retrospect, it was in 1971 when the Central Council for Education issued the epoch-making report, i.e., the Yonroku Toshin Report, where the first comprehensive review of the Japanese educational system was made since the end of World War II (see Tanabe, 2003). It was the first exhaustive review and prospect of education in general since 1947. Since then the MEXT has brought up the inefficiency of English language teaching, and kept issuing instructions to schools and tried to maintain a high quality of education, above all, in English language education with the help of recommendations made by the Central Council for Education. Unfortunately, however, they had until now failed to get fruitful results.

To make matters more controversial, a new educational trend came in 1977 with the revision of the MEXT Course of Study. It was the concept of yutori, or "latitude," being free of pressure. The concept really meant the idea of giving children more room to grow in the process of education, and emphasized the importance of humanity and individuality so that students could be free from unreasonable study pressure. At that time, Japanese were notorious throughout the world for their excessive diligence, and were censured as being workaholics. The Japanese government must have thought that Japanese needed more time to spend for themselves as individuals.

The concept of yutori actually meant the release from the post-war educational egalitarianism encouraged by the American educators. It was a direct result of the 1971 Central Council for Education Report. It also caused a reduction of class hours and curriculum content as practical measures. Furthermore, the Course of Study at that time indicated the ceiling, or the highest limit of studying materials, as far as public schools were concerned, and all curricula were strictly planned within that content limit. It has been a quarter of a century since the concept of yutori was introduced and the general public as well as educational professionals have finally started expressing their sharp criticisms at the governmental instructions that might have led the nation to incurable laziness.

We were all surprised when, in January of last year, the Course of Study suddenly overnight came to represent the lowest limit for expected educational goals. On July 28, 2003, The Central Council for Education officially recognized this interpretation of the standard of the Course of Study, i.e., as the lowest limit of what students are expected to learn, and students are recognized as learning more than what the Course of Study requires. This was in a sense foreseeable, however, since the Ministry of Education had been preparing for the introduction of new plans so that our education in general could be boosted more strongly and effectively than before. To commemorate the Ministry of Education's 130th anniversary of its founding, in 2001, the Ministry seemed, even before 2000, to be planning some excellent and feasible measures to promote education reforms. As soon as the new Ministry of Education was inaugurated in January 2001, it issued an official plan to recover the power of education. It included the Seven Priority Strategies, or the Rainbow Plan, for the 21st century, and was realized in the Human Power/Resources Vision in 2002.

The 2003 Action Plan and the Student: The Prospects

The 2003 Action Plan is one of the most essential and substantial announcements made by the MEXT in the last thirty years. It includes both recommendations and instructions to be carried out by the nation as a whole to improve the quality of language education. It undoubtedly provides Japanese with opportunities to grow. In fact, it makes it possible for Japanese to enjoy the real spirit of yutori, the concept of which was introduced in the 1974 Course of Study. Yutori is truly vital and meaningful for Japanese aesthetics, and it should not be misinterpreted just as "being free of pressure."

English, as well as education in general, is now widely popularized throughout Japan. The Japan Almanac 2004 says as follows:

The percentage of students who went on to senior high school is approximately 95% for both male and female students. The percentage of students continuing on to junior colleges has decreased with the recent trend of female students continuing on to four-year universities. The percentages of students continuing on to universities and graduate schools are both increasing. (Asahi Shimbun, 2003)

The MEXT never overlooked this fact, and eagerly proposed the teaching of English as a means of practical and worldwide communication for the nation. English is not a mere foreign language for some selected individuals any longer. Everybody needs English. They are apparently promoting the teaching of English for general purposes and specific purposes as well.

The role of native speakers of English is vital. Intensive in-service teacher-training programs are going to be held according to a five-year plan, and all of the 60,000 junior and senior (public) high school teachers are expected to participate in them. For those particular programs, quite a few English native-speaking people are going to be appointed as assistant language teachers (ALTs). The number for appointment will be 1,000 in the next three years.

It is important for ALTs to realize what teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) particularly in Japan means, and to think seriously about how it should be done. Every ALT has his/her own individual personality to be properly activated in class. Everybody is different and his/her teaching method could be diversified. There are, however, some common prerequisites to learn beforehand.

This writer has had similar experiences as an ALT, when I taught my native language, Japanese, at the University of Michigan in the early sixties (Tanabe, 1990). My boss, the course professor, told me to check the course design in the whole university curriculum first of all. Then, she asked me how I should conduct the class in terms of drills for pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, expressions, reading, and writing, as well as free conversation. She often urged me to find some appropriate means to help the students to talk freely in conversation and also to read aloud from the textbook as clearly as possible on a contrastive basis between English and Japanese. Her linguistic philosophy was based on the notion that native speakers of a language have intuition regarding their own language, and do not need conscious and intentional learning of it. They might not know how to explain their language although they are perfect users of it. They need to study their own language when they teach it to non-native speakers. I still remember working hard to prepare myself to teach others my language.

The 2003 Action Plan is actually for young people. Education has to view every social situation from a new perspective because young people will shoulder the future of Japan. MEXT Minister Toyama, the founder of the plan, said in her foreword as follows:

  • For children living in the 21st century, it is essential for them to acquire communication abilities in English as a common international language.
  • Cultivating "Japanese with English Abilities" is an extremely important issue for the future of our children and for the further development of our country. (Ministry, 2003a)


Asahi Shimbun (2003). Japan almanac 2004. Tokyo: Author.
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (2002). Developing a strategic plan to cultivate "Japanese with English abilities." Retrieved from www.mext.go.jp/english/news/2002/07/020901.htm.
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (2003a). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology 2003 (MEXT 4-0305). Tokyo: Author.
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (2003b). Regarding the establishment of an action plan to cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities." Retrieved from www.mext.go.jp/english/topics/03072801.htm.
Tanabe, Y. (1990). Gakkou eigo [School English]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.
Tanabe, Y. (2003). Kore kara gakkou eigo [School English in the future]. Tokyo: Waseda University Press.

Yoji Tanabe is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and TEFL, Waseda University, and Professor at Tokyo International University. He obtained an MA in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, in 1963. He also taught Japanese as a foreign language to Americans for 23 years both in the US and Japan. His professional career includes Dean of the International Division, Waseda University (91-95), specialist for the MEXT Curriculum Council (97-98), and Central Council for Education (03-04). He is currently President, of the Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET). He published about twenty books including Korekara-no Gakkou Eigo, and School English in the Future (Waseda University Press, 2003).