63.1% of Kids Fail Latest English Exams, Says Japanese Government

63.1% of Kids Fail Latest English Exams, Says Japanese Government

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Girl learning her ABCs
Picture: pearlinheart / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
This year's English testing results in Japan are some of the worst numbers yet. Is Japan getting worse at English - or is a new test to blame?

Many in Japan struggle with speaking English. Now, new English test results show a further decline in English-speaking ability among Japanese kids. Is it part of a trend? Or is the test to blame?

18.4 point drop in speaking success

A shocking 63.1% of 3rd-grade middle school students scored zero in the speaking section for an English exam conducted by the Japanese government, according to results released last month.

Japanese students’ performance in the speaking section for the same English exam has worsened in the past four years by 18.4 points.

Results from international English exams such as TOEC and TOEFL also show a decline in Japan’s English proficiency.

The downward trend in English proficiency occurs paradoxically as the incentive to study English increases in Japan. Japanese universities and companies are increasingly incorporating English language certificates such as TOEIC scores into their admissions and hiring process.

How bad is Japan getting at speaking English? But also, how badly do the Japanese want to be good at English–––at least on paper?


Majority score zero in speaking English

Picture: miyuki ogura / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Last month on July 31st, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology released the results of its national exams.

The exam tested 6th-grade elementary school children and 3rd-grade middle schoolers in April 2023. Approximately 1,900,000 students from 28,523 nationwide public and private schools participated in the examination.

63.1% of 3rd-grade middle school students scored zero in the English-speaking section of the exam, which was conducted online for the first time. The average for questions answered correctly in the same section was 12.4%–––an 18.4-point decline from the same exam four years ago.

The Ministry’s response was that “the situational setting of the questions was complex and may have been difficult for students to understand.”

The average for questions answered correctly in other subjects was comparatively higher. 6th-grade elementary school students answered questions correctly on an average of 67.4% in Japanese and 62.7% in math.

For 3rd-grade middle school students, it was 70.1% in Japanese and 51.4% in math. Besides the speaking section for English, they answered English questions correctly with an average of 46.1%–––a 10.4-point decline from previous results.

Ranking low worldwide

According to data collected by American Educational Testing Service (ETS), known for its TOEIC and TOEFL exams, Japan’s language studies have shown no improvement in the past decade.

Data from a 2010 TOEFL exam conducted by ETS ranked Japan at 135th out of 163 countries worldwide, and 27th out of 27 Asian countries. In 2017, Japan ranked 146th out of 170 worldwide and 26th out of 29 Asian countries. This placed the nation at the bottom of the 36 OECD countries.

In the section for English speaking, Japan ranked the worst in the world.

Japan’s ranking in the Swiss-owned IMD (International Institute for Management Development) assessment has also worsened in recent years. Ranking in at 25th in 2018, Japan dropped to 34th in 2020.

English education mandatory from 2011

English became a mandatory subject for the first time in 2011 in Japanese schools for students in the 5th and 6th grades of elementary school. In 2020, the start of English education was brought down to 3rd-grade students.

Since 2020, 3rd and 4th-grade elementary school students have had one English lesson per week and are not graded based on their performance. Grading only begins in 5th grade when English classes are brought up to 2 weekly lessons.

English scores for a brighter future

According to a study by the Institute for International Business Communication (IIBC), 45% of companies are willing to look at TOEIC scores of shinsotsu (新卒), or newly grad applicants in the hiring process. 4% require applicants to submit their scores.

The same study showed that companies ask prospective employees to reach an average of 535 scores out of 990 points for the listening and reading sections.

A 2019 study found that approximately 83% of Japanese companies cite English proficiency as the most important skill they look for.

Japanese universities also place great emphasis on applicants’ certified English test scores. University admissions often exempt applicants from sitting for English exams if they can submit TOEIC scores or other similar certificates that surpass the university’s criteria.

English scores worth cheating

Man hounded by table of people
Picture: metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

When half the battle of employment is about handing in impressive TOEIC scores, cheating might seem a worthwhile risk. At least that is what Tanaka Nobuto’s clients had thought before their impersonator was caught.

In November of 2022, police arrested Tanaka, a 28-year-old Osaka male, on suspicion of taking online TOEIC exams as an impersonator for a female university student.

Police also investigated Tanaka for advertising his services on Twitter, where he flaunted his impressive academic background. He appealed to nearly 300 of his customers using his status as a graduate of the prestigious Kyoto University.

On March 28th this year, the Tokyo District Court handed Tanaka a guilty verdict for violating Article 168 of the Japanese penal code for making electronic records containing unauthorized commands. Tanaka now has a sentence of two years and six months of imprisonment with four years of parole.

Mama, Papa: How the Japanese Words for Parents Lost Out to English


[1] 英語「話す」、正答率12.4% 6割が全問不正解 初のオンライン・全国学力テスト. Yahoo! ニュースJAPAN

[2] 中3英語「話す」正答率12% 23年度全国学力テストの結果. 東京新聞

[3] 日本人の英語スピーキングは「170カ国中最下位」…奮闘する「語学力底上げ」の実態. Yahoo!ニュースJAPAN

[4] 学校での英語教育はいつから始まった?歴史から最新事情. 明光プラス

[5] TOEICのスコアは就職活動に影響大!目安の点数を大公開. PORTキャリア

[6] 「TOEIC試験も代行受験」 就活テスト代行容疑の会社員が供述. 朝日新聞デジタル

[7] ウェブテスト替え玉で有罪 関電元社員の男、東京地裁. 産経新聞

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