Japan is one of those developed first world countries that puts high emphasis on education. The English language is one of those highly emphasized subjects that is pounded into every student from as early as elementary school. Most Japanese people have studied English as a second language for at least 6 years, all of junior high and high school. However, many people still struggle to communicate with foreigners in English when faced with the opportunity.
From the individuals who can’t speak and turn into a deer-in-a-headlight when bombarded with a string of fast-spoken sentences or questions, to merchandise such as notebooks and shirts to official signage, English mistakes can be seen everywhere. Although most Japanese people wish themselves to be fluent and think that knowing English is a vital and all-around cool skill, they just can’t seem to master it.
The reasons for this are many, but we can see the main one by going into and observing an English class in any middle or high school. English language teachers are usually Japanese with little English fluency themselves. They focus greatly on grammar, and the language of instruction is Japanese 99% of the time. I once sat in on a 45 minute class in a local public middle school, and the teacher spoke in English for a total of 2 minutes. The students themselves barely uttered a word in English, and all of the grammar explanations were done in Japanese. It almost didn’t seem like an English class, and with a total of maybe 20 minutes per week of actual exposure to English, it’s no wonder most people learn almost nothing by the end of 6 years.
English is everywhere, but it’s fragmented and broken. Most people only ever focus on grammar, and are unable to understand spoken Japanese, much less speak it themselves.
Another important reason for the lack of fluency is the English language’s rarity in the real world. Over 98% of the population is Japanese, and most people will never get the opportunity to ever use their English. So like an old pair of shoes in the back of the closet, it is soon forgotten.