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ACTIVE COMMUNICATION PRACTICES FOR JAPANESE
Kirthana Shankar1), Kohji Tokimatsu2)
1) Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology,
2) Dept. of Architecture and Building Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology
2-12-1, Ookayama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 152-8550, Japan
It has become essential that Japanese engineering graduates require an ever increasing
range of skills to maintain relevance with the global environment. In Japan, while
Engineering faculties have a fine record of accomplishments and have adapted well to
the rapid changes in Science and Technology, increasing pressures and challenges
arising from the broadening roles of engineers has enhanced the need for the Japanese
engineers to acquire good English communication skills. Good English
Communication Skills are a vital element of an engineer’s profession and the lack of
such skills only undermines the image of an engineer. A number of engineering
faculties in Japanese universities fail to address this need for the introduction of such
courses. There is a growing expectation that universities should directly meet the
needs of industry standards and deliver global engineers who are not only competent
in technical skills but also in non-technical skills such as communication skills. This
paper reviews the Japanese education system and the importance of these skills for
engineers in Japan with an emphasis on how such communication courses can be
designed and incorporated into the engineering curriculum in the Japanese
The global business environment of Japanese firms is moving into a new phase with
international relations becoming more complex as the world is getting smaller due to
the information revolution and technological progress. The rapid globalization of the
world’s economy has placed a significant impact on the way Japanese engineers work.
It is rapidly exerting a homogenizing effect on communication and management styles
around the world. While offering opportunities, it also poses significant challenges for
engineers in Japan.
The role of engineers in society is changing and places new pressures and demands on
engineering faculties in the Universities around the world. Engineering education
requires a more outward look with the ability to produce graduates who would be able
to lead the engineering profession with its increasing pressures and challenges arising
from the broadening roles of an engineer. Engineers are required to perform not only
in technical capacities but also in the non technical capacities.
In this context, communication skills in English have become crucial for Japanese
engineers to be effective in international relations. Japanese engineers are increasingly
being involved in offshore ventures and globalization is forcing them to cultivate
these communicational skills. The globalization of companies, in Japan and
elsewhere, makes it imperative that communication skills in English become a
familiar and major business language. It has become vital for engineers to rethink the
way they communicate their ideas, manage their staff and construct their drawings to
ensure that they are understood in a global workplace.
As knowledge based society develops, international activities for engineers become
increasingly dependent on good communication skills. A lack of these skills can lead
to misinterpretations resulting in problems in international projects. By understanding
the impact of good communication skills, Japanese engineers can increase the
probability of success in international ventures. Due to the lack of sufficient
communication skills in English, many Japanese engineers are restricted in their
exchanges with foreigners.
Engineering education in Japan is presently lacking in producing engineers with
competent English Communication skills. This could be attributed to the way the
educational system is structured in many of the universities in Japan. In recent years
engineering education in many universities stresses the need to improve the abilities
of students in communication skills as well as people management skills. A number of
universities in Japan have gradually started offering courses in English
Communicational skills for engineering students.
This paper addresses the vitality of communication skills in English for Japanese
engineers and explains why they have become a critical concern in engineering
education in the universities and also addresses on how such courses should be
designed and incorporated into the curriculum.
ENGLISH EDUCATION IN JAPAN
After World War II the Japanese educational system was reformed. The old 6-5-3-3
system was changed to a 6-3-3-4 system (6 years of elementary school, 3 years of
junior high school, 3 years of senior high school and 4 years of University) in 1947
when the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law were enacted
(MEXT, 2005). Japanese students only start learning English as a second language for
three years at junior high school and another three years at senior high school. Even
after these 6 years of formal English education, students are still unable to speak or to
comprehend English properly. As Murphey and Sato (2003) have pointed out,,
English teaching in Japanese schools emphasizes mainly on grammar and translation
skills, and students generally study English in this pattern for six years. Ability to use
English for the purpose of communication is rarely practiced in these years.
English language proficiency is assessed for the admission into National universities.
Entrance to universities is highly competitive and students all across Japan who wish
to enter universities sit for the College Examination Center test. The entrance
examination also measures the English proficiency of a student and this test is
designed primarily to measure the student’s grammatical competence. As mentioned
by Nakayasu (2004), concerns have been raised about the adequacy of the English test
items in the examinations, especially in terms of whether the test items adequately
measure students’ abilities to use English in a non-test situation. The test requires
students to exhibit improved competence in speaking and understanding English as
well as competence in reading and writing the language. However the speaking skills
part of the examination is tested through multiple choice questions (MCQ), and does
not really test a person’s verbal communication skills. According to Nakayasu, (2004)
based on the Real Life approach which emphasizes non-test language performance,
the language used in these test items does not reflect non-test language performance.
Students taking the test can only demonstrate knowledge of English structures and
vocabulary, but not the use of language to communicate in real language usage
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has
continuously introduced various measures such as the revision of the Ministry’s
courses of study with greater emphasis on cultivating students basic and practical
communication abilities. In July 2002, a strategic plan to cultivate Japanese students
with English language abilities was formulated for the purpose of reforming the
English skills education. Building on the Strategic plan, the Action plan established a
system for cultivating “Japanese with English abilities in 5 years” (Atsuko, 2003).
MEXT plans to achieve this goal by the year 2008. The goal can only come to reality
when not only universities but also elementary schools, junior high and senior high
schools take the initiative to improve the educational system in respect of English
education from their respective positions.
WHY GLOBAL ENGINEERS?
The rapid advancement in globalisation requires global awareness and
internationalised communication skills for success in the current international
business world. It has become a requirement for engineers to have a global perceptive
and to know the communicational requirements of a Global Engineer. The focus
towards building global engineers in an organisation has become essential with the
expectation and belief that good communication skills in English will lead to
successful International projects.
To meet the challenges of a Global Engineer the educational system for engineers in
Japan should focus on producing engineers with good communication skills in
English, which is required for working in a range of international settings and work
environments. Volvo, the Swedish automobile manufacturer, has made English the
language for communication for managers at its plant in South Korea. Many firms in
Japan are using the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) to
evaluate their employee’s language ability. Computer manufacturer, Fujitsu Ltd, had
all its 30,000 regular employees and executives take the TOEIC test in 1996 before
implementing a new global marketing strategy (Yanagawa, 2003). A similar situation
took place at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. In 2000, Matsushita encouraged all its
new employees to attain a TOEIC score of 650 within 3 years of joining the company
and those who were expected to work overseas needed to obtain a score of at least
730. Matsushita felt the need for English speaking managers, who could explain
Matsushita’s corporate philosophy to its overseas affiliates and train its overseas
employees (Yanagawa, 2003).
Along with a prolonged economic slump and high unemployment rates, the Japanese
system of employment, which traditionally has been supported by long-term
employment and seniority-based pay, is undergoing a drastic change. Japanese
companies have responded to the need for flexibility in coping with the ups and
downs of the economy. Nonetheless, the shift has been a painful one for the
employees. This has resulted in many engineers venturing out to multinational
companies and to foreign countries in search of employment. As a result it becomes
even more vital for engineering graduates to have an ever increasing range of skills to
match the needs of the global environment. There are only limited immediate
incentives for individual engineers working in Japanese government and private
companies to develop these skills while they are at work. Often these skills are only
being exercised and gained as a by-product for being selected to work on an
The rise of globalization on the other hand has directly affected the activities of
engineers in Japan in many ways. It has led to increasing opportunities for engineers
to come in contact with the global market and to participate in its activities.
Participation in a global market involves the exchange of knowledge and information
and the ability to transmit information and engage in communication (Atsuko, 2003).
In this context, it is essential for engineers to acquire effective communication skills
in English as it plays a common language in linking people around the world together.
The growth of foreign investment and multinational corporate alliances due to
globalization, involving technology transfer and engineering cooperation as well as
the development of products and manufacturing processes increasingly require good
communication skills among personnel based from different countries. With the
increase in the number of international projects, and with the cross cultural
communication and collaboration on the rise, it has become essential to master these
The forces of competition have also started to reshape Japan. The emergence of the
competitive global economy has a particular impact on engineering education. Such
forces have a direct influence on the industry’s needs and it is required that an
engineer be able to cross national and cultural boundaries. Global communication
skills have become an essential requirement for engineers. Insufficient level of
instruction of communication skills in engineering education serves to undermine the
profile of a professional engineer. It becomes even more important that these skills be
incorporated into the Japanese engineering education system at an early stage.
WHAT SHOULD BE INCORPORATED INTO THE UNIVERSITY
Japanese students still seem to have difficulties when it comes to conversational skills
in English. Hence there should be greater focus on the verbal communication skills.
The Japanese education system does not emphasize on teaching or testing the
conversational skills ability of the students. In response to the present educational
system, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)
is looking at revising the Ministry’s course of study with a further focus on cultivating
student’s communicational abilities in English. The framework for the communication
course for Engineering faculties in Japan should rest on a subject, which introduces
students to basic principles of effective communication skills relevant to engineering.
The course should preferably include the following aspects:
1. Effective Communication: It is essential for engineers to recognize the impact
of culture on communication style which plays an important part in the
success of cross-cultural business communication. Engineers should
understand the nuances of different communication styles which will greatly
enhance their effectiveness when communicating with foreigners.
2. Communication through Technology: Technology provides a significant
advantage in communicating but it can also become ineffective if not used
appropriately. Engineers should be taught on how to communicate effectively
when using e-mail, telephone, voicemail, or video conferencing. In Asia in
general, relationships are not developed over the telephone, via fax, or through
email. Engineers should be aware that communication technology should not
be used as a substitute for interpersonal communication in certain parts of the
3. Written Communication: Verbal communication is very different from
written communication in English and it varies from one country to another.
As there are different types of written communication the importance of
presenting written communication in an appropriate form is obvious.
4. Understanding Gestures and Body Language in Countries around the
World: As the global village continues to shrink and cultures collide, it is
essential for engineers in Japan to become sensitive, aware, and be observant
to the myriad gestures, and body language that surrounds us each day. When
crossing over cultural boundaries, it would be important for us to respect,
learn, and understand more about the effectiveness of gestures and body
It is essential for graduates to have an understanding of international communications
and to gain better knowledge and appreciation in learning the skills. English has
established itself as the prime instrument for communication in an international setup,
and it is the most widely accepted language spoken internationally; hence it is
essential for engineers to gain the above skills in English. This will greatly influence
the language of communication among professionals internationally.
Designing a New Curriculum
Changes in the engineering educational process will lead students to participate in
communicational development courses and the engineering faculty to focus on the
need for a broader set of educational competencies to cope with the changing
educational culture. For the Engineering faculty these changes involve the use of new
educational teaching methods for the course, and ways in which the faculty can help
students to increase their ability in enhancing their communication skills in English.
There are various ways to developing communication skills in the Engineering
departments for the students.
1. The Engineering faculty should embed into its curriculum, courses in
communication skills to help students with their communication abilities. The
subject should be made compulsory to all engineering students in order to
ensure their active participation in learning English as a valuable tool in the
2. When designing the course, it should be recognized that students in Japan
generally tend to avoid signing up for such courses mainly because of their
hesitation towards attending a course taught in English and the failure to see
the relevance of the course and how it might help them in future. Hence the
Engineering faculty should try to highlight the importance and relevance of
learning such skills in the 21st Century. CEOs and eminent engineers from the
corporate sectors should be invited to give talks and to impress on the students
the requirements and challenges of today’s engineering profession and the
roles that they will be playing. This will give the students a better
understanding on what is expected of them and a general overview of their
work profiles in future.
3. The course should provide a forum for interactive learning. It should demand a
high level of person to person communication and interaction that centres on
the challenges of real life contextual communication. Lecturers who have a
formal approach to teaching style tend to focus only on content. This style is
generally teacher-centred, where the lecturer feels responsible for providing
and controlling the flow of the content and the student is expected to receive
the content. Teacher centred classes will not be effective for the engineering
students learning English communication skills in Japan since it will only
restrict communication due to very less participation from the students.
Lecturers will hence have to play an integral role in designing successful,
active learning environment. When designing the topics, a situative approach
should be used. It emphasizes that the educational process should be linked
directly to real life situations in context. (Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996).
The situative approach characterizes a student's development as a social
learning experience and process which gradually increases with the desire to
participate and his or her feelings of acceptance and belonging in the situation.
Through this the students can experience the fulfilment of expressing
themselves and understanding others.
4. The teaching abilities of the staff should also be monitored. Staff from an
engineering background who have the skills and knowledge to teach
communication skills courses would be able to provide a valuable opportunity
for the students to learn communication skills from an engineering
perspective. It is however essential to confirm that the staff recruited have the
required levels of English ability upon selection.
Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering Communication Skills Course
The Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering (CUEE) established on September 1,
2003, to carry out the 21st Century Center of Excellence (COE) program, at Tokyo
Institute of Technology has been cognisant of the importance of developing good
English communication abilities in its engineers. In order to foster ability in
international communication, teaching, research, creativity, and practice for doctoral
and post-doctoral fellows, the CUEE education program found the necessity to design
and offer courses that would help the students.
With this notion, Advanced Technical Communication Skills (ATCS) 61063 & 61002
courses were specially customized for the doctoral and post doctoral fellows to embed
them with the essential communication skills. It is based on the premise that one of
the major keys to being a successful engineer is the ability to effectively
communicate. The courses have provided a springboard into the areas of
communication skills and a draw card of the courses is the variety of topics across a
dynamic field that are being addressed. The course provides a forum for interactive
learning and demands a high level of person to person communication and interaction
that focuses on the challenges of real life contextual communication.
There are many topics that are integrated within the courses and they include:
♦ Presentation Skills ♦ Engineering Communication
♦ Technical and Business Writing Skills ♦ Leadership Training
♦ Business Skills ♦ Stress Management
♦ Power Talk ♦ Creative and Critical Thinking
Japanese engineers are increasingly being involved in offshore ventures and
globalisation is forcing them to consider and cultivate the necessary skills needed to
succeed in this competitive world. With increasing pressures and challenges arising
from the broadening of roles that engineers fill, the current Japanese engineering
education system must work towards meeting the needs of the industry by delivering
“global engineers” who are competent in both technical and as well non technical
skills such as communication skills in specific. Abilities in English Communication
skills must be considered as vital for the present day engineering graduates.
As mentioned earlier, the Japanese university English entrance examination which
measures the English proficiency of a student is designed primarily to measure the
student’s grammatical competence, hence it not a good gauge of a student’s verbal
communication skills. It is thus important for these examinations to incorporate new
language testing methodologies. It is suggested that English verbal communication
skills be tested in these examinations. This will invariably result in elementary
schools, junior high and senior high schools to improve their English educational
content by introducing new courses that will emphasise communication ability among
This paper has addressed the importance of communication skills for practicing
engineers and explored the critical gaps that are present in the Japanese engineering
education system that need to be narrowed or eliminated by incorporating appropriate
courses in communication skills into the engineering curriculum. The paper also
explores the design and incorporation of such courses, and impact of introducing these
courses into the engineering curriculum.
Neglecting the learning opportunities in communication skills at the university level
can lead to a shallow level of understanding in the engineer if he or she does not see
the relevance and application of these skills in engineering profession. These skills
should be acquired within the four years of an engineering education at the university.
As discussed on how best to teach these skills or conversely how students can most
effectively learn these skills, a situative approach of teaching has proven to be
successful in enticing the engineering students to participate and contribute in
lectures. The situative approach emphasizes that the educational process be linked
directly to real life situations in context. Bringing real world practices into the
engineering curriculum through such English communication courses will expose the
engineering students to have a broader vision.
The incorporation of communication skills courses in English for engineers in Japan
at the universities is becoming an essential element of continuous learning. As such
the Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering (CUEE) at Tokyo Institute of
Technology has been running two communication skills courses for its engineers
since 2004. The aim has been to develop good English communication skills abilities
in its engineers. The goal of developing communicatively competent users of English,
as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2003)
advocates, can be realized effectively if elementary schools, junior high and senior
high schools and universities take the initiative in improving the educational system in
respect of English education from their respective positions.
The authors would like to express their immense gratitude to the Center for Urban
Earthquake Engineering of Tokyo Institute of Technology for supporting and
encouraging development and offering of courses in Advanced Technical
Communication skills in English.
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