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How Did Japanese Diplomats Learn English Post-Black Ships, and How Long Did Fluency Take?

In 1853, Commodore Perry’s Black Ships arrived in Japan, ending over 200 years of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate.

This forced Japan to confront Western technology and diplomacy, ultimately leading to the Meiji Restoration, a period of rapid modernization.

Learning English became crucial for Japan’s leaders to navigate a changing world. This is a story of how Japan adapted to and embraced Western influence, forever altering its path.

Early Efforts in English Learning

Before Commodore Perry’s arrival, contact with the English language in Japan was limited. The Dutch, who maintained a trading post on Dejima Island, were the primary source of Western knowledge, and their interpreters held a monopoly on translating Dutch texts, some of which contained English vocabulary and phrases.

However, the focus was primarily on Dutch, not English, and resources for learning English were scarce.

The sudden need to learn English after Perry’s expedition was met with a range of reactions. Some officials recognized the necessity of engaging with the West and saw English as a tool for modernization.

Others, however, resisted this change, viewing it as a threat to Japanese culture and traditions. This initial resistance often stemmed from a lack of understanding about the West and a fear of losing cultural identity.

Despite the challenges, early efforts to learn English emerged. The most common approach was to hire foreign teachers, primarily missionaries and merchants who were proficient in the language.

These teachers provided instruction in spoken and written English, often using religious texts or commercial documents as teaching materials.

Another method involved translating English texts into Japanese, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Additionally, some individuals sought out limited resources like English-Dutch dictionaries or phrasebooks. The phrase “オンライン 英語” (online English) would not be relevant in this context, as the internet and online learning resources were not yet available.

Instead, learners relied on in-person instruction and whatever limited materials they could find.

Today, those looking to learn English can benefit from a multitude of online resources, including platforms like AmazingTalker, which offers personalized English tutoring with native speakers.

Establishment of English Language Schools and Curriculum Development

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked a turning point in Japan’s approach to English education. Recognizing the language’s importance for modernization and international relations, the government established a network of English language schools across the country.

These schools, both public and private, aimed to provide standardized instruction and develop a comprehensive curriculum.

Notably, the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages, founded in 1873, played a crucial role in training future diplomats and officials.

By 1886, there were over 50 foreign language schools in Japan, a significant increase from the handful that existed before the Meiji era.

Recruitment of Foreign Teachers

To meet the growing demand for English instruction, the Meiji government actively recruited foreign teachers, primarily from English-speaking countries like the United States and Britain.

By 1876, over 100 foreign teachers were employed in Japan, bringing with them diverse teaching methods and cultural perspectives.

Although there were challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences, and high turnover rates, the exchange of knowledge and ideas between Japanese students and foreign teachers played a vital role in shaping the development of English education in Japan.

As the demand for English instruction continued to grow, the need for qualified Japanese teachers became apparent. The government established teacher training programs and sent promising students abroad to study English pedagogy.

In the 1890s, Japanese teachers started to replace foreign instructors in many schools. These teachers had rigorous training and understood both Japanese and English cultures. They were instrumental in adapting teaching methods for Japanese learners and developing suitable educational materials.

Challenges in Learning English

Linguistic Differences:

Japanese and English are very different languages, making them challenging for Japanese learners. Grammatical structures and pronunciation are fundamentally different. English vocabulary and idioms require substantial memorization and practice.

Some learners use “カタカナ英語” (katakana English) to transcribe English words using Japanese characters, but this can lead to mispronunciations and misunderstandings.

Limited Access to Authentic Materials:

In Japan, the unavailability of authentic learning materials, the scarcity of native English speakers, and outdated textbooks hindered progress in learning English. Limited exposure to natural language made it difficult to develop accurate pronunciation and fluency. Many learners relied on rote memorization leading to stilted language use. Furthermore, the absence of opportunities to practice speaking with native speakers hampered the development of conversational skills.

Cultural Barriers:

Japanese learners faced several challenges due to cultural differences. Traditional Japanese education emphasized rote memorization, which contrasted with the communicative approach needed for language acquisition.

Social norms, including the hesitation to speak up and make mistakes, inhibited participation and speaking practice.

Negative attitudes towards foreign languages, such as perceiving them as inferior or unnecessary, added to the challenges.

These cultural barriers posed psychological obstacles for some students, making it harder to fully engage with English learning.

Impact of English Fluency on Japanese Diplomacy

English Fluency Improves Communication and Negotiation Skills

English fluency significantly enhanced Japan’s ability to communicate and negotiate with Western powers. In the early years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan had to rely on foreign interpreters, often leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

However, as more diplomats achieved proficiency in English, they could directly engage in discussions, express their views clearly, and negotiate favorable terms for Japan.

This newfound linguistic capability played a crucial role in negotiating and revising unequal treaties with Western powers, such as the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation in 1911, which helped Japan regain tariff autonomy and improve its international standing.

Japanese Diplomats Now Can access publications, technical manuals, and academic journals

English fluency opened doors to a wealth of information and technology from the West. Japanese diplomats and scholars could now access scientific publications, technical manuals, and academic journals, allowing them to stay abreast of the latest developments in various fields.

This accelerated Japan’s modernization process, as they could learn from Western advancements in medicine, engineering, military technology, and governance.

The ability to read and understand English-language documents also facilitated the importation of machinery and industrial processes, contributing to Japan’s rapid industrialization.

A study conducted in the late 19th century found that over 80% of scientific publications imported into Japan were in English, highlighting the language’s importance in knowledge transfer.

It Changes Perceptions of Japan on the World Stage

As Japanese diplomats demonstrated their English proficiency in international forums and negotiations, the world’s perception of Japan began to shift. Japan was no longer seen as a backward and isolated nation but as a modernizing power capable of engaging with the West on equal terms.

This newfound respect helped Japan gain recognition as a major player in international affairs. By the early 20th century, Japan had become a member of international organizations like the League of Nations, where English was the primary language of communication.

The successful negotiation of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, facilitated by fluent English speakers, further solidified Japan’s position as a rising power and a valuable ally to Britain.

Questions You May Have

How Long Did It Really Take Japanese Diplomats to Master English After The Black Ships?

While individual experiences varied greatly, historical accounts and anecdotal evidence suggest a range of timeframes for Japanese diplomats to achieve varying levels of English proficiency after the arrival of the Black Ships:

Basic Conversational Ability: 1-3 years of dedicated study and practice. This level of proficiency enabled diplomats to engage in simple conversations and understand basic written English.

Intermediate Proficiency: 3-5 years of consistent effort. Diplomats at this level could participate in more complex discussions, read and understand a wider range of texts, and draft simple diplomatic correspondence.

Advanced Fluency: 5-10 years or more of intensive study and immersion. This level of mastery allowed diplomats to engage in sophisticated negotiations, write complex reports and documents, and deliver speeches in English.

The definition of “fluency” varied depending on the specific needs of the diplomat. Some may have considered themselves fluent with a lower level of proficiency, while others strived for near-native mastery of the language.

Did the Meiji government’s emphasis on English education lead to any backlash or criticism from those who opposed Western influence?

The Meiji government’s emphasis on English education encountered criticism from those opposed to Western influence.

Critics argued that it threatened traditional Japanese culture, created social inequalities, compromised economic independence, and eroded national pride.

The government responded by implementing a nationalistic education system, expanding access to education, cultivating a hybrid culture, and showcasing Japanese achievements.


The arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships initiated a linguistic revolution in Japan, forever altering the nation’s trajectory.

English adoption, despite challenges, catalyzed modernization and global engagement. Analyzing diplomats’ experiences reveals cultural exchange complexities and language’s transformative power.

Japan’s commitment to English education showcases its emphasis on cross-cultural understanding, highlighting the need to embrace new knowledge while preserving cultural heritage. This delicate balance remains a challenge in a globalized world.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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