Language edutainment on Japanese television

Just what are learners learning?

Lachlan Jackson, Ritsumeikan University [About | Email]

Belinda Kennett, School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Queensland [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 1 (Article 8 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 24 May 2013.


This paper, which focuses on the concept of language edutainment, introduces segments from several variety television programs that have been successful in comedic terms in Japan. Using a discourse analytic approach, the paper discusses the way in which three common and interdependent discourses on culture, language, and language learning are promulgated through popular media. We show that rather than opening up broader linguistic and cultural horizons for potential learners, these discourses function to narrow them down. The three discourses identified are: 1) an essentialised conflation of language and ethnic identity; 2) a reification of the native speaker; and 3) a defeatist discourse regarding language learning. These programs offer Japanese learners of English little to aspire to in terms of cultural and linguistic opportunities, and have, unfortunately, set the agenda for newer forms of language edutainment.

Keywords: English learning, Japan, language edutainment, native speakerism, stereotyping.

English has a high level of exposure on Japanese television. Learners of English can tune into teacher-centered lessons on English grammar as well as on conversational and business English. In addition to this formal education, a range of programs broadcast in English are subtitled in Japanese and learners can also select simultaneous interpretation options for news and other programs. Furthermore, within the highly popular variety and quiz show genres, there are featured segments in which Japanese speakers’ use of English is tested and challenged, and these programs have enjoyed considerable longevity. In the first part of this paper we broaden and problematise the conventional definition of language edutainment and then overview English edutainment in Japan. We then introduce three examples of English quiz segments from variety television programs in Japan.

In the second part of the paper, we argue that, despite the entertaining nature of this type of English segment featured in variety programs, the genre frequently perpetuates three common and interdependent discourses that function to narrow down potential learners’ linguistic and cultural horizons rather than to open them up. These interconnected discourses are those that are concerned with

  1. the conflation of language and ethnic identity,
  2. the reification of the native speaker, and
  3. a defeatist discourse about language learning.

Problematising Language Edutainment

The portmanteau edutainment – derived from the words education and entertainment – is a term that has most typically been employed to describe the hybridisation of ‘traditional sources of entertainment with educational tools’ (Bird 2005, p. 311). Language edutainment, therefore, refers to the utilisation of various forms of media (such as television, radio, computer software, personal game consoles, and the internet) in the teaching and learning of languages. Many previous studies from the field of second language pedagogy have advocated the integration of multimedia into traditional language learning contexts (e.g. Bird 2005; Iwasaki 2009; Matsuda 2008). In a complementary way, this paper looks at language edutainment beyond the control of educational authorities. In other words, while much other previous work has been focused on the ‘edu’, this paper problematises the ‘tainment’ side of English edutainment. Edutainment is underpinned by the assumption that for learning to be effective (i.e. educational), it should also be stimulating, engaging, and enjoyable (i.e. entertaining). For a text (such as a television programme) to qualify as edutainment in the conventional sense of the term, it has generally been accepted that it ‘must have been produced for educational purposes’ (Walldén and Soronen 2004, p. 7). Nevertheless, there are a number of programmes that have been produced primarily to entertain, that also include educational elements. Therefore, the distinguishing feature of our modified conceptualisation of language edutainment includes, in addition to programmes that possess intrinsic educational value, programmes with a semblance of instructional content. Seargeant (2009 p. 146) has noted that some scenarios in language edutainment segments merely borrow ‘the clothing’ of language education. Accordingly, we employ the umbrella term language edutainment to denote commercial representations of language learning which, while often presented as informative and educational, are designed primarily to entertain rather than educate. Here, we adopt a more critical approach to the content of language edutainment than has typically been offered, because, such material often perpetuates discourses about L1 speakers and second language learning that are problematic but too frequently escape the critical examination they deserve.

Moody (2006) has offered a useful categorisation of English language programming on Japanese television. He makes the overarching distinction between programs produced for children and programs produced for adults. Moody argues that although the primary objective of English programs produced for children (such as NHK’s Eigo de Asobo1 (Lets play in English)) is clearly language instruction, a distinction can be made between, on one hand, adult programs produced to instruct (such as Jissen Bijinesu Eigo (Practical Business English), and on the other, those produced to entertain (e.g. Eigo Shabera Naito (Speak English Night / We Must Speak English2)). Moody (2006 p. 216) points out that, unlike the instructional genre of English programming, a common characteristic of the latter category is that ‘all the English information appears in subtitled simultaneous translation’ and therefore, enjoyment of such programs does ‘not require that viewers understand the English’ contained within them.

In addition to full length programs utilising English for either instructional or entertainment purposes, Moody and Matsumoto (2011) have argued that shorter featured segments contained within so-called baraeti bangumi (variety shows) are also worthy of scholarly attention.

The programme containing these segments cannot be considered part of the language entertainment genre, but the featured segments have the same generic features as other language entertainment programmes…These segments are designed to portray, usually with comic effect, many of the typical problems that Japanese speakers of English face when communicating in English.

(Moody and Matsumoto 2011, p. 167)

Importantly, such featured segments have relied strongly ‘on the exploration of foreign cultures and customs, and discussion of differences [our emphasis] between languages and expression’ (Moody 2006, p. 212). In addition to drawing on widespread perceptions of cultural and linguistic difference, these segments play up an additional nuance: that the compulsory study of English at junior and senior high school was, for the vast majority of Japanese, an onerous and largely unsuccessful experience (Matsuda 2011). Stated simply, it is the self-deprecating ridicule of a supposed universal failure among Japanese to speak English proficiently that makes these segments humorous.

In the following we introduce readers to three sample segments of English edutainment from Japanese television. We later draw on these in discussing the three interrelated discourses mentioned above that undermine the learning of English in Japan. The authors believe them to be typical examples of the formulas upon which this type of segment is based.

Examples of English Edutainment on Japanese Television

Example One: Karakuri Funniest English Segment

The first example of a featured segment of English edutainment is Karakuri Funniest English from the programme Sanma no Suupaa Karakuri Terebi (Sanma’s Super Karakuri TV) (Tokyo Broadcasting System), a longstanding prime-time comic variety show hosted by the immensely popular comic veteran Sanma Akashiya. Typical segments on this program include a ‘Funniest Home Videos’ segment, street interviews with intoxicated businessmen, and trivia quizzes between slightly senile elderly citizens. In the Karakuri Funniest English segment, Thane Camus, a bilingual American, appears to stop people in the street and asks them to tell a personal anecdote relating to a specific theme (e.g. ‘Your bikkuri [surprising] story’, ‘Your hazukashii [embarrassing] story’ etc.). The themed titles of these segments are in themselves interesting examples of intra-sentential code-switching which is a feature of the bilingual wordplay used in this genre of edutainment, and in the Japanese media more generally. After offering their personal anecdotes in Japanese, the participants are then asked to attempt to retell their stories in English. As Philip Seargeant (2009, pp. 146-147), who has offered an interesting analysis of Karakuri Funniest English has pointed out, these ‘anecdotes are always themed around an idiom or set phrase, and the whole theme is framed as a “lesson” in English usage’. In the segment that we describe below, for example, participants are asked to describe their ‘akappaji story’ (embarrassing story).

In one particular segment (able to be viewed on YouTube, see Murasaki 2011) which we analyse, a Japanese interviewee tells the story of his being alerted by children playing in the street to the fact that his Pikachu-patterned underpants were showing through the zip of his trousers. After describing the incident in Japanese, the interviewer asks him to relate it in English. The dialogue between the interviewer Camus (C) and the storyteller (S) is transcribed in Table 1 along with the simultaneous on-screen text subtitling. Hambleton (2011, p. 35) has pointed out that Japanese television customarily uses ‘the screen drop (teroppu), to subtitle speech or to add graphics to emphasise what is being said’. Seargeant (2009) analysed an anecdote on the theme of personal tragedy from the same program in which the screen drop was noted to be part of a ‘complex multimodal representation’. Different colours, font sizes, as well as the periodic insertion of katakana script are operationalised to emphasise the linguistic errors of the participants and underscore the overarching discourse that Japanese people are very poor English speakers.

Table 1. Annotated Transcript of Segment from Karakuri Funniest English
C: Camus
I: interviewee
(authors’ translation)
On-screen Text
(colour of text in parentheses)
On-screen text
(author’s translation)
C 1 English please. (said while laughing) English Please
英語をお願いします。(in blue)
Please say that in English.
I 1 Pikachuu? (said with uncertainty) Pikachuu (in orange text) (name of a anime series character)
C 2 Yeah?
(said while laughing with face in hands)
I 2 Look at me. (said in slow, uncertain voice) Look at me (in orange text)
C 3 Yeah? (said while laughing)
I 3 From fastener. From Fastener (in orange text)
(ピカチュウがファスナーから私を見た) (in yellow)
Pikachu saw me from my zip Loud audience laughter.
Note that the English dialogue and on-screen text is an incomprehensible abbreviation of the Japanese on-screen text.
C 4 (uncontrolled laughter)
I 4 Boku no karada gotsui deshou? (Using Kansai dialect) I’ve got a huge body, right? 僕の体ゴツイでしょう? (in yellow) I’ve got a huge body, right?
C 5 Ah ha. (laughing) Loud audience laughter.
I 5 Da kedo ne… But the thing is… だけどね
(in yellow)
But the thing is…
C 6 Ah ha?
I 6 Pikachu jya nai no yo! I’m not Pikachu! ピカチュウじゃいないのよ
(in yellow)
I’m not Pikachu!
C 7 English please. English please
英語をお願いします。 (in blue)
Please say that in English.
I 7 Ah (2). My dynamite body. My dynamite body (in orange)
(in yellow)
My strong/powerful body. Loud audience laughter.
C 8 Mmmm (said while laughing)
I 8 But (said with emphasis) But(in orange)
C 9 Oh? (said while laughing)
I 9 Secret zone
(said while pointing to his pants zip)
Secret zone (in orange)
C 10 Oh yeah?
(said with cultivated surprise)
I 10 very cute (said while laughing) is very cute (in orange)
(in yellow)
But [the area around] my private parts was very cute.
C 11 Oh yeah (3) Vey cute? (3) What?
(said while laughing)
Very cute? What?
(とてもかわいい? (in blue)
Very cute?
I 11 Picchu. Pikachu jya nai. Pichu.
(said while pointing at his groin and laughing)
I’m not Pikachu. ピチュー。ピカチュウじゃない。ピチュー。
(in yellow)
Pichu, I’m not Pikachu. Pichu [a somewhat puerile self-deprecating comical reference to the apparent small size of his genitalia]


This segment seems to be quite contrived. It is likely that it was planned in Japanese and back translated into English because, for example, a phrase such as ‘English please’ is not particularly natural English. As a translation of ‘英語お願いします!’ (Table 1, C1) one would rather, expect either ‘Speak English please!’ or ‘In English please!’ There are also distinct differences between the English and the Japanese speaker’s initial story in Japanese. In fact, it is the interplay between the Japanese subtitling and the spoken English that triggers the laughter from the audience and this supports our earlier assertion that these segments are more about entertainment than language education.

Example Two: Karakuri Funniest Japanese

Our next example of edutainment in a featured segment (view on YouTube, see urbanjapan 2010), Karakuri Funniest Japanese, is the converse of the segment Karakuri Funniest English outlined above in that it features an anecdote told in Japanese, the second language of the African-American interviewee. The interviewee, describing his ‘Shinjirarenai [unbelievable] Story’ recounts an incident in which he comments on the height of the heels being worn by a young woman in the street and how she slapped him following his erroneous use of the phrase ookii ketsu [big backside] rather than ookii kutsu [big shoes].

Although this appears as being spontaneous, there are signs to the contrary. Other studies that have examined the representation of foreign residents in Japanese television programs (e.g.: Hambleton 2011; Iwabuchi 2007) have shown that variety programs, rather than being spontaneous and unscripted, are highly orchestrated and edited to portray foreign participants in a certain light. A simple internet search reveals that the ‘randomly’ stopped foreigner appearing in this segment is, in fact, the bilingual American actor, Craig Nine, with over 150 credits on Japanese television to his name. In this example too, as with the previous clip, the Japanese error of the storyteller seems somewhat farfetched, because the word kutsu [shoes] is such a high frequency lexical item invariably introduced to beginner learners. It is also worth noting that the performative, scripted nature of this popular segment has been widely commented on in an online forum in which several former participants allege having been told what to say by producers of the program they were appearing in. For example, someone using the name Gaijin Gal and claiming to have been a former participant on the show made the following accusation in an online blog:

i [sic] was in the segment 'karakuri's funniest japanese' [sic] & i [sic] was surprised that it's all scripted! they [sic] told us what to say! i [sic] can speak Japanese [sic] fairly well, but they told me some stupid mistakes to make, i [sic] was so embarrassed!

so, from now on when u [sic] watch that show – [sic] remember that the people appearing usually know better. well [sic], at least they pay us well for it! :)

‘Gaijin Gal’, 2001

Table 2. Annotated Transcript of Segment from Karakuri Funniest Japanese
C: Camus
I: interviewee
(authors’ translation)
On-screen Text
(colour of text in parentheses)
On-screen text
(authors’ translation)
C 1 Please tell me your SHINJIRARENAI story! Please tell me your UNBELIEVABLE story Please tell me your 信じられないstory (in blue)
(あなたの信じられない話を教えって下さい) (in blue)
Please tell me your unbelievable story
I 1 OK. Umm. To Japan first. I was walking down the street. 初めて日本に来たころ、今まで見たことのない素敵な女性を見つけました。(in red) When I first came to Japan, I saw beautiful women, the likes of which I have never seen before The Interviewee’s dialogue is an abbreviated, incomprehensible version of the ‘translation’ given in the Japanese on-screen text.
C 2 Ah huh.
I 2 And I noticed that the girls’ fashions [sic] was a little different from the US. (2) So (2) I immediately noticed this girl who, ah, had these high heels on. 女性はとてもヒールの高い靴をはいていたので。。。 (in red) ‘cause the girl was wearing these shoes with really high heels.
C 3 Ah huh?
I 3 Oh man! Those shoes are big! (2) And she slapped me! (Said in an affected high-pitched voice). 「キミのくつは大きいね」て、ほめたら、いきなり、殴られました。 (in red) I said admiringly ‘Your shoes are big, aren’t they?’, and suddenly she slapped me. praise
C 4 She slapped you? (Said while laughing)
I 4 She slapped me! 殴ったんだよ!(in red) She slapped me!
C 5 Ha ha! In Japanese. Japanese please. (said while laughing) Japanese please. (in red)
日本語でお願いします。 (in red)
Please say it in Japanese.
I 5 Yeah so ano saisho nihon ni kita toki Umm, so…umm…the first time I came to Japan… 最初日本に来た時 (in red) Umm, the first time I came to Japan…
C 6 Ah huh?
I 6 Ano Shibuya de onna no ko ano mite. High heel ga ano hontou ni ookii. Ookikatta. Umm..In Shibuya…umm…I saw…this girl. [Her] high heels…umm...are really big. Were really big. 渋谷で女の子見て。ハイヒールが本当に大きい。大きかった。
(in red)
I saw this girl in Shibuya. Her high heels are really big. Were really big.
C 7 Are dekai desu ne?
(gesturing to high heels)
They were huge, right?
I 7 So. Right.
C 8 Hai. Yes.
I 8 Soshite, nanka jya ano, kangaete ano ah, KETSU DEKAI.
(Ketsu dekai said with emphasis as self-reported speech)]
Then, so umm, I thought (for a bit) umm ah (and said) ‘Your backside is huge!’ そして何か考えて、「あの。。。ケツデカイ!」言ったら
(Text in Red except for ‘ケツデカイ!’ which is written in bold yellow text and katakana script for added emphasis).
Then, I thought for a bit and when I said ‘Your backside is huge!’… Loud audience laughter caused by this.
C 9 Yeah?
(Starts laughing uncontrollably. Loud audience laughter)
Loud audience laughter continues.
I 9 Onna no ko ga Slapped me その女の子が Slapped me! (なぐられた!) (in red) The girl slapped me! (slapped me!)
C 10 (laughing)
I 10 [Inaudible] 張り手された。
(in white, indicating it wasn’t said)
I was slapped.
C 11 Shoe wa kutsu desu. 「The word」 Shoe…Shoe is KUTSU [in Japanese]. Shoe…Shoeはクツです。 (in blue. Kutsu written in bold larger font in hiragana for emphasis) [The word] Shoe…Shoe is KUTSU [in Japanese]
I 11 Ah? What?
C 12 Kore ketsu. (Gestures to his backside) This is a KETSU [backside]. Loud laughter from the audience
I 12 Huh? Hajimete shittetayo! Huh? That’s the first I knew of that. ヒャ!始めて知たた*よ
(in red. Grammatical error left intact)
Huh? That’s the first time I knew of that. Error: should be ‘shitteta’


Example Three: Segment Geinoujin [Celebrity] Private Photo Summit

The final example of language edutainment in this paper is from the segment Geinoujin [Celebrity] Private Photo Summit which appears periodically on Nihon Terebi’s popular variety show Gurunai. The setting is a mock summit between celebrity contestants dressed up as well-known political figures (interestingly though, not always of the same era) such as General Douglas Macarthur, Barak Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hillary Clinton, and Junichi Koizumi. In this segment, the celebrity contestants are shown a photo of a contemporary Japanese celebrity. Contestants are asked, in turn, to choose an item in the photo (e.g. a hat, a glass, a flower etc.), circle it, and state the English word for that item. The contestant’s pronunciation of each word is heavily scrutinised by the gatekeeper of authentic English pronunciation, a white English speaker. If the contestant’s pronunciation is deemed to be authentic enough, s/he is rewarded with a point. If not, the contestant is forced to restate the word, numerous times in some cases, until s/he is deemed to have pronounced it correctly, s/he elects to pass, or time elapses. The contestant’s struggle to clear this challenge provides the humour in this. The contestant found to have the worst English at the summit is rounded up by two supposedly scary black men dressed in dark suits and wearing sunglasses. One of the men holds the contestant in a fireman’s lift while the other spanks him on the bottom much to the delight of the other contestants and the studio audience.


This discussion critiques the genre of variety television that we have exemplified above via three interdependent discourses that have been identified in a range of academic works. They are: 1) a conflation of language and ethnic identity; 2) the reification of the native speaker; and 3) the discourse of failure in foreign language learning. It is not possible to completely separate these because each of the three discourses is both reliant on, and operationalised, by the other two. While acknowledging the significant overlapping in these discourses, we will discuss each in turn.

Figure 1. The interdependency of language edutainment discourses

Jackson, Figure 1

The Nihonjinron conflation of language and national/racial/ethnic identity

The Nihonjinron (日本人論 – literally, theories of ‘Japaneseness’) is a body of literature – and the discourse that literature sustains – that espouses an essentialist ‘uniquely unique’ (Sugimoto 1997, p. 2) characterisation of Japan’s sociological and psychological essence. These works depict Japanese society as racially and culturally homogeneous, and, in relation to language, the archetypical Nihonjinron formulations, according to Maher and Yashiro (1995, p. 10), erroneously presume national monolingualism and the uniqueness of the Japanese language itself.

Although in academic discourses the Nihonjinron ideology has been largely discredited for two decades (e.g.: Befu 1993; Denoon et al. 2001; Noguchi 2001) we argue that its popularist manifestations – such as discourses that can be found in language edutainment programming – remain prevalent in contemporary Japanese society. In particular, we believe that the Nihonjinron ideology that shapes discourses about foreign language learning in Japan is predicated on three fundamental assumptions that are prevalent in such programs.

First, there exists a widespread assumption that the nature of the Japanese language is somehow distinctly different from all other languages. In Nihonjinron discourse, Japanese is frequently juxtaposed against other languages (usually English) which, in relation to Japanese, are presumed to be less nuanced and vague, as well as more rhetorical and easier to master (Kubota 1998). Indeed, the view that a mystical linguistic spirit (kotodama 言霊, see Miller’s famous 1982 work) renders Japanese, in comparison to other languages, virtually impossible for non-Japanese to acquire, remains pervasive (Gottlieb 2005 pp. 4-5; 2012, p. 13). The assumption here that, given the presumed distance between English and Japanese, L2 learners from each language background will have great difficulty learning the other language, is unsustainable.

The featured segments in the Karakuri programs mentioned above persistently show L2 learners of English and Japanese respectively to be inept at using the second language. Furthermore, in our third example, Geinoujin [Celebrity] Private Photo Summit from the programme Gurunai, the highly racialised nature of the cultural and linguistic divide is exaggerated. The humour in this segment is created through the knowledge that the Japanese celebrities dressing up as foreign political figures are totally hopeless in their attempts to successfully deploy alternative linguistic identities to that of Japanese-speaking monolingual. With the Japanese language so profoundly connected to cultural nationalism and identity in Japan (Yoshino 1992 pp. 12-17; Gottlieb 2012 p. 13), it is not surprising that English is sometimes referred to as the ‘alien language’ (Dougill 2008).

The second Nihonjinron premise concerning foreign language learning is that using a foreign language requires Japanese to somehow enact personality traits presumed to be non-Japanese. Evidence of this is that one of the goals of the JET (Japan English Teacher) Program through which thousands of English native speakers are deployed to Japanese schools as assistant English teachers is to help students become accustomed to foreigners (McConnell 2000) and their assumed difference. Moody and Matsumoto (2011), for example, argue that the ideal Japanese speaker of English is someone who is able to overcome their (presumably, as a Japanese, innate) fear and shyness in speaking a foreign language, and is able to display courage (yuuki), self-effacement (jigyaku), and enthusiasm (genki). ‘Being shy (hazukashii)’ writes McVeigh (2002, p. 108), ‘is often used as an excuse as to why students cannot or will not express themselves, and this description seems to make sense in a society where modesty and self-restraint are strong cultural desirables.’ This commonly heard remark, McVeigh argues ‘is similar to other culturalist yarns: for example that ‘Japan is culturally homogeneous’; ‘Japan is a small country’; ‘Japanese is a unique language like no other’ and so on (2002, p. 108). Thus, the Nihonjinron ideology seems to erroneously conflate a presumed and particularly unique difficulty in learning foreign languages with issues of race, nationality, and ethnicity.

Institutional embodiment of the theory of Japanese uniqueness has been discussed separately by Hashimoto (2000) and Liddicoat (2007a; 2007b) who’s textual analyses of government policy documents show English education to be an exercise in Japanisation. In other words, English is frequently positioned in opposition to Japanese, and in the clips we have discussed, the non-Japanese characters are repeatedly positioned in contrast to Japanese people. Taken singularly, this contrastive positioning that is ripe for comedic exploitation may seem innocuous. But as a consistently repeated theme in this genre and elsewhere, a negative understanding of human’s potential to learn and expand their linguistic and cultural repertoires outside their first language and cultural environment is created.

The Reification of the Native Speaker

‘One consequence of relating the concept of Japanese ethnocentrism to foreign language learning’ writes Seargeant (2009, p. 56), ‘is that it prioritises the role of culture in ELT practice’. He goes on to argue that in Japan, native-speaker teachers are seen as representing, first and foremost, the target foreign culture to the extent that their role and appointment as instructors of specialized knowledge is overshadowed by their status as authentic living cultural artifacts. This reliance on an ‘essentialised notion of national and ethnic identities of both home and foreign language culture’ (Breckenridge and Erling 2011, p. 98) has had a profound impact on the way foreign languages are taught and studied in Japan. For example, that the hiring practices of English language schools – particularly those in the commercial eikaiwa (English conversation school) sector – have been, for many years, racially based is well-documented (Bailey 2006; Breckenridge and Erling, 2011, p.85; Hall, 1998; McVeigh, 2002, p. 167; Seargeant, 2009), and the dominant underlying assumption in Japan seems to be that to teach ‘authentic’ English, you have to conform to a narrow set of physical and personal characteristics.

Rivers (2011, p. 3) offers a prototypical exemplar of the ideal native speaker teacher in Japan. Linguistically, he argues, in order to maintain perceptions of purity and authenticity, the native speaker teacher must be perceived to be utterly monolingual. Demonstration of proficiency – or even interest – in Japanese is firmly discouraged. Racially, the ideal native speaker should come from an ‘inner-circle’ (Kachru, 1992) country, and of course, be tall and good looking. Behaviorally, the ideal native speaking teacher should be charismatic, optimistic, and extroverted. S/he should be unconditionally willing to speak to anyone in the foreign language about all subjects, except, of course, problems regarding EFL education in Japan. And culturally, the ideal native speaker teacher should embrace all cultural events (e.g.: Christmas, Halloween) consistent with stereotypical images of the native speaker’s home country, regardless of their actual personal or religious beliefs.

The reification of the native speaker rests on several questionable assumptions. In their review of the existing literature, Breckenridge and Erling (2011, p. 82) cite numerous studies that indicate students often perceive native speaker teachers to be more linguistically competent, outgoing, talkative, flexible, and innovative than their non-native speaker counterparts. It has also been shown that students often rely heavily on native speakers, who, as authentic linguistic resources, are expected to legitimise students’ use of the target language (Silver 2011). Kirkpatrick’s (2007, p. 8) summation of this issue is precise: ‘…many people believe that native speakers are necessarily better at speaking English than non-native speakers.’ In the case of Japan, Yano writes,

The majority of Japanese think that only native speaker English is real, natural, and authentic, and thus worthy of learning. They pursue the impossible dream of obtaining ‘native’ or ‘near-native’ proficiency in English. It is not uncommon to encounter newspaper and magazine articles saying that since an overwhelming majority of teachers of English are Japanese Japan needs to hire more native speaker English teachers so that the learners can have access to genuine English.

Yano (2011, p. 131)

However, despite the mantle upon which native speakers are often positioned, the constructs of native and non-native speaker have, due in large part to the growth of Critical Applied Linguistics (see Pennycook 2001), increasingly been problematised. Tsuda (1997, p. 25) writes that ‘the Japanese…glorify English, its culture and speakers’ to the extent that they are suffering from ‘Eigo Byo’ (English Disease) or ‘Anglomania’. In her paper entitled ‘Who, if anyone, is a native speaker?’ Piller (2001) argues that the very notion of a native speaker is conceptually flawed and removed from reality. ‘Linguistically, the native speaker concept is useless…’ she argues, ‘As discourse analysts, however, we should carefully examine discourses about native speakers and the mother tongue as instances of the discursive construction of difference, deficit, and domination’ (Piller 2001, p. 14). Piller fittingly asserts that ‘native-speakerism’ – a term later used by Holliday (2005) – requires critical examination. Native speaking teachers, it should be noted, have also been subjected to back-handed, disparaging labels including that of ‘professional egoist’ (Barratt and Kontra 2000, p. 21) and the ‘native non-teacher’ (de Almeida Mattos 1997, p. 38) (both of these references cited in Breckenridge and Erling 2011, p. 84).

The genre of variety programs that we have described above consistently employs Caucasian native speakers of English from ‘inner circle countries’ (Kachru 1992) to judge the English of Japanese participants. Nothing escapes their attention, however, even when what the L2 speakers say is quite comprehensible. The subtext for learners is that good is not good enough for the authentic target interlocutor, the native speaker. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach to native speakers and Japanese speakers of English, is further emphasised in these programs by the application of different colours, fonts, and scripts in subtitles. In all our examples of language edutainment, the English and Japanese proficiency of second language speakers is subjected to the judgments of native speakers. For example, in the Geinoujin Private Photo Summit featured segment, it is a white English native speaker who brings down the judgment regarding the accuracy of the contestants’ pronunciation, and it is the black native speakers who meter out the punishment to those deemed to have failed.

The racial embodiment of English speakers creates an impossible hurdle for Japanese learners and the unrealistic linguistic goal of L1 competence also sets the bar unnecessarily high for them. Rather than setting competence goals akin to that of native speakers, a discourse of acceptable imperfection in communicative competence would be helpful to English learners. Likewise, the faces and voices of some of the many successful Japanese speakers of English would neutralise the negative messages being sent to potential learners.

In both examples from the Karakuri segments, Thane Camus, the interviewer, continually laughs at, corrects, mocks, and ridicules the participants for their poor linguistic ability. Although we have argued earlier that a large portion of language learners appearing on Japanese television are portrayed as linguistically incompetent, Mr. Camus, who was raised and educated in Japan, is an exception. Camus appears anomalous in this regard. While he embodies most of Rivers’ prototypical native speaker characteristics, such as being tall, good-looking, enthusiastic, and extroverted, his point of departure is his high level of Japanese proficiency. We argue that Mr. Camus belongs to a rarified class of foreign celebrities who are celebrities for the very reason that they defy expectations regarding bilingualism. He is the bilingual explainer that is needed to bridge the linguistic and cultural gulf.

Discourses of Failure regarding Foreign Language Learning

We have so far discussed the negative inference that Japanese are culturally unsuited to speaking/learning English and that native speakers are the only authentic speakers of both Japanese and English. The third discourse we believe to be perpetuated in our examples of language edutainment programming is a discourse of failure in foreign language learning in Japan. The humor underpinning all of the segments we have introduced rests on the belief that, despite six years of compulsory English education in the junior/senior high school system, Japanese people, invariably, cannot speak English. English education, this discourse implies, is a complete failure, and any effort to become proficient in the language will prove futile. Stated simply, it is a perceived shared experience of failed foreign language study that is being lampooned in these programs.

According to Seargeant (2009, p. 3), ‘one of the most frequently voiced opinions about English in Japan is that the high profile of, and indeed, immense interest in, the language is not matched by an equally high level of communicative proficiency among the population’. That Japan, by TOEFL scores, is frequently outperformed by other Asian countries is a fact that has been cited virtually de rigueur in all discussions about the apparent poor state of English learning in the country (e.g.: Honna 1995, p. 57; McKenzie 2010, p. 10, McVeigh 2002; Seargeant 2009, p. 47; Seargeant 2011, p. 188). Seargeant (2009, p. 47) has labeled the pessimism with which English education is often discussed as the ‘problem frame’ around which debate and discussion is often conducted.

The discourse of failure relating to foreign language learning is widespread, not only within the language edutainment genre, but throughout the mass media. ‘Japanese media of all types’, posits one online contributor to the website Everything2 (quoted in Seargeant, 2009, p. 150), ‘strongly support the image that Japanese, no matter how much they study, simply cannot speak English’. This, coupled with the justification that English is too difficult and that Japanese people do not have the cultural make up for speaking it, are powerful demotivators for English learning, especially when there are men in black coming to get you when you fail.

In the three examples discussed in this paper, the acceptance of failure in second language learning is pervasive and celebrated in the comedy. The Japanese storytellers in the Karakuri Funniest English program seem happy to contribute to the normalisation of failure in English, and their counterparts in the Karakuri Funniest Japanese segment appear to be cooperative in furthering the myth that non-Japanese cannot acquire Japanese either. Earlier in this paper we have pointed to the strong beliefs regarding the Japanese language and culture that provide justification of this failure. The defeatist discourse negatively influences potential learners of English.


This paper has sought to problematise the content of edutainment in second language learning by identifying three interdependent discourses that are perpetuated by a particular genre of Japanese television programming. The discourses concern: 1) a conflation of language and ethnic identity; 2) a reification of the native speaker; and 3) a defeatist discourse about language learning. We have argued that this genre of television emerges from and contributes to the three discourses. Our concern is that they impact on language learners in negative ways predisposing them to believe success in foreign languages and language learning to be unachievable. This mindset undermines English education in Japan.

Seargent and others (Seargeant 2011b, p. 3, see also Higgins 2009; Pennycook 2010) have advocated the viewing of language as a ‘situated social practice’ and Seargeant has also maintained that scholars need to consider the ways in which English ‘is displayed as part of a far wider semiotic practice’ (Seargeant 2009, p. 1) rather than merely paying attention to learner language or the linguistic organisation of the variety that has come to be called ‘Japanese English’. We believe that in the case of the television segments that we have presented, there appears to be a lighthearted engagement with English learning. However, we have revealed that even in this material there are negative messages to learners that have pedagogical implications. Where teachers more fully understand the ways in which second language learners are socio-culturally preconditioned to relate to foreign language(s), their teaching practice becomes more informed and effective. Finally, newer forms of language edutainment – such as the i-Phone application ‘What if your boyfriend was a foreigner?’, (Jackson 2011; Jackson & Kennett 2012) – also display elements that we have critiqued from the example segments. This demonstrates the level of entrenchment and uncritical acceptance of these beliefs. While we do not wish to wreck anyone’s fun, continued scholarly attention to these forms of edutainment is warranted. Further, teachers and learners need to learn to view this material critically so that they can challenge the negative discourses about language learning and ethnic identity that narrow their potential as learners and their interaction as human beings.


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[1] Although the verb form ‘asobou’ (let’s play) has a final long vowel and is thus conventionally Romanized with a final ‘u’, the Japanese title of this programme appears in the hiragana script as ‘asobo’ – a softer, child-like usage of the expression (see also Moody, 2006: 213).

[2] The title Eigo de Shabera Naito is a word play. It can be interpreted as meaning something approximating both ‘We must speak English’ and ‘English Speaking Night (see also Moody, 2006, p. 213).

About the Author

Lachlan Jackson is an Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, where he teaches English. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Queensland, and is also the Editor of the Japan Journal of Multilingualism and Multiculturalism. Belinda Kennett is a Lecturer in Japanese in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland. Her interests include long term motivation for foreign language learning and foreign language pedagogy.

Email the authors: Lachlan Jackson Belinda Kennett

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