Writing in Japan

In the third and final blog in our mini-series of posts from ELT writers based in non-Anglophone countries, Marcos Benevides shares his perspective as an EFL teacher, writer and innovator based in Tokyo.

As an economically developed nation that invests heavily in education, Japan has long been a large market for ELT materials, albeit one with unique constraints and opportunities for writers. Delegates at the JALT International Conference each November will quickly note that most of the big publishers around the world are represented here, although their most popular courses often differ from those in other markets. In my experience, over the past 20 years (10 as a writer), Japan has been a vibrant place for ELT materials writing, with a supportive community of teachers who are well motivated and willing to try new approaches.

In Japan, courses at lower levels of proficiency (between A1 and B1) far outsell more advanced courses. Teachers look for a variety of courses, and are generally open to new ideas. There is great interest in courses that focus on communication skills, presentations and cultural content. There are few cultural taboos worth mentioning, as long as writers stay away from overly nationalistic topics such as the Imperial family or Japan’s World War II atrocities. In fact, one of the complaints I often hear is that international ELT materials, which are made to appease very conservative markets such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, are often too boring or feel childish to Japanese learners. Here they generally want to see interesting social issues, foreign perspectives, and everyday practices such as dating represented in their materials – so don’t hold the PARSNIPS, please.

Test prep courses for TOEFL and TOEIC are very popular, as is IELTS, increasingly, as well. Many integrated skills courses are on the market, but some of these big sellers are perhaps not as well known in other markets. Pearson’s English Firsthand, for example, has probably been the best-selling course over the past 20 years, and is one of the few big-publisher books that is produced with Japan as its primary market.

On the other hand, the market for public (i.e. state) school materials is largely closed to non-Japanese publishers, so the international publishers almost exclusively target colleges, universities and private schools. Japanese publishers largely sell into primary and secondary schools, with few big sellers in higher education ELT. Their business model tends to be quite different; for writers based in Japan, it can be relatively easy to get a book published with a Japanese publisher if the authors can guarantee a modest adoption at their own institution. In this way, Japanese publishers tend to release a number of new titles each year with small print runs, and then are quick to put the non-performing ones out of print. Editorial and production quality tends to be low outside of their flagship courses that sell into secondary schools and juku (tutorial and extra-practice schools).

There are a number of successful small and medium-sized publishers operating in Japan, including my own, Atama-ii Books. Many of these were started by full-time teachers at university level who were disappointed with what was offered by either international or national publishers. Perhaps owing to the manageable size of the country and its (pre-internet) relative isolation, small presses like mine have been able to thrive more than ‘indies’ in other countries. Perhaps it’s my observer bias in action, but it does seem to me that there are more fairly successful small presses in Japan than in other markets that I have visited. For example, a visitor to JALT will see well-stocked booths for at least a half dozen locally run companies that release materials to rival the bigger publishers in production value. They are supported by a number of distributors which are often local start-ups as well, including englishbooks.jp and ETJ Book Service.

An increasingly popular option, as in other places around the world, is self-publishing. At the moment, I feel that most Japanese institutions still have too many barriers to getting self-published books into classrooms without a recognised distributor in the middle, but this may be improving. I have seen an increase in both the quantity and quality of self-published books and other materials (language learning games seem very hot these days), and I think this is a wave that is still swelling.

However they are produced, the demand for high-quality ELT materials will not go away any time soon. In Japan, the competition is friendly, vibrant, and still heating up!

Marcos Benevides is a teacher, researcher, and author based in Tokyo. He was recently awarded his second ELTon Award for his co-authored course, Widgets Inc.: A task-based course in workplace English (Atama-ii Books). He also holds an ESU Duke of Edinburgh Award for Fiction in Action: Whodunit (Abax Press), plus an ELTon nomination and three Language Learner Literature awards as series editor of the Atama-ii Books graded reader series. His areas of interest include task-based language teaching, teaching literature in EFL, extensive reading, and barbecuing.

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