A few weeks ago, a language school in Shinjuku, Tokyo with the rather dramatic name of Fortress Japan got into trouble when they were caught, amongst other things, 1. harvesting snail and email addresses under false pretenses (in the guise of conducting surveys), and 2. threatening people to sign up for their English conversation classes by trying to scare them. The specific phrase they used was "If you don't know how to speak English, you will be a -
人生の敗北者 じんせいのはいぼくしゃ jinsei no haibokusha
This literally means a loser in life. The amazing thing to me is that this actually worked on more than a few people, who gave their money over to these people.
I live in Zürich, a multicultural and multi-lingual city where there are lots of ads for language schools. But that doesn't even begin to compare with the number of language-school ads that you see in trains, on billboards and other places in Japan. About 1 in 4 ads seem to be for language schools, and the no. 1 language to be learned (though Chinese seems to be creeping up in popularity) is still English.
What is sad is that by the time they have finished high school, most Japanese people have had at least six years of mandatory English classes, if not more. There are English 'juku' (cram schools, after-school classes) for kids as young as kindergarten age. The widely acknowledged problem with English education in Japan is that it's still oriented towards rote learning of grammar rules and spelling, rather than actually learning how to speak and understand the language - because it's easier to test kids on grammar and such than on if they can conduct a simple conversation.
There have been many attempts made to improve the way in which English is taught in Japan, but still, many people labor to speak it.
I am lucky enough to have learned to speak English when I was very young. It's not even my second language anymore - in terms of ease of use, it may even be my first. Whenever I am in Japan and it comes out that I speak English, the reactions I get are rather interesting. Mostly I just hear "羨ましい (うらやましい urayamashii) - (I'm) envious". But on the negative side, there is a mix of envy, fear, disdain and dismissal. (I've heard other bilingual Japanese people talk about getting this kind of reaction. Kikoku shijo (帰国子女 きこくしじょ）, or kids who return to Japan after some time spent in another country, were and may still be regular targets for bullying in Japanese schools.) I think that my English fluency, more than my many years of living outside of Japan, make me an 'other' to a lot of Japanese people. I've even been told, in some off moments by people who were either drunk or just out to be snarky, that I was a 'gaijin' - a foreigner, and that I didn't count as a true Japanese person. Not very nice. I've learned to keep my English-speaking-self under wraps for the most part, since I am not fond of unnecessary conflict.
Still, from now on if I run into such people, I can tell them that they are a loser in life. Or, at least think it silently. ^_^