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Adopting English as workplace language in Japan has its downside

71 Comments

Rakuten, the online shopping mall operator, earlier this month held a welcoming ceremony for 480 senior university students it expects to hire next spring. Notable about the occasion was that president Hiroshi Mikitani spoke in English. So did the students. Not surprising, perhaps, given Mikitani’s pledge in 2010 to make English the sole company language by 2012.

Still, it was disconcerting to Japanese reporters covering the event. They are accustomed to functioning in Japanese. Why should they be at a linguistic disadvantage in their own country?

More and more, English is becoming a career necessity. Even companies not going to the extremes of Rakuten and clothing retailer Uniqlo, which also has an English-only agenda, getting hired or promoted increasingly depends on tested and certifiable knowledge of English – even when a person’s professional responsibilities don’t require the language, says Shukan Gendai (Nov 5), which thinks the trend has gone way too far.

The energy it absorbs is easily measured. In 1990, 330,000 Japanese took the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). In 2010, 1.78 million did. That’s a 5.4-fold increase – and yet, says former Microsoft Japan president Makoto Naruke, himself a fluent English speaker, “Ninety percent of Japanese don’t need English.” (In fact he wrote a book advancing that argument, with that as its title.)

“The proportion of Japanese who really need English is about 10%,” he says. “When I heard about Rakuten and Uniqlo adopting English as the official workplace language, I thought, ‘That’s idiotic.’”

Shukan Gendai collects some amusing stories about companies learning the hard way that linguistic proficiency and professional proficiency are not necessarily linked – and may in fact be incompatible, since learning English takes time away from learning other skills.

For example:

“We’re seeing more journalists who speak English but lack reporting skills,” the magazine hears from the foreign editor of a leading newspaper. “People who grew up abroad and returned to Japan speaking native-speaker English get made a fuss over here, but when they’re sent overseas, they don’t cultivate sources or do legwork. They just translate stuff from the local papers and send it home. They make big money, and it’s a complete waste.”

Then there’s the case of the small company – a manufacturer and exporter of wrapping machines – that was surprised to notice a few years ago they were getting applicants from top universities and with impressive TOEIC scores. Well, so much the better, thought the company president – who realized, of course, that the cause was the hiring freeze the lingering recession was imposing on larger, more prestigious firms.

He was soon disillusioned, however. Academic and English credentials notwithstanding – or could it have been because of them? – these seemingly bright lights proved very dim indeed, incapable of doing anything on their own. “Even after six months,” he says, “they couldn’t do a thing unless you gave them detailed instructions.”

Former NEC executive Tatsuaki Kikuchi recalls being posted to a U.S. subsidiary despite knowing very little English. He communicated by drawing pictures, and the Americans made a point of speaking slowly for his benefit. “We had no problems,” he says breezily.

He’s now a career counselor at a Yokohama University. “I tell my students that the era of mass-production, mass-consumption is ending, and corporations now appreciate that it’s no longer a question of steadily fulfilling a fixed agenda but of rising to new challenges. It’s better to know English than not to know it, but English is just one tool among many.”

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Nice article. I've worked with Rakuten's Mikitani and senior/junior staff and can tell you that his English-only proclamation is nothing more than a charade and PR stunt (in addition to being an "idiotic" policy). Very few Rakuten employees take it seriously. Knowing Mikitani's business acumen, I imagine he was seeing yen signs when he first made his silly English-only decision in 2010.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I think the conclusion to the article is fairly obvious - that English skills by themselves don't guarantee a quality, productive professional. But certainly Japanese businesses, especially those with large international components, will benefit from greater English proficiency by its workers.

Japanese people doing business in Japan only with other Japanese people in English is pretty stupid, though.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

rakuten and uniqlo have both made inroads into foregin markets. how can the english (ok english only is a little weird - should include other languages as well - and not for all) be idiotic? and tuff nuts to those in the press that covered it. they have been studying english for years and cannot put a sentence together. this" idiotic" should be directed at the educational system that refuses to teach languages (most specifically english) in a usable way.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

JAPAN... DO NOT LOSE your language!... i love studying JP while living in USA

-12 ( +4 / -16 )

@David Johnson - DO NOT LOSE your language! what does it mean for japanese to speak english? dont people all over, i dont know, - europe, other places in asia - keep their languages when learning and using other languages for business?!?!?!? or are you one of those that still think that japan is unique?

8 ( +11 / -3 )

the best trick of any Japanese leader of a foreign company in Japan is to control the flow of communication to HQ, if you are the only one who speaks English, you own the home office people would you agree Mr. Naruke?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Sillygirl, take a deep breath and look at the facts. No one is disputing that Rakuten, or any Japanese company doing business overseas, should not have people proficient in English and other foreign languages. Point being that Rakuten's CEO has made English mandatory for ALL business between all people inside the Tokyo headquarters and out. Expecting a Japanese company to conduct meetings etc in English is just plain stupid. That's the issue here.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

From a young age the rewards of learning a 2nd language is an overall rise in test scores at schools compared with peers. The language of choice does not have to be English. However the benefits of learning English, as a world language are advantageous.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

“The proportion of Japanese who really need English is about 10%,” he says. “When I heard about Rakuten and Uniqlo adopting English as the official workplace language, I thought, ‘That’s idiotic.’”

I think this is about right.

After all, a Japanese company doing business globally is not also staffed globally by Japanese people--they only need as many English speakers as required to ensure the global (non-Japanese-speaking) parts work well with the Japanese parts.

Rakuten's initiative--which at one point extended to requiring all Japanese (except Mikitani, of course) to adopt "English" names in the workplace--is clearly a case of painting with too broad a brush in an effort to make a point; Mikitani would serve industry, and Japan, better by putting some of those resources into lobbying the government to change how language is taught here, so that companies that need fluent, truly capable bilingual speakers can count on finding them.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Our world is in flux today more than ever. Gone forever is the idea of "Japan, Inc." In order to prosper in the future, Japan must step up and become a global business player. Outside of Japan, our fine language is not used, whereas English is used in many places worldwide. In fact, even to enjoy leisure outside of Japan, one must have an ability to use English. It really opens up the world to us. Any steps toward expanding the use of conversational English and more, are important steps for the future of Japan. Our people are disappearing (very low birthrate), and our language, unfortunately will fade as well. This is simply a numerical fact.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Whist in Japan I made an effort to learn the Japanese language, both for the sake of being able to converse with my grandchildren and all the wonderfull aquaintanceis I made on each visit. I did need assistance on some shopping trips when my knowledge of Japanese was insufficeint and was greatfull to English speaking staff who were able to assist. I also found English speaking staff invaluable when travelling on public transport ie, trains. When all else failed I had great fun miming and drawing maps. I made many friends with Japanese people who liked to practice their English, which I must say was far more credible then my version of Japanese conversation , which brought many giggles at my mistakes. This brings me to say ,thankyou everyone who treated me with patience and respect, but Japanese is the language of your birth and never allow employers to subject you otherwise

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I don't think it should be a rule that English only is used in the work place unless there are a substantial number of foreign workers, and even then when it's Japanese dealing with other Japanese and no non-Japanese present it's a little ludicrous. I've had foreign friends and/or aquaintances start talking to me in Japanese (one wanted to only use Japanese to improve his skill) and it was both unnatural and stupid if it was only us at the time. Put the signs in English? fine, I can see that, with any absolutely critical info also being posted in Japanese.

As for the media being concerned, what do they do when they interview foreign people or cover foreign media? They add subtitles! True, they're still at a disadvantage in terms of asking questions and getting answers (if in English), so they should be able to ask in Japanese. As for understanding the answers and asking follow-ups? well, it's up to the company being interviewed as to what language they'll use, so they should get reporters with a bit of English know-how as well (in such cases).

3 ( +3 / -0 )

We’re seeing more journalists who speak English but lack reporting skills

The exact same goes for foreigners in Japan, so many times I've seen foreigners that speak Japanese and english perfectly but lack any business skill. They get the job on their perceived intelligence that they can speak x languages.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Sillygirl, take a deep breath and look at the facts. No one is disputing that Rakuten, or any Japanese company doing business overseas, should not have people proficient in English and other foreign languages. Point being that Rakuten's CEO has made English mandatory for ALL business between all people inside the Tokyo headquarters and out. Expecting a Japanese company to conduct meetings etc in English is just plain stupid. That's the issue here.

They do it in many Asian countries, why not Japan?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@gogogo Have seen this so many times here it sickens me. Language skills are great and should be commended but it does not make you instantly all powerful in the world of business. I know a number of Japanese companies that hire based solely on Japanese ability and then wonder why they end up with people having no business acumen.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I know someone who works at Rakuten and he laughs at the "English only" thing. Says meetings are in Japanese, the staff speak Japanese... just a PR thing.

They would have a heck of a time trying to find Japanese staff fresh out of uni with the flunecy. I teach at a 'Gaidai" and those kids graduate with okay English but nearly enough to work in a business and use only English.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I like the final phrase... May I add: "Learn Chinese!!!" :)) ?

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

"JAPAN... DO NOT LOSE your language!"

And why would Japan have to fear losing its language? This is precisely the kind of -- and I'll be nice here --misinformed viewpoint regarding the acquisition of foreign languages that has left Japan lingering at the back of the line among Asian nations proficiency.

Sillygirl is correct. A number of Europen nations raise and educate populations that are billingual or trilingual without any threat of the mother language going the way of the dodo bird. There's no rational basis for the fear that learning a second language will destroy the first one.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Japanese companies that want to be English-speaking-only would find their business opportunities much better if they were to migrate to anglophone countries. Mind if I suggest America?

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

japanese study english for 8 years and master 4 phrases...hello!....my name is..... this is a pen....yes we can...japan is worse than america when i comes to people that can speak foreign languages

6 ( +6 / -0 )

“The proportion of Japanese who really need English is about 10%,”

I agree with him. People who are as brilliant as being leader may not understand that most people have to take a lot of time to acquire a foreign language. It is better for them to hone heavy-used skills rather than rarely-used foreign language skills to support their companies. Only workers who are responsible for coordinating Japanese workers with English workers and who work at foreign branches need to learn English.

By the way, if they really want a person with a good English ability, they should depend on the TOEFL, instead of the TOEIC, to determine candidate's English fluency. The TOEIC does not include both a speaking and a writing section. It tests merely reading and listening skills The TOEIC is practically useless.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The article points out what the Japanese themselves call "atarimae". Obviously English proficiency alone without any other business skills is useless., and it's equally obvious that for the 90% of Japanese bliving and working in Japan the ability to speak English is unnecessary. But if Japanese business' intend to grow and expand at best, and continue to exist and be competitive in the global markets at worst, they'd better think a little harder than calling this shift towards English "idiotic". That's as shortsighted a view as I've heard lately, while their Asian businerss competitors move forward.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Anything in Kuchikomi is to be taken with a grain of salt because it's not based on actual reporting, just a couple of interviews with obviously biased sources.

It makes perfect sense for Rakuten to go all-English, what with its agenda to expand globally and all. Same goes with Uniqlo - wasn't there a story just a few days ago about how Uniqlo's sales in NYC are outpacing Tokyo sales?

And I this line: “We’re seeing more journalists who speak English but lack reporting skills,” the magazine hears from the foreign editor of a leading newspaper." is clearly misleading. Japan's press is notoriously unethical and slapshod. Anyone that got a journalism education in the US would have an immediate advantage. My guess he's hiring non-journalists for their English skills, in which case, what exactly did you expect?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This is not about English-this is about lazy and unprepared kids, who spend their university time by doing anything but studying. I've seen them plenty in my uni. And things will get worse.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Just because you're good at language doesn't mean you're good with other tasks. When I deal with H1B computer workers from India, often the ones who speak the best English are the worst workers. To me it make sense because the person with the gift of languages was the equivalent of a liberal arts major. Though I find this problem is far less of an issue with Europeans. So many of them speak multiple languages, it's just not special, so you can judge based on how go they are at the business skill set you're looking for.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Japanese that study English don't speak English. They study instead. That is on major flaw of the Japanese education system. They have lots of vocabulary at hand (at least those with decent higher education), they know a lot about English grammar - but they are almost incapable of using it leisurely. They will never succeed globally without shifting this focus.

Learning a few foreign languages is a lot of work and consumes a lot of time. But it is a relaxation for a mind which is focused on other difficult issues (like science or engineering) most of the time. Different ways of saying things lead to flexibility in thought. And no one ever lost his ability to use his native language by learning a foreign language. Such a statement can be only made by people who never bothered to learn additional languages.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I too have had the pleasure of knowing / working with some staff at Rakuten and I am "facebook friends" with 4 members of that company. As others have wrote, most people do not speak English very well at all and most in-house meetings are conducted in Japanese (except for meetings with Mikitani - those are always in English). If you visit the cafeteria, no one is speaking in English. I agree that it is idiotic for two beginner English speakers to try to have a business meeting in English, but I applaud Mikitani for making such a bold statement. I think he's fully aware that his employees will not magically turn into native speakers, but it sets the tone for future newcomers and it can slowly change the company into a more global, international one.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

genji, seeing as the illiteracy rate of the states is one of the lowest among developed nations, let's not even go there, shall we.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Sasorizo, what? oh my! students that goof off in university!?! never heard of that in my life! this must be stopped immediately

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Maybe not so important in the clothing business but, unfortuately, languages that use idiographs and/or a combination of idographs and phonetics do not lend themselves to the expression of new concepts. They tend to try to combine the idographs into something close to the idea or use them and phonetics to "pronounce" the foreign word but the word root is missing so it makes it hard to understand.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I know of at least one person on this site that went to international schools in Japan. Same graduating class. Well the Japanese language teachers at our school were just as bad as the language teachers in the Japanese school system. They just wanted us to memorize Kanji. So pathetically boring. Most of us spoke and read ok, but we wanted to fix our Janglish which can confuse any foreigner trying to speak to us. Any others at international schools here and graduated ?

2 ( +4 / -2 )

"I've worked with Rakuten's Mikitani and senior/junior staff and can tell you that his English-only proclamation is nothing more than a charade and PR stunt"

Could you possibly elaborate? What concrete actions or policies have led you to believe Rakuten's English-only policy is a charade or PR stunt?

"Point being that Rakuten's CEO has made English mandatory for ALL business between all people inside the Tokyo headquarters and out. Expecting a Japanese company to conduct meetings etc in English is just plain stupid. That's the issue here."

With respect, I disagree.

Considering Japan has had English language education as a core part of the standard curriculum since 1947, yet the most likely English phrase you'll encounter in Japan is, "I can't speak English," it's probably not such a bad idea for companies like Rakuten to try to do something different from what have very clearly been underwhelming results for the public education system as far as English education is concerned. With international aspirations, how stupid could it really be for this company to want to cultivate a workforce that takes English proficiency seriously?

Consider this as well: One of the most crucial components and quickest ways to achieving fluency in a second language is to have actual opportunities to use it in real context. Those opportunities are sparse-to-nonexistent in the Japanese corporate world.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Also, eikaiwa companies like Nova or Aeon just aren't up to the task of helping to create the kind of workforce that the public education system can't, yet companies like Rakuten still desperately need in this competitive global economy.

Furthermore, no company is going to go the way of the Ministry of Education's fading JET Programme, and import planeloads of scarcely qualified native English speakers to sit around staffrooms on hefty salaries to become chit-chat buddies for any staff that has the time or inclination to sit down and have a conversation with them. Never mind that these native English speakers would likely not be well versed in the international business terminology that lends any value to Rakuten's efforts.

In the absence of practical, context-appropriate opportunities to speak with native speakers (or even non-Japanese non-native English speakers), why not make it mandatory for the Japanese staff improve proficiency via their colleagues? Because it may appear silly? Well, pissing away trillions of yen on English language education to no visible end seems a whole lot sillier, IMO.

Obviously, the devil is in the details of how Rakuten pursues this policy, and maybe that's where you take issue with the company's decision to do it. But I can think of a whole lot of other more valid reasons to question the efficacy of such a policy than calling it "stupid."

2 ( +3 / -1 )

We have had quite the same kind of discussions in France, which used to be strongly and proudly monolingual. Increasingly, French companies require English for any kind of jobs. For example, in Paris area, many companies require English proficiency even for basic jobs (cashier, waiter, office, etc...). Of course, France (at least Paris and a few cities) being much more open than Japan, many people need to use English or other languages (Arabic, Chinese) regularly (for interacting with tourists, foreign residents, etc...). In the hotel industry (which I know a little bit), at least in big groups (Accor, etc...), many jobs require at least three spoken languages (including French).

Japanese companies being increasingly oriented towards global markets (thanks to the shrinking domestic market), it makes sense to put more emphasis on foreign languages (especially English, which is the lingua franca for business all over the world). It would also make sense to require hospitality industry workers to speak fluent English (and maybe Chinese or another foreign language).

3 ( +3 / -0 )

In addition to my previous post, I would like to add that global companies tend to require English proficiency as they like to move employees between countries as they suit. Some of the employees of the Japan office might be asked to work at some other Asian of foreign headquarters, so it makes sense to require that all the employees speak English.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Funny, it only takes 2-3 years of concentrated study for any language. 8 years of study and likely more for English and to speak it as badly as Japanese do is not limited to the business world, but the educational system itself. Of those who do speak it well, they are not numerous.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

@sf2k:

Funny, it only takes 2-3 years of concentrated study for any language.

I wouldn't support this. It depends on how much time you can spend on the language, if you live in the country, if you're exposed to it only in the study environment - and finally - on the linguistic proximity to languages you already know. Obtaining the ability to use a language for everyday communications takes about half of a full year under beneficial conditions. Becoming completely fluent is a different issue - memorising a few thousands of Kanji at adult age while you have a life and hold a job in the meantime is not such a simple feat. Most people will decide that it is enough before they have memorised all and continue learning on an unsystematic case-by-case basis, I guess. At least I do.

However, Japanese people are not trained to take the opportunities. Here in Tsukuba we have plenty of foreigners, but most Japanese students still avoid them most of the time. Even if they know foreigner students personally, most never try to converse in English. And this is the elite of Japanese students.

"The proportion of Japanese who really need English is about 10%," he says. "When I heard about Rakuten and Uniqlo adopting English as the official workplace language, I thought, 'That's idiotic.'"

This is very true. The fraction of people who have ambition is even less than 10%. But almost none of those with ambition will be successful without English. You shouldn't aim educational standards at achieving mediocrity - aim them at creating an elite as well. They will be the face of a country. They will be the deciding factor between success and failure.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Rakuten aims to become NO # 1 company in world in short period of time. To meet this ambitious target there are simply no talented people in Japan. Only Japanese speaking speaking are also very very few in Japan that can help Rakuten to compete at global level.

For Mikitani to attract skilled and talented people from all over the world he has to do PR stunt " Speak English by 2013". Mikitani is not saying NO Japanese. Its just he wants to have people who can compete globally. Once English only skilled and talented people produce results the Japanese only people will be shocked and have no option but to comptete internally or the company will say bye.

I wonder what will be future of Japanese people who wants to grow but do not wanrt to speak English. Its time to change. Be blingual or be slave of world. Look at the status and way Japanese people were treated outside Japan. 10 years age and now. They are no more elite and special.

Rob.

Rob

0 ( +1 / -1 )

LFRAgain, also with all due respect, it seems that you and many other posters here are missing a very important point.

Which is that the English education system in Japan, under the direction of very capable bureaucrats, is NOT a dismal failure at all, but rather, ironically, a stunning success. How can I possibly say this and call myself sane? Easy: the very goal of English education in this country is to retard or prevent proficiency, NOT advance it.

More smoke and mirrors, dude (which just so happens to be one of the things I love about living here).

Every single English education "institution" in this country, from govt ministries to Rakuten, merely repeat the standard, let's-speak-English "tatemae" mantra. But the "honne" here, which most people fail to realize, is that the Japanese consider it fundamentally un-Japanese to speak English (or any foreign language) well. The essence of being Japanese and the vehicle from which most Japanese gain their self-identity is their language (see genki5's first post above, as an immediate example: "our fine language . . . our people . . . our language"). Therefore, according to their way of thinking, proficiency in another language taints or dilutes their Japanese-ness.

Briefly, for now . . .

0 ( +3 / -3 )

In further support of my theory, is there any other country in the world that refers to its language in two very separate and distinct ways: Japanese in school study "kokugo" yet the rest of us study "nihongo?" (There very well may be; I'm just not aware of any.)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Japanese people study english as an accuracy base language, not a fluency base language. Japanese is accuracy based. English is fluency based. Japan should shift to fluency is more important then accuracy. Many of my japanese friends can write english papers better than i can, but when it come to speaking or listening they don't understand, this is the problem. I know japanese are committed to excellence, if fluency become more important then accuracy, then accuracy will become natural. I don't think it can work the other way.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

English being the working language has become normal in many European countries. Japan is really way behind the rest of the world.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I know someone who works at buy.com, which is own by Rakuten. That laughs at the j-lish, he says it is incredibly funny.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The main driver behind Rakuten and Uniqlo is business. They want to expand overseas. They can do it if they have the business acumen and language skills to do so. They are making some successes, so good luck to them.

If you look at the finance industry, you will see plenty of foreign firms here with sizeable operations. The converse is not so true. Despite being more liquid than their overseas counterparts, the Japanese finance industry has not really penetrated markets overseas to the same depth. One recent exception though, is Nomura, who bought part of the failed Lehman Brothers operation. So they now have significant overseas operations, and guess what the internal language is.... English!

The culture change is probably difficult to handle, but if we want to see less domesticity and more globalisation, then we are likely to see more of this kind of stuff. It won't take away the native language, and you could probably point to Singapore or Hong Kong for proof of that?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Kokugo is the language origin Ben. It does not use Kana but all kanji. Grammatically it is a bear like Hebrew.

I think the the boss of Rakuten should send out head hunters to the graduating classes of the international schools here and make some good deals, including putting them through the university. There is no better place in the world to find many many fluent Japanese speakers and native English speakers, or near native, plus the other languages they know. I had fellow students that often spoke three languages fluently, and some even more especially the Indian students.

I would send teams to those schools. Thousands graduate every year.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Shukan Gendai collects some amusing stories about companies learning the hard way that linguistic proficiency and professional proficiency are not necessarily linked

Duh.

If you are worried about his professional proficiency, than you should be looking at the scores related to that, not his English scores.

and may in fact be incompatible, since learning English takes time away from learning other skills.

This is true in some sense.

And why would Japan have to fear losing its language? This is precisely the kind of -- and I'll be nice here --misinformed viewpoint regarding the acquisition of foreign languages that has left Japan lingering at the back of the line among Asian nations proficiency.

Sillygirl is correct. A number of Europen nations raise and educate populations that are billingual or trilingual without any threat of the mother language going the way of the dodo bird. There's no rational basis for the fear that learning a second language will destroy the first one.

Actually being bilingual can affect proficiency in the mother tongue ... I'm living proof. :p

I'm Chinese, but I speak better English than Mandarin. I can understand conversation Mandarin, along as you don't use "difficult" words/phrases, can speak it alright but can't read nor write worth a damn - the written form of the language is a PITA, the amount of memory work is crazy and the visual presentation of the words have no connection with how they sound.

But then again maybe it's just me - my language skills suck in general. I'm one of those people that never paid much attention in language classes, more or less learned them "on the fly", learning just enough to get by. Language is a tool, as long as it gets the job done. Who cares, right? :p

Nevertheless people only have so much time to learn things. So yes, there will be trade offs.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Only workers who are responsible for coordinating Japanese workers with English workers and who work at foreign branches need to learn English.

English workers ? You mean JET assistants ? Or you imagine everybody works for a huge company with different nationality well clustered. Some of you guys really believe Japan will live like the Galapagos forever. It did in 1965. Not so much now. That will be less and less in the future. I know we "gaijins" tend to meet, more often than others, those ridiculous staff specialist in gaijin taming that survive in big companies. It's folklore. If I take businesses in Kansai, 2/3 of the industries work with Asia -not even English speaking countries. They have never seen the mythical "English workers". They either have a branch in China/India/Thailand/etc or work directly with suppliers/customers that are small companies located there. So when stuff is delivered, a guy in the factory notices a defect or needs an explanation, he directly contacts the guy in China/India/Thailand/etc. It's just as if he'd contact the guy in Yokohama or Fukuoka, except it's in English. If they can't manage on the phone, they exchange e-mails or photos. They deal everyday with invoices, etc in English. I don't know where you see Japanese small and medium businesses having interpreters or international coordinators.

Ninety percent of Japanese don’t need English.

But the guy needs it for himself. It's like those that say 90% of the Chinese don't need democracy, 90% of the North-Korean don't need more food... as long as themselves are in the 10%.

A minority needs more "native" fluency, to be diplomats, international lawyers, lecturer at universities, international salesmen, expats directing factories abroad, etc. And yes, they all need other skills than the bilingual ability. It's not a scoop. Is 10% enough ? For a small country like Japan, with declining economy on the long term, I doubt it. 20 or 30% of people able to live abroad (not all life, but like 3 yrs to study or work) would be better in the future.

Everybody has to know English, not to be bilingual but operational. Not to have the useless fluency to exchange idiot jokes in slang with the backpackers in bars, but the level to read a newspaper and get to know what the rest of the world says about Fukushima, for instance. If you are not curious for that or anything the world says about any topic, you probably have the brain of a bird and you can be a tarento. 90% of next generation will become tarento ? On this planet, everybody, even if they don't leave their native village, will one day need to use a booklet, a map or whatever in English. Every service staff in the world will sometimes have to deal with a foreigner (more migrants, more refugees, more expats, more exchange students, more tourists...) and as nobody can know 350 languages, a minimal communication has to be possible in English. Maybe in 60 yrs that will be Chinese, but for the time being it's English. I'll update that message. That people need to write on a memo pad because the accents are too thick is not important, idem if they use the translating gadgets/dictionaries. That's really bad when you can't book a hotel room or the hospital can't get access to your file or can't read it. Real cases. In the sticks in China, I understand as many people didn't go to school at all. In Japan, it's a shame. And I don't blame the J-school teachers, as there are also the assistants, the jukus, the eikawas, all the self-study resources... but you don't force a donkey to drink. I wouldn't hire a donkey. They'll be stubbornly limited for many other things, not only English. It's like computers. If you count on living without having to use a computer or basic English, you'd better be 90 yr old. You'll have the life of a Yamabushi.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I think the the boss of Rakuten should send out head hunters to the graduating classes of the international schools

Miss Legs, if you are a sample, it's not impressive. Unless they need someone to model for stockings.

And no one ever lost his ability to use his native language by learning a foreign language. Such a statement can be only made by people who never bothered to learn additional languages.

Great for you if you are immune to loss of linguistic ability. You're a rarity. I bothered to learn a few "additional languages" (done technical translation and interpretation in a former life) and they didn't make the trip to Japan... It's use or lose. I make a rule to use my first language everyday, like I brush my teeth, but it's clear I have lost 30% of ability over 15 years isolated from my language community. I didn't care in the first years. Then I found that I struggled at writing an article or a short story, I was using widgets to check vocabulary at every line, while I used to write full essays or novels effortlessly, without any electronic assistance. Hopefully, I started high, so my compatriots don't notice too much I work on a reduced vocabulary. I try to get back to former level. I can understand it's a serious issue for an expat journalist.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Learning a second language is never a waste of time. The only reason that 90% of the people in Japan "don't need English" is because they will never, ever set foot abroad in an english-speaking country, meet a person who only speaks english, or want to see a movie that doesn't have subtitles. Right?

My point is, bettering yourself is never a waste of time, and if you find the time to study something, you will find a place to use it, no matter how small. To say that it's a waste for someone to study a foreign language (not just english) is really devaluing that person. I'd like to think that people, no matter how dull you may think they are or how "boring" they might seem, are all full of limitless potential. Everybody, everywhere.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

ihavegreat... I beg to differ with you. When Japanese kids start learning kana, kanji, grammar, etc the name of their class/curriculum is kokugo. They study/learn the exact same things we foreigners study, but they call it nihongo for us. A bit of deep-rooted nationalism, though harmless.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The point of this article shows how ignorant people in Japan are that they are part of a larger world.

I went to a very prestigious business school in the US, where Japanese companies used to send their young managers with the highest potential for success. Some of these people used their education in English to be fluent in English, and actually get along well with us Americans. Other Japanese people in my class were uncomfortable with speaking English, and stayed to themselves and socialized only with other Japanese.

Later these poor English speakers were posted here in the US. They completed their assignments as ordered by their Japanese bosses. But the deals did not go well in a number of cases.

If Japanese managers and executives had tried harder to speak to and relate with American counterparts, culture and business practices, I believe that Japan would not have made the overly aggressive moves because they neither understood nor could evaluate the American markets correctly. Instead Real Estate was way over-paid for, Japanese banks lost a lot of money making bad loans on Real Estate, and attempts at mergers and partnerships would have been more successful.

Japan's answer has been to further go into its Japan-centric world. Stagnation just got worse. Today, young people in Japan know that in order to change things, they need to develop a more global view. Some Japanese people have succeeded at doing this. But any progress was achieved on their own. Japan did not have a coherent program or understood the importance and implications.

Japanese students are taught to memorize and prepare for University Entrance Exams. To understand other languages, ways and cultures in a way that they can function and interact more successfully, Japanese students need to be better trained to think, reason, question and make decisions.

The world is quite diverse in many countries, except for in places like Japan, which 98.5% ethnic Japanese.

English is a way and a window to interacting with other countries and cultures, broadening one's views, and learning other ways that could help Japan.

I could care less about the ability of news reporters to understand and write about events. I care more about people being able to work with others to make things happen. Japanese media can report the events and results however they choose to.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Companies such as Rakuten are doing things like this so no one person becomes indispensable. If only 10% of your company is fluent in English, that means 90% of your company employees will never get considered for a critical post in an English-speaking country. If an employee fluent in English needs to be let go, the pool of potential replacements would be small enough that it likely would require moving someone from ANOTHER English-based post to fill the newly vacant post.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Still, it was disconcerting to Japanese reporters covering the event. They are accustomed to functioning in Japanese. Why should they be at a linguistic disadvantage in their own country?

I could care less about the ability of news reporters to understand and write about events. I care more about people being able to work with others to make things happen. Japanese media can report the events and results however they choose to.

I found that bit of the article bizarre as well. I offer a counter-question to the article's: Why should international companies tailor their business decisions to satisfy the (in)capabilities of some fresh-out-of-college beat reporter? A reporter's job is to REPORT. It is NOT to AFFECT.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

yeh, i thought that whole "english only in the workplace" in japan was plain stupid. then i remembered this is japan, where the cart is commonly before the horse.

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Cos, I think you and Johannes are both right. The difference is whether you are submerged in a completely foreign environment for a long time.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The basic economics behind this can be read in greater perspective in Reimagining Japan. The CEOs who were among the authors of the book argued that Japan needs to REfocus outwardly rather than domestically; look at Korea's approach for instance. They see this as the way Japan can survive in a globalizing economy. The important point of all of this (to the Nihonjinron) is that you do not loose your L1 language skills by using L2.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

In this nre era with out learning English one can not compete in world level. Or we need some other method of communication that is body language etc...

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japan simply MUST get to grips with English if it wants to be a player on the world scene. Go to any Asian country outside Japan - China, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, even developing nations like Cambodia - and you will encounter ordinary citizens with impressive English skills who are able to interact meaningfully with foreigners. The simply isn't the case in Japan to anything like the same extent.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

“Even after six months,” he says, “they couldn’t do a thing unless you gave them detailed instructions.”

So? That has nothing to do at all with the fact that the could speak English. Most Japanese university gradautes are worthless because they really didn't learn anything, especially their last two years, which are totally devoted to networking and finding a job. This article is crap.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Ben4short above, wrote:

But the "honne" here, which most people fail to realize, is that the Japanese consider it fundamentally un-Japanese to speak English (or any foreign language) well. The essence of being Japanese and the vehicle from which most Japanese gain their self-identity is their language.

I once had a student who asked me how he could improve his pronunciation (I think that was related to his Japanese girlfriend being fluent in English). His vocabulary and grammar were quite good. I thought about it for a moment and then asked him, "Do you ever watch English-language movies."

"Yes," he said.

"Try to pretend that you are an actor in a movie speaking English."

He did, and his English pronunciation was excellent. Close to natural. I complimented him, proud in my way that I could help him achieve his goal so readily.

His reaction? A look of distaste on his face and the words, "I don't want to do that."

He wanted to pronounce English well. He was given a way to do it, but rejected that way. Because it was more important for him to hold on totally to a Japanese identity? Was taking on a non-Japanese approach (in language) so anathema to him? Doesn't this speak to the difficulties in getting Japanese people to actually communicate in a foreign language? Their deep-seated xenophobia disallows them to consider non-Japanese options even when trying to learn a foreign language where taking on an alternative world view is imperative.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Ultimately, I think the keyword here is "cultivation."

Clearly, Mikitani and his team are cultivating a new culture of leadership, not just new hires who speak English. I'm sure that if one were to delve deeper, perhaps with the HR people at Rakuten, one might find a new set of specific requirements in line with Rakuten's global goals.

And yes, I suspect that some of the exisiting Rakuten folks who don't speak English and don't possess competitive skill sets will be looking for new work soon as well, however unfortunate that may be.

I applaud the effort, especially since Rakuten and Fast Retailing are clearly in that "10%" that Naruke mentions.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

English IS the world business language,like it or not.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

"Try to pretend that you are an actor in a movie speaking English."

He did, and his English pronunciation was excellent. Close to natural. I complimented him, proud in my way that I could help him achieve his goal so readily.

His reaction? A look of distaste on his face and the words, "I don't want to do that."

He wanted to pronounce English well. He was given a way to do it, but rejected that way. Because it was more important for him to hold on totally to a Japanese identity? Was taking on a non-Japanese approach (in language) so anathema to him? Doesn't this speak to the difficulties in getting Japanese people to actually communicate in a foreign language? Their deep-seated xenophobia disallows them to consider non-Japanese options even when trying to learn a foreign language where taking on an alternative world view is imperative.

Maybe you are reading too much into it ...

He could just be uncomfortable, it probably feels weird to him to speak like that.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I used to work at a US based pharmaceutical company located in Japan. Since the Japanese researchers, support staff and managers worked on global projects, they would often have to read, write, and in many cases speak English with their colleagues and counterparts overseas. Site management decided to make English a priority, but stopped short of making it an "official language". We set up a training group focused not only on language skills, but also exposing them to western business practices and cross-cultural communication. The progress that was made in a few short years was amazing. Many of the issues which had for so long resulted in wasted time and effort were reduced or eliminated, and the Japanese staff really started to feel as though they belonged to the global organization, as opposed to being an isolated outpost. There were times in which "English only" meetings were held, but rarely for anything of huge importance, and the emphasis was to just make them more comfortable using English at work. In fact, when people, and especially Japanese, are taken out of their linguistic comfort zone, communication often becomes clearer and more direct. Japanese is notorious for its ambiguity, but in English, many people simply didn't have the tools to mask their true meaning in flowery, or overly formal language which didn't really mean anything. The English meetings were short and sweet, and often straight to the point.

It's important to remember that these were Japanese employees in an American firm, so for many of the scientists and managers, promotions and career-advancement did depend on being able to function in an international, and often multi-cultural environment. In cases like that, I am all for senior management pushing English, while providing adequate support for those that genuinely want to improve. But in a domestic company, where employees only ever interact with other Japanese, there's really no point.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

This push for spoken English at Rakuten and Uniqlo is unnecessary. Just some sexed up idea to make their respective companies more internationally trendy, under the front of "internationalization." The market in Japan is for the locals,not the gaijin.Period.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Sou ne, eigo ka?? Yoku wakara hen! I can just imagine working with older Japanese people trying to forced to deal in English all the time here in their Japanese companies! Boy go out to the izakayas, get really drunk and complain and complain about Engurishu?? Where is NOVA English schools when we really need you at our time of suffering here on the J islands??

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Pretty soon this is going to change. We'll have to learn chinese.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This push for spoken English at Rakuten and Uniqlo is unnecessary. Just some sexed up idea to make their respective companies more internationally trendy, under the front of "internationalization." The market in Japan is for the locals,not the gaijin.Period.

Guess you missed the part when Rakuten first announced their initiative that they were going to try and expand BEYOND Japan and make inroads in the U.S. "The market in Japan is for locals, not the gaijin. Period."?!? Seriously?!? Spoken like a true anti-entrepreneur. "Why innovate when we've been doing things this way for hundreds of years?" I'll tell you why. A COMMUNIST COUNTRY just passed you in the global CAPITALISTIC ECONOMY. If THAT doesn't send a red flag that what you've been doing is not good enough, then I don't know WHAT will.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

If nothing else, the "English-ization" of Rakuten is keeping their name in the news and in people's minds. Whether or not you agree with it, you know the old saying: there's no such thing as bad publicity!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

My country, Malaysia, faces a similar issue. Malaysian society seems to be struggling to juggle the languages they learn at school. Recently, the government scrapped a highly contentious policy to teach Maths and Science in English instead of the local lingo after years of sloppy planning and implementation and resistance from like more than half of the country's population who live in suburbs or rural areas. Then again, this policy has a significant number of supporters concentrated in urban areas and many of which actually speak English in place of their supposed ancestral tongues at home, perhaps a vestige of British colonialism bumped up by overwhelming American pop culture.

On top of that, the Malay language is not in a good shape. Many urban folk tend to mix Malay and English together in colloquial language, and before we knew it, things have gotten out of hand when 'bahasa rojak' as we call it is also used in formal speech! Furthermore, the Malay language regulator also came under fire when the latest edition of the authoritative Malay dictionary, Kamus Dewan, was said to have taken in a mother-load of English loanwords which spark fears over the Malay language's identity crisis.

I hope Japan learns a thing or two from Malaysia's linguistic mess before undertaking any bold step to improve its command of English or foreign languages.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The ministry of Education in Japan recognizes a need to improve the teaching of all foreign languages, especially English which is the universal language. To improve the teaching-learning spoken English, the Government invites many young native speakers of English to Japan to serve as assistants to school boards and prefectures under its Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.

Learning the English language is an active endeavor which involves listening and using it in daily communication. Students can learn through listening and repetition and eventual understanding of the meaning of what they heard. Using the most powerful tool today, the internet, anyone with interest can learn the English as a second language efficiently and fluently and correctly. It is Big Easy Programs using the power of technology that any Japanese young and old can learn from Effective and well trained teachers in English Proficiency.

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