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Rakuten's decision on English not welcomed by everyone

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Corporate officers who do not become proficient in English in two years' time will be fired. That is the mandate set forward by Hiroshi Mikitani, president and CEO of Rakuten, which operates the largest Internet mall in Japan.

As part of its efforts to go global, Rakuten intends to conduct all executive meetings in English and eventually have all internal documents written in the language. All menus in its staff canteen are already available in English.

Mikitani says that with English widely used in cyberspace, making the language the company’s official language is expected to improve its employees’ abilities and broaden their perspectives.

However, the decision is causing a stir in Japan’s business world, reports J-Cast. While some people believe the initiative could change the way Japan does business, others wonder if such a lofty goal is really possible.

The implication that high-ranking employees would be fired if they failed to fulfill the new requirement came to light in an online interview with Mikitani. Personnel evaluation will include their English ability in the future,. he said.

Japanese business people are wondering not only if it can really be done, but if their company will be the next to implement a similar policy. Some workers are feeling uneasy and apprehensive about the situation, wondering why a company with Japanese employees and Japanese end users would issue such a decree. Others expressed concern that the positive aspects of employees with subpar English ability could be overlooked, and that inter-company communication could suffer.

Some in the business world wonder just to what standard of English employees will be held to. Following an English-only speech that Mikitani gave on NHK news, critics pointed out Mikitani's own shortcomings in the language. Said one: “If he’s only come this far in the language himself, how does he expect to hold others to such high standards?”

There is speculation that Mikitani's true intent is to clear space in the upper echelons of the company for non-Japanese to take over, J-Cast says.

So what is the official language of foreign-financed companies in Japan? A Newsweek Japan columnist said their editorial staff’s official language is Japanese, even for non-Japanese employees.

“Of course, when we speak to employees in other countries, we use English, and if you can’t at least read an article in English, you can’t work for us,” the columnist said. “But I can’t even imagine having meetings with Japanese colleagues in English.”

But according to a manager from Rakuten, employees aren’t complaining.

“Everyone is ready to tackle this,” he said. “It’s not becoming a huge issue. Some employees have reported that they might feel embarrassed speaking in English, but that’s all.”

Rakuten says the reason for the new rule is to become a major player in the world online shopping market, and to expand its reach from its current six countries to 27 major countries or more.

“In 10 years, the market will be very different and we want to be prepared," the Rakuten manager told J-Cast. "From here on, Rakuten’s position depends on Mikitani's decisions. It isn’t for others to decide.”

© Japan Today

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44 Comments
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It's the elephant in the room: Japanese people's lack of linguistic ability is seriously damaging Japan's prospects in the world, especially in business terms, but also in other respects. One of my students is a dance teacher who takes part in international competitions. She tells me that recently the highly skilled Japanese participants are overshadowed by their Chinese counterparts, mainly for one reason: the Chinese can speak good English. They also have a lot of self-confidence, and can get around easily in any environment without relying on helpers and interpreters.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's the elephant in the room: Japanese people's lack of linguistic ability is seriously damaging Japan's prospects in the world, especially in business terms, but also in other respects.

Like many aspects of Japanese education (think: white rice), do you think the Japanese language is over-taught? Whereas I can easily slip in and out of Japanese and English at will, my Japanese colleagues appear to be almost hard-wired in Japanese, almost wilfully applying the Japanese sound system to English or knowingly omitting subjects, tenses, articles, and plurals. The amount of westerners I've met in Japan who are capable of speaking almost perfect Japanese with excellent pronunciation far outweighs the number of Japanese I've met who can speak English to the same level. Just listen to the NHK bi-lingual interpreters for proof.

Moderator: Back on topic please.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

the "lofty" goal is possible if most japanese people just get over their insecurities. i have many many japanese colleagues and students who do just fine in english.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There is a question "So what is the official language of foreign-financed companies in Japan?" and answer was "Japanese".............

That's not true for ALL foreign-financed companies in Japan, since ALL the foreign-financed companies in Japan that I know, their official business language is ENGLISH not Japanese. I'm working in a foreign-financed companies in Japan, and our official business language is English, and our company gives importance to Japanese colleagues to learn English (they receives some benefits). Many previous Japanese owned companies which are now halfly owned by foreign companies are also making effort to implement English as official business languange.

And all traditional companies like Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba etc...if someone have a very good English competencies they can promoted quickly than those who cannot speak.

In addition, the Rakuten top man, is only thinking to take care of his company to where the world economy is going, If a company wants to grow big and big it has to be GLOBALLY competence.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I hope they teach them to speak and write Japanese properly first. I've observed a serious decline in the quality of corporate Japanese over the past couple of decades. If Rakuten's staff can't communicate well in their own language, they haven't a hope in Hades of using English effectively. Rakuten will end up with people who are half-capable in two languages, and that adds up to nothing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

S7ro9kGm3aQ The amount of westerners I've met in Japan who are capable of speaking almost perfect Japanese with excellent pronunciation far outweighs the number of Japanese I've met who can speak English to the same level

Looks like you haven't met enough Japanese yet during your stay. I've some of them who speaks both natively.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

For a long time Japanese companies have been imposing Japanese language requirements on foreign employees, even in foreign countries, and now that the situation is reversed the whining has started. Complaining doesn't change the global marketplace and English is critical in their field.

There is speculation that Mikitani’s true intent is to clear space in the upper echelons of the company for non-Japanese to take over, J-Cast says.

It's just funny just how fast the "gaikokujin invasion!!!" flag got waved.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I applaud Mikitani. I work for a US company here in Japan and the amount of pushback given to English is quite scary. English as a competency is mainly only lip service. Lower grade employees with strong English skills are held back out of fear they will overshadow their bosses.

It has been my experience that Japanese who are serious about learning English will leave the country to do so. I think when met, they tend to stand out by having a far stronger global view than their peers.

IMO a Japanese company that is serious about international business will take English seriously. Good Luck Mikitani!!! Dont listen to naysayers! They are just jealous of your initiative, and scared of the outside world. Its people like you that will lead Japan into the future.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I've some of them who speaks both natively.

A case in point!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This article failed to specifically name one single individual who does not welcome Rakuten's decision.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

What Japanese have to realize is that you don't need to speak perfect English to use it and be understandable. A lot of international figures speak serviceable English, and everybody just accepts it. English is used in so many countries with other native languages, that it's become acceptable for non-native English speakers to be far from perfect, just be understandable.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It'll never happen. Or it will be half-arsed English.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This article failed to specifically name one single individual who does not welcome Rakuten's decision.

Strawman?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The first goal will be to get everyone competent in English. Mikitani-san is going a long way towards accomplishing that by essentially creating an immersion environment for his employees. If you require the employees to speak English, yet use Japanese for your day-to-day business, then your employees don't get the chance to practice and reinforce what they've learned.

What he's done is eliminated the need for what Kuroyama mentioned above... to leave the country and learn the language where it's spoken natively.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It'll never happen. Or it will be half-arsed English.

I'm with "thepro" here. Mikitani is not talking about his staff having proficiency in English, he is talking about running the company in English. Completely different thing, where you need communication to be clear and things done quickly. All as part of what looks like an extremely ambitious plan for world-wide expansion, I won't be surprised to see them in serious financial trouble a few years down the line.

Now maybe this is just a PR exercise to brand them as an "international" company, and they aren't really that serious. But they sound like they are. I just don't buy the idea that just because you can order your lunch in a second language, that means you can operate an international corporation in a second language. And I am very suspicious of anybody who thinks having menus in English is something to publicize. So you took the low hanging fruit, so what, now it gets much harder.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Rakuten needs to do more than support employee efforts to learn English by tying up with an English conversation school. Send the senior executives overseas for two years en masse if you are serious.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"All menus in its staff canteen ( cafeteria ) are already available in English"

One item on the menu is "fatty pork."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"All as part of what looks like an extremely ambitious plan for world-wide expansion, I won't be surprised to see them in serious financial trouble a few years down the line."

But see, then he can blame his failures on the English policy rather than his pump-and-dump business strategy. He has read a few books on magic tricks, see, ... while everyone is looking at the menus and debating English, his other hand can be over there, cooking the books.

The only other possible explanation is that he is bored with operations, so he has turned into a vision guy, which means the company is moving sideways.

This really is the same old thing, people. No need to take it too seriously.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"So what is the official language of foreign-financed companies in Japan? A Newsweek Japan columnist said their editorial staff’s official language is Japanese, even for non-Japanese employees."

I just love this! They ask a question about "foreign-Financed companies in Japan" and their example is Newsweek???

Why not ask what is the language in some of the really international big guys? Because they know the answer will be English!

I service mostly large International Financial firms and Foreign Fashion houses and everything internal is done in English with the exception of the retail outlets where in all the countries they are in is done in the local language.

Rakuten Japan is not changing their customer services in Japan to English, nor will they be changing the customer service language for their new acquisitions like "PriceMinister" in France which will remain French or any of the others they have recently purchased.

But for all these sections to be able to function as a unit they will need to consolidated their systems and data banks and for that they need a common language and English is the only choice like it or not.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Wow! Not welcomed at all, by many people including:

Japanese business people are wondering...... Some workers..... Others expressed concern.... Some in the business world wonder.... Said one....

That must add up to a fair few people!

This article is more like a "negative sandwich" - neutral words to begin with and at the end. In the middle, plenty of anonymous pessimism. It reads more like an editorial than an article. Unless, it IS actually an editorial.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sounds like someone is rocking the boat, and is about to get hammered down. (don't you love mixed metapohors). Seriously though, I commend his ambition, since many Japanese have gaikokugo-phobia, this is a pretty tall order. I do hope it succeeds, if not at least somewhat, to prove as a model to other Japanese companies. This country needs all the internationalization it can get. if it fails, I agree that many will blame it on some sort of "unique Japanese mind" that cannot comprehend foriegn languages, and the status quo will prevail.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Two years to become proficient in English?

It takes many Japanese people more time than that to screw up the courage to attempt speaking in another language.

I don't see this working out for Rakuten.

Taka

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The key will be how does "proficient" compare with "fluent"? I could see someone becoming proficient in English in two years... at least for the part of the language that would be used in general business transactions.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To stay in the global market, you have to be proficent in English. To stay competitive !!!. Toyota,Nissan, Sony has been doing this for years.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM ?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This guy can't even speak fully fluent English himself. What a joke.

"Within two years, I will enable 100 per cent of my staff to communicate in English. If we succeed, everyone will follow our way and basic language for the Japanese companies will be English,"

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/japanese-lost-in-translation/story-e6frg8zx-1225889148786

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Some facts.

The global web is largely English and if you want global business, English is required.

How much of the world speaks or reads Japanese? Compare that number to the global number of people who have some grasp of English.

This is a bit extreme to force everyone towards English in two years. But a strong program to promote and support English makes sense for a company wishing to be a global power player.

As for those freaking out about this. Please note fact #2 again. Japan wants to be a global player it needs to adapt to the global language of business. China does, so Japan will too. It is inescapable. And it does not undermine domestic use of Japanese. It only opens up new opportunities on a global basis for Japanese and their companies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You can please some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Lizz,

Hiroshi Mikitani is fluent in English. He graduated from Harvard University.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Biggest mistake made in business is assuming someone that speaks two languages is smart at their job. They are going to end up with non business English teacher donkeys running the business with no business skills what-so-ever.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well people operating the overseas division will need to speak at least two other languages beside Japanese, English and the local language they are catering to but all personnel?

Language is just a tool, at the end it's the hard decisions that are made in any language that makes the difference.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This will end badly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's a fascinating idea to see someone trying to change the status quo in Japan, and if being known as an English-speaking company DOES make things better for them, then it could be a boon. But big companies have made large decrees before that fell to dust, and trying to shift Japan towards English for business without an attractive reasoning might be inviting disaster.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why all the negative remarks about using English? If all the students that are taught English from Junior high, right through to finishing university,knew it would better their employment prospects,especially with major companies,it would be accepted. Why not encourage one year exchanges with schools in English speaking countries. 2nd year of junior,high and uni could be used.It already exists why not expand and encourage this form of learning English. As has already been mentioned the Chinese use English for international business and also major Japanese companies.The future is what matters not the past.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

saborichan at 06:11 PM JST - 20th July;"trying to shift Japan towards English for business without an attractive reasoning might be inviting disaster."

Here is a reason, I am now consulting for a an international company (main HQ USA) who have bought or opened offices everywhere including Japan where they purchased a large Japanese holding company that had some troubles at the same time they purchased a Korean company after 2 years of fighting to get the Japanese company to joint the global system of the parent company the Japanese are still putting up roadblocks as for the Koreans they have been joined for over a year.

Net results are last month the Japanese company had to fires 80 people and are probably going to fire another 50 this month because of pour performance and low revenue and because they now have such a bad reputation the Japanese executives solution to this is to change the company name, the parent company is now so fed up that it is now looking at closing the Japanese office firing everyone (1000+) and moving all Japanese operation to Korea.

As opposed to the Korean company that was originally in worse shape, it has embraced the global strategy (with English as the internal corporate language and IT systems), they went form being in the red to black in less then one and a half years and are now hiring new personnel.

So Rakuten's choices are these:

1-)Do they stay in Japanese here while all their other section function globally in English not able to join the Japanese network to the rest.

2-)Do they try and change all the other offices world wide to the Japanese system which would mean everyone else learning Japanese and all systems being converted to Japanese which on a global scale means just about impossible to get servicing and support out side Japan.

3-) Make the move to English here, there by being able to run their global operation uniformly, even if that means getting rid of some dead weight that cannot or refuse to accept reality of a global market and hiring on younger and more flexible talent.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Screw the nay-sayers. Here's to Mikitani.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Those of you who work in Japanese organizations, haven't you ever heard Japanese co-workers say that English is more direct than Japanese, and that communication is often easier?

Or that when they switch to English, Japanese people feel less constrained by social strictures?

Maybe one of the motivations is to streamline communications and encourage more open discussion among staff.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"haven't you ever heard Japanese co-workers say that English is more direct than Japanese, and that communication is often easier?"

No. But I've heard them say they couldn't figure out what their President/Chairman was talking about in Japanese until I translated his speech into English.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Assuming he has the will and power to see this spectacular goal thru, he's made a gamble that I'm hoping he wins. Even if he doesn't, he could just set up his own language-conversion consultancy or start an English school. LOL

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I see this as an opportunity to apply for a management job at rakuten - and provide private tutoring at ignormous rates...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why English ? Why not Mandarin instead ? The number of native English and Mandarin speakers is about the same. Americans and Brits are increasingly underfunded, less likely to spend, whereas Chinese customers are on the increase.

Yes, the English language HAS become a sort of "universal" tongue as first British, then American, business and interests dominated much of the globe. Many Chinese learn some Engish as well. It is, alas, a difficult language to master ... bits and pieces of many other languages roughly glued together according to often arbitrary rules and much time must be spent to become a fluent speaker. This time investment somewhat limits its usefullness.

The question here is "the future" - and a LOT of money is going to be found in China and India. So, should the current dominance of English continue, or should everybody learn some Mandarin and/or Hindi before they bother with English ?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why not Mandarin? Why not Wu or Cantonese or one of the myriad other Chinese dialects? Not to mention given that Mandarin is a tonal language, less-than-perfect pronunciation leads to complete misunderstandings. Indians speak proficient English anyway.

English just makes sense. I hope this move does lead to positions opening up for westerners in the corporate ranks. Make no mistake, Rakuten is a giant, and they set the bar for Japanese business. This could finally be the open door we and the Japanese both need for a global business environment in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

asked their HR department if they were hiring, they said, no. Only Japanese candidates at this time. Foreigners need not apply for Japan offices. China has some openings, but as for Japan, they only want Japanese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yahhhh... Japan might always be like that lol... no gaikokujin allowed. But I suppose that's a step in the right direction to say "at least we'll learn your language even tho we don't welcome you to work with us"...but that's ok. Japan's about due for another identity crisis moment and maybe that'll change. However, when I was in Japan I began to understand why they didn't like gaikokujin much. Their higher standards of respect and politeness exceeded the most polite of any other country I've ever been to [and I've spent time in 16 countries]. When I came back to the US and saw how every-day people act in America again... I was absolutely ashamed of my own country and wanted to go back to Japan [after eating my fill of Fudruckers and Texas BBQ]. The difference is astonishing and Americans in general really are crude in comparison.

On another note, just because they learn about English language in school doesn't mean they speak it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I know some global companies in France where using English is mandatory for all business communications. If the French can do it, so do the Japanese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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