English necessary for today’s Japanese workers?

There has been some debate recently over the state of English in Japan.

Most notably, Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani has announced that all his employees must be able to conduct daily business in English by 2012… or else. Rakuten has made several international deals lately, including the purchase of major Ebay seller Buy.com and the deal to set up a Chinese online retailing site with Chinese search engine Baidu. Also, Fast Retailing, operator of Uniqlo discount clothing stores, has mandated that all meetings with at least one native English speaker be conducted in English.

In reaction, the Nikkei has printed an editorial about the role it thinks English plays in the development of corporate Japan. Relevant excerpts follow:

Japanese have no choice but to adopt English to take advantage their overseas employees’ knowledge and personal connections.

While companies must enhance their employees English-language training, lawmakers and educators should understand that English has become more important than ever for Japan Inc.

English education in Japan has been criticized for being skewed toward reading comprehension. Although teaching methods have gradually improved, due in part to the increased use of native English speakers as teachers, but other countries show how far Japan still has to go.

It is also important to provide support for people who study English while working.

People’s basic skills English should be improved, but of course that doesn’t mean all Japanese must be fluent in the language.

Japan needs a national strategy that defines who needs English and how fluent they should be.

Personally, I feel bad for the Rakuten employees who are going to be forced to uncomfortably and unnecessarily speak English to each other in daily activities, even though I see the point Mikitani is trying to make. If doing business overseas requires English, then why not demand that all your employees speak that language? All the same, I am sure he will realize eventually that Japanese education has dismally failed most of his workers. As a practical matter, most Japanese people cannot speak English at an acceptable business level. Unless the Japanese education system can deliver, it won’t be practical to simply command Japanese employees to speak the language.

27 thoughts on “English necessary for today’s Japanese workers?”

  1. Whether some people around the world like it or not the fact is English is the international language, especially of business. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon if ever.

  2. I disagree with the last comment. These employees don’t need to know English unless they are dealing directly with customers/ suppliers in English speaking countries. If they are dealing with Chinese people, they are better off knowing Chinese. This policy is overkill.

    It would make sense to view job applicants who already know some English very favorably, also to hire some native English speakers who know some Japanese.

  3. The plain truth is that 70-80% of Japan’s economy is domestic, and workers involved in this work should never need to use English in the regular course of business.

    The ideal situation would be for 20-30% of Japan’s workers to be fluent in English, or another relevant foreign language. These workers could focus on the international business that is conducted in Japan or by Japanese companies.

    Instead what we have is a situation where 5-10% of Japan’s workforce is fluent in English, 20% are proficient, 40% are poor, and the rest are hopeless — yet these workers essentially get involved in international business at the same rate, due to the way in which Japan allocates its human resources.

    I think Uniclo/FR and Rakuten’s policies are absurd overkill and too reactionary to the problem I’ve described above.

  4. “The ideal situation would be for 20-30% of Japan’s workers to be fluent in English, or another relevant foreign language.”

    Great solution.

    Another idea – universities should start introducing an optional English immersion year for students in Japan (and enforce attendance). 5 months of 6 hours of organized Japanese study a day does wonders for Monbushos and ambitious Japanese students should be able to take advantage of something similar (and the government should pony up).

    In any case, putting 23 Japanese guys in a room with one Indian and expecting everyone to speak English would be nightmarishly awkward. These policies also ignore the fact that there are talented Chinese, Indians, etc. who are learning Japanese to a high level and are likely to be able to serve their companies in more flexible ways than generic English would provide. Trying to introduce an English policy like this at a Chinese branch could seriously alienate the talent.

  5. To me, Rakuten’s move to an all-English company is more political than anything. The fact of the matter is that most senior executives at most big Japanese companies have the training to speak in English already: degrees from foreign universities, lengthy stints in overseas offices, etc. etc. They just don’t bother to speak English. I think there are many reasons for this — they aren’t always comfortable being in a Japanese social context without the linguistic stratification of the Japanese language, they’re afraid of saying something stupid, they don’t want to be seen as one of “those smart assed guys,” etc. But I have to respect Rakuten for saying, effectively, “there’s no excuse any more.”

    In my experience, most Japanese people can communicate in English to some degree if they are forced to–everybody learns it in school, after all–but living in a sheltered market means that they are rarely forced to.

  6. I agree with several commenters here, that this policy is “overkill”. How about paying employees who can speak any foreign language commensurate with their abilities and demand? Is that just too radical a market signal for Japanese society to handle?

  7. Rakuten will face a couple of immediate questions. Will it favour a job candidate with reasonable English qualifications over one who looks better in other respects but has no English? Does it take on the responsibility of developing in-house training programmes or rely on individual motivation?

    Further out, the company will face the problem of retention. If employees develop this desirable skill, what opportunities will they have to use it? Not everyone can be in regular contact with overseas customers and colleagues. There’ll be a degree of loyalty but if other companies want English-speaking staff, then Rakuten will be a good place to look.

    Also, women frequently have better second language skills than men. If this translates to more employment and promotion for them in the workforce, then Rakuten will need to look at maternity policies and the like. The company will also have to consider how it handles intra-company marriages and whether both newly-weds will be encouraged to stay with the company.

  8. There was an article in Monday’s Asahi about this entire thing. Just pop the following into google (didn’t feel like seeing if the URL gets the comment rejected):

    I’m not quite sure of what to make of these changes. I don’t think it’ll go over too well, but I have to admit that I agree with the last part of the Nikkei editorial – Japan needs to figure out who should learn English (or another language as I feel students should have a choice) and ensure that they learn it reasonably well.

  9. On the plus side, maybe this might spark a mini-boom for Eglish language teachers and do something to mop up the depressed, destitute masses graduating this summer directly in the smoking wreckage of the graduate employment sector here in the UK.

  10. What Japan needs to do is make English language an elective at HS level. There are so many students who are enthusiastic about the subject who are being held back because bored students can’t be bothered to learn the basics, which drags the overall level down.

  11. I would actually rather see the “English” requirement replaced with a “foreign language” requirement, with the English section of various entrance exams similarly replaced with a choice of a few different languages. Probably a good list of languages relevant for Japan would be English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese.

  12. The report on FR mentioned that they’d be hiring a lot more foreigners as a percentage of new hires over the next two to three years. That is one way to get people to try and speak English. Overkill or not, if you do come up with a plan like that to go global, you better have a realistic way to implement it. Would working at a company where one in three new hires is a foreigner help your language skills? I would like to see…

    By the way, the Samurai Blue goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima took a job with a club in Belgium and got a *lot* of props for doing the press conference in Dutch and English. According to one article I read, he also speaks Italian and Portuguese decently. His language proficiency dominated the chatter about him on TV. My reaction was that more athletes that go overseas should be doing the same. The overpaid baseball players who have been in the states for five to ten years now look either lazy or igg’nint (to me, at least) when they talk to the US press through interpreters.

  13. The first commenter has it correct; English is currently the international language and that isnt going to change anytime soon. It certainly wont change in any of our lifetimes, and probably not for several generations.

    As for Rakuten, I havent really looked into it much, but it doesnt seem unreasonable for a company that wants to go global to expect a certain level of English proficiency for the employees. The proficiency will vary depending upon the job, I expect. I dont see this as a bad thing for Rakuten.

    If anyone has spent any time out of Japan and in other countries, I’m sure you’ll understand how pervasive English is as the language to use for communication. Having been to China, I know English was used alot. I found the Chinese rather unwilling to speak Chinese to anyone except another Chinese person (note this is purely anecdotal).

    (Personally I’d like to see an amalgamation of English & Chinese, like in the Firefly fiction. Although my hope revolves less around linguistic interests and more around being able to fly a spaceship >_> )

  14. “English is currently the international language and that isnt going to change anytime soon.”

    You could also argue that the international language is selling innovative products and services that people want. If Rakuten is going to pass on an employee who may have the combination of skills and ideas to move their business model forward just because he can’t speak English, they had might as well pack it in right now.

  15. Dear M-Bone

    Please refrain from misrepresenting what I can and cant do. Change the pronoun from ‘You’ to ‘I’ (as in you 😛 ). Then, if you can argue such a point, why dont you?

  16. In the international language, “you could” means “a person could” or “one could” in that context.

  17. I found the Chinese rather unwilling to speak Chinese to anyone except another Chinese person

    I found exactly the opposite. About ten seconds into my first ride on the Beijing subway, a guy started barking at me in Mandarin because he thought I was taking up too much of the bench seat, and I have had people approach me on the street speaking Chinese in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, even though I am about as non-Chinese as one can possibly look.

  18. Joe is totally right here. I don’t know where Shawn went in China, but I traveled by train all the way from Shanghai to Urumqi with Curzon, and then from Shenzhen to Dalian on another trip, and I never met anyone who even speaks a tiny bit of English that wasn’t either a current university student or involved in some way in the tourism industry. And not a single taxi driver I encountered knew a word of English. Things can’t be all that different only 6-7 years later.

  19. To throw in that argument that I didn’t make earlier – China is Japan’s biggest trade partner, China is the fastest growing market in the world, China has more short and medium term growth potential than the US, Japanese and Chinese trade is balanced (Japan has had trade surplus years with China recently, the US ran a trade deficit of $200,000,000,000 with China in 2009), Chinese consumer tastes seem to be trending closer to Japan (partly because of influence) than the US, massive increase of Chinese tourists coming into Japan, Chinese are Japan’s largest “foreign” population. That’s not to say that English isn’t important as well, just that the one-size-fits-all-just-speak-English-and-we’ll-be-internationally-competitive idea seems like a holdover from the 80s.

  20. I have to agree with Joe Jones. This move by Rakuten & Uniqlo is more political than practical. The honchos at both companies just want to shake things up and force employees to think more about export/external markets.

    Besides “English proficiency = internationalization” for most Japanese companies. Forcing employees to be proficient in Chinese isn’t going to sit well politically either. Even though China is the largest trade partner, typical Japanese citizens carry rather negative feelings towards mainland Chinese anyway… very strange indeed.

    As stated in the blog entry, root cause of the issue is Japanese education system. The English education really needs entire new thinking… Overall, I think it’s good that this topic is up and front in public’s mind in Japan.

  21. M-Bone, that’s all true, but there are a lot of people in Japan and other Asian countries who would rather deal with China in English, because switching to Chinese means acquiring skills/infrastructure that can ONLY be applied to China, locking in the relationship, while English can be used internationally. Not to mention that for a lot of Asia Chinese Imperialism is a lot closer at hand and historically relevant than American Imperialism.

  22. Just a note, there is no such language as Chinese any more than there is a language called European.

    While Standard Mandarin is the official government language, several other languages such as Cantonese and Hokkien which are not mutually intelligible, have many millions of speakers.

  23. RMilner, while I agree with you personally, the official Chinese government position is that all of those are merely “dialects” of the “Chinese language.” Many European languages are arbitrarily classified as one or the other as well. Norwegian and Swedish, for example, are languages rather than dialects only because the countries are currently separate nation-states, even though they are basically mutually intelligible. The reverse is true for, say, many “dialects” within Italy. The distinction is, frankly, more political than scientific.

    As they say, “a language is a dialect with a military.”

  24. “in Japan and other Asian countries who would rather deal with China in English, because switching to Chinese means acquiring skills/infrastructure that can ONLY be applied to China”

    That’s right, but I’m not just talking about speaking. I think that there is a bit too much focus on business relationships here. What kind of company needs everyone in its office to be able to go abroad and sign the deal or whatever? Reading, ability to carry out marketing research, etc. all have their place. I also mentioned above the potential for Japanese companies to hire Chinese fluent in Japanese who wouldn’t be at that disadvantage. My point, again, isn’t that English is unnecessary, but that having an entire workforce selected on the basis of or devoting serious training time to English seems to be regressive. With Rakuten’s plan, you very well might end up sacrificing the HTML wiz, the expert on Chinese consumer taste for two pieces of office furniture whose only recommendation is TOFEL scores.

    “Forcing employees to be proficient in Chinese isn’t going to sit well politically either.”

    Where did I say that forcing employees to be proficient in Chinese is a good idea either?

    Bottom line – one word, what do Japanese companies lack? “Flexibility” and “internationalization” would be two fair answers. I’m just worried about Rakuten, a pretty vital company, sacrificing one in favor of a vision of the other that may not float it anymore.

  25. This is an interesting discussion. A few thoughts…

    Ironically, yesterday I met a high school exchange from Thailand while riding the bus. She looked at me and greeted me in English. We had some conversation in English. She was with her friend, a Japanese native, thankfully the both of us could communicate what we were saying in Japanese otherwise the Japanese high school student would have been left out of the conversation. I guess in Thailand children are learning English from very early on. This high school student could speak Thai, English and Japanese. She should have a secure future.

    The moves by Uniqlo and Rakuten seem like overkill, and the proficiency of English among the workers will not be what the CEO’s expect given the timeframe. That said, I think this should be a wake up call to Japan with regards to language education in general. I ask, “How many Japanese people have proficient knowledge of business level Chinese or Korean?” These are two regional languages, and Japanese companies do a lot of business in these countries. Let’s expand that question, “How about Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Hindi?” This is a region of the world Japan wants to a build relationship with. How about learning the culture and language.

    A colleague told me the joke about how Americans are considered monolingual people because the emphasis on language education is really poor. I would say the same goes in Japan. For nations that do a lot of business across borders, the education structures do not place a huge emphasis on learning other languages.

    I would say, in my humble opinion, learn the language you want to do business with, and learn English as a back up.

    Lastly, English language education should be mandatory from elementary school through high school in order to give people a good base proficiency level. From junior high school through university students should be required to study and learn a third language of their choosing. Schools should offer a set of courses to choose from. If Uniqlo and Rakuten are setting their ambitions so high, the surrounding community should respond with equally ambitious efforts instead of shy away from them by making excuses.


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