Adopting English as workplace language in Japan has its disadvantages

October 30th, 2011By Category: Uncategorized

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.”

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