During a recent press conference, Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani again called for executives working for his all-powerful online shopping megasite who cannot speak English by 2012 to leave the company. This, as we have covered here and here, has caused ripples among Japanese business people who struggle to master the language. But company officials say such a strategy has been implemented ”out of necessity.”
At its headquarters in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, where name tags of employees, floor directories in elevators, menus in its staff canteen and even the labels on recycling trash cans are all written in English, Rakuten officials said English will be ”essential” as the firm is expanding its business into 27 countries and regions.
To quote a PR line from the press conference: ”In the future at our company, it is highly likely that those who sit next to you cannot speak Japanese. Adopting English as the official in-house language will be a small step to achieving our goal of becoming the No. 1 Internet service company in the world.”
Even though the ratio of foreign workers is still about 10 percent at Rakuten, which now has some 6,000 group employees, the percentage is expected to grow as the company has been expanding its foreign recruitment.
The largest Internet mall operator in Japan has recently acquired French and American e-commerce site operators PriceMinister S.A. and Buy.com Inc., and foresees a jump in the overseas ratio in its total transaction volume from the current 1 percent to 70 percent in its international business strategy.
The stated aim of the policy of making English the common language is also aimed at drawing top talents from overseas and not alienating them, so they can recognize chances for promotions and stay longer with the company.
The hope is also for a flipside, that Japanese staff would also benefit, as it would improve their skills as individuals, even if they leave Rakuten.
Already, some in-house meetings have been conducted only in English and to keep up with company policy, many employees have been taking English courses offered by language school Berlitz Japan Inc. at the firm and have also signed up with e-learning programs.
Mikitani also said, however, Rakuten does not intend to ”abandon Japan” by selecting English as the common language. ”Our policy does not mean that those who are fluent in English would get promoted automatically. English is just an additional skill and employees should be good at their jobs in the first place,” he said.
At Fast Retailing, the situation is similar. The casual clothing chain has been accelerating its foray into overseas markets and aims to expand its business in such countries as China, South Korea and the UK.
By 2012, the company will use English for in-house meetings and e-mail communications if there is at least one foreign staff in a group. In line with its drive of going global, half of the 600 new recruits scheduled to join Fast Retailing next spring will be non-Japanese.
Yohei Shibasaki, head of a firm that organizes a career forum and provides guidance to foreign college students who wish to land a job in Japan, said he sees changes in the recruitment practice of Japanese firms that aim to go global, as they are keen to secure ”talented foreigners who can be competitive in the world market.
”In Japan, the population is estimated to decline to 95 million in 2050 (from the current 120 million), and businesses cannot rely only on domestic demand,” said Shibasaki, president of Fourth Valley Concierge Corp., the organizer of the ”Top Career” forum.
”They need to diversify their staff to do business in overseas markets,” he said. The president referred to the need for Japan to attract from abroad many talented people like Marcus Tulio Tanaka, a Brazilian-Japanese who played for Japan at the World Cup soccer finals in South Africa.
At the career forum, foreign students can meet with recruiters from such major firms as Rakuten, Fast Retailing, Sony Corp., trading houses Marubeni Corp., Mitsui Co. and Itochu Corp. and All Nippon Airways Co.
Shibasaki said the policies of Rakuten and Fast Retailing to adopt English as their official language is ”reasonable” because the chances of securing outstanding human resources will increase, if companies not just look at foreigners who can speak Japanese but also at English speakers who cannot communicate in Japanese.
Yotetsu Hayashi, director of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry’s human resources policy division, said the government has been implementing policies to support Japanese firms recruit talented foreign students amid a global competition to acquire top-level personnel.
”Front-runners such as Rakuten and Fast Retailing would accommodate non-Japanese staff well, but many other Japanese companies have yet to accept and train them as career-track workers,” Hayashi said.
He said the government has been assisting those firms by offering business Japanese courses and internship programs to foreign students through its partnership with universities and the business community.
As part of a new strategy to spur Japan’s growth, the government is also considering measures to facilitate immigration procedures for talented foreign personnel, depending on their academic and professional career, qualifications and Japanese proficiency.