Learn English or be left behind

February 14th, 2012By Category: Work Tips

Two companies have shaken up Japan’s corporate world with their decision to adopt English as a workplace language.

Rakuten, the online shopping mall operator, and clothing retailer UNIQLO say English has become a career necessity in the global market and will no longer hire graduates who cannot speak English.

This is a goldmine for English-teaching schools.

“This is just the start of Japan’s real globalization. Everyone is feeling that they’ll see a no-English-no-job situation,” English language-school Gaba president Kenji Kamiyama recently told Reuters.

Tadashi Yanai, CEO of UNIQLO parent company Fast Retailing, is very blunt about his company’s policy. If people cannot speak English in business in the future, it will be tantamount to not having a driver’s license even though they have to drive, he tells Asahi Shimbun.

He also has some straight-shooting advice for young Japanese. “My advice is simple: get out of Japan. One of our weaknesses as Japanese is our ineptness at communicating with other cultures. Even people who speak English well are closed off psychologically,” he tells TIME magazine.

Rakuten was the first company to shock the business world with its adopt-English announcement in 2010 when company pledged to make English the sole company language by 2012. 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. He wants Rakuten 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. Last October, at a welcoming ceremony for 480 senior university students Rakuten will hire in the spring, Mikitani spoke only in English.

No doubt, Japanese reporters covering the event must have felt bewildered, somewhat at a linguistic disadvantage in their own country. Not all media think the policy of getting hired or promoted depending on one’s certifiable knowledge of English is a good idea. Shukan Gendai magazine thinks the trend has gone too far. It maintains 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.

Even former Microsoft Japan President Makoto Naruke, who is a fluent English speaker, has his doubts. 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 Naruke, 90% of Japanese don’t need English. “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.’”

The driving force behind the learn-English requirement is a desire for Japanese companies to become more globally competitive. Even prestigious universities wish to become more competitive. The University of Tokyo recently announced that it will change the start to its academic year to autumn in a bid to improve its competitiveness among top-flight academic institutions worldwide. About 70% of schools and universities in the world begin their academic year in September or October, but April marks the start of the academic and business calendar in Japan.

So can the business world really change? Many employees are wondering if their company will be the next to implement an English policy. Now is the time to start learning English. In 10 years, the market will be very different and the companies that are prepared will be the most successful.

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • guest says:

    it’s not just about the language, it’s the attitude that goes along with it. there was a research study that said that when you speak a certain language, you tend to act the way that particular language’s culture dictates. these companies are trying to change japanese culture at its core by trying to be leaders in changing the japanese mindset. they’re basically saying, the old japanese way of thinking isn’t helping us compete globally anymore, we need to be more proactive and not so mild-mannered. in order to have competent people to conduct global business, you need someone that’s worldly and well traveled that understands how the world works as opposed to someone that’s lived their entire life in japan. i understand what these companies are going for and i’m supportive of their efforts, but it might already be too late for japan.

  • Adelle_ga says:

    Because English is widely spoken doesn’t mean you can win and you can succeed in every business venture using this language. English should be learnt naturally not by force. Forcing the Japanese employees to adopt English as their daily language will only result to ineffectiveness at work. That’s hilarious. Many Japanese think that when they speak English, they are great and cool. Think again, people.