Source: Wall Street Journal – Japan
When Rakuten Inc. introduced an English-only policy for company communications in May 2010 as part of founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani’s push to globalize the Japanese Web commerce firm, critics questioned the wisdom in forcing staff to communicate with each other in their non-native tongue, English.
President of online retailer Rakuten Inc., Hiroshi Mikitani, speaks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on June 29.
Two years later, Mr. Mikitani said the “Englishnization” policy has been a success with steady improvement in the English proficiency of Rakuten’s staff and a greater willingness to communicate in comprehendible, if not perfect, English.
As of April, Rakuten said 79% of documents, meetings and internal communications are conducted in English, an increase from 65% a year earlier.
The company is now taking the next step. Starting in July, Rakuten employees will be required to use English in all internal presentations, documents and memos. In addition, all internal meetings, training sessions, and internal company emails will use English.
“It is not just preferable, it is really critical for us to be able to do business and operate in English,” Mr. Mikitani said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. “Our staff doesn’t need translators.”
Mr. Mikitani, a former banker turned billionaire Internet entrepreneur, said one of the things holding back Japanese firms from competing globally is a language barrier that prevents them from fully grasping overseas competition. He also said the lack of English proficiency limits Japan Inc. from pursuing global talent and retaining non-Japanese staff.
According to research conducted by private education company EF Education First, Japan ranks 14th globally with “moderate proficiency” in the global English Proficiency Index behind South Korea and ahead of Portugal. The rating seems low, considering the amount of classroom hours devoted to teaching English in Japanese schools.
After implementing the policy, Mr. Mikitani said the company hadn’t offered much support, hoping that people would learn on their own. But sensing that this change was causing a great deal of stress and anxiety for the staff, Rakuten decided to provide free English classes, offered time to study, and made clear that learning English was a part of their job.
Mr. Mikitani said some staff resigned unwilling to go along with the new policy, although he said the number is fewer than most people would think. He said the staff doesn’t need to become native speakers. They just need the courage to try.
“It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy for me and it wasn’t easy for my employees,” said Mr. Mikitani. “I’m hoping that this is the beginning of this trend for Japanese industries, corporate Japan and the society in general.”
Test scores indicate that the hard work is paying off. The average score on the Test of English for International Communication by Rakuten employees improved 32% from October 2010 to this June.
Watch Rakuten employees adjust to the company’s English-only policy when it was introduced in 2010.
Follow Daisuke Wakabayashi on Twitter @daiwaka