Rakuten’s English drive ready to take full effect, chief says

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

Rakuten Inc. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani is happy with the improvement of his workers’ English proficiency and all employees understand its importance as the company expands globally, he said Friday.

Rakuten will mark the formal beginning of what it calls the “Englishnization” project Sunday. Employees will be required to speak English during all internal meetings and draft all internal documents in the language. The preparation period started in May 2010.

“Some people even became better than me” in the past two years, the MBA holder from Harvard Business School said in a news conference in Tokyo. He also said the positive impact will exceed short-term costs to let employees study English during work hours and take longer to prepare English documents for meetings.

“We are not requiring native level, but the courage to express” what they want to say, Mikitani said.

He also admitted that some employees left Rakuten because they didn’t want to learn English.

Asked how he can focus on English and maintain the Japanese way of company management at the same time, he stressed the two things are compatible, saying, “My intention is to export Japanese working culture overseas.”

He criticized English education in Japan and said he hopes to influence its future. Japanese have studied English “3,000 hours at school” and if they are not able to speak it, “it’s a major waste of time,” he said.

Since May 2010, Rakuten employees have been trying to speak English in meetings whether participants include non-Japanese or not. Everything written, including emails and cafeteria menus, has been in English.

Many Japanese companies place importance on the ability to speak English, but they rarely force their Japanese employees to use the language when they’re talking to each other.

What will be different after Sunday is that speaking English in meetings will be mandatory and rules regarding minimum scores on the TOEIC, or Test of English for International Communication, for different job titles will be in place.

Those who have a lower score than required will be demoted but will regain their original title as soon as their score tops the required level, Rakuten spokesman Naoki Mizushima said.