E-commerce giant Rakuten kicked its English policy into high gear last week, as English became the official language for the Japan-based company. Founder, chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has promoted, or rather “forced,” English to become the company’s official language.
Though Rakuten is already the largest e-commerce site in Japan and among the world’s top 10 Internet companies, Mr. Mikitani knows that English is an essential component of the company’s future. To expand overseas with acquisitions, joint ventures and multilingual sales, Mr. Mikitani has pushed what the company calls “Englishnization,” a policy designed not only to make the company more smoothly operational in the global marketplace, but also to encourage employees to think within an international framework.
No matter that “Englishnization” is not a real word; the idea is a good one. Whatever changes a company doing business internationally will go through in the future, employees will need to work in more than one language.
Rakuten has invested in English lessons, time off to study and a system of both rewards and demotions to push its English policy. That tough approach to learning will be helpful in the real world of international business, where, to be competitive, employees need to be able to work directly in English — not rely on translators, dictionaries or a few English-speaking specialists.
A proactive English policy is a clearsighted and practical step toward a better workforce. Forcing employees to be competent in English means that employees can communicate comfortably and fulfill all their work requirements in English. Japan needs more employees who can engage in productive activity without hesitation or nervousness because of weak English-communication skills.
A few other global-minded companies, such as Fast Retailing, the operator of Uniqlo, have also adopted English as their official language. Doing so marks a departure from business as usual in Japan Inc.
English is no longer just a helpful entry on a curriculum vitae; it is a requirement for doing business in a highly competitive and rapidly globalizing marketplace. That creates not just smooth communication, but also an entirely different mind-set — a much broader and more international one.
Having employees fluent in English won’t solve all problems that companies face, nor is it the right solution for every company. But since business has always relied on language and always will, the more languages available, the better.
The future of Japan’s business environment may very well depend on its English ability.