Language | BILINGUAL

Mikitani and his 'Englishnization' of Japanese business

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

On July 1, Rakuten Inc. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani published a book about his company’s so-called Englishnization project titled “Takaga Eigo!” (「たかが英語!」”It’s only English”) to coincide with the the start of the company’s eigo kōyōgoka (英語公用語化, making English the official language). The formal English name of the book is “Englishnization.”

Since the Internet shopping-mall operator announced its eigo kōyōgoka project in May 2010, it began to introduce English-language internal emails, documents and cafeteria menus, and also held shanai kaigi (社内会議, internal meetings) in English — even when meeting participants were all Japanese.

From July 1, however, the Englishnization of all company meetings, documents and other communications became mandatory.

Many Japanese companies place importance on eigo deno komyunikēshon nōryoku (英語でのコミュニケーション能力, the ability to communicate in English), but they rarely force their Japanese employees to use English when they’re talking to each other.

Rakuten also set the minimum TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score required for managers. As a result, many kanrishoku reberu (管理職レベル, employees at managerial level) have been studying hard since the announcement of the Englishnization project to match the required scores, because failure meant kōkaku (降格, demotion) after July 1.

In his book, Mikitani says that the media, corporate executives of other companies, and English education experts discussed the sanpi ryōron (賛否両論, the pros and cons) of his Englishnization project, and that such discussions included the following: Nihonjin dōshi ga eigo de kaiwa suru imi ga arunoka? (日本人同士が英語で会話する意味があるのか, Is there any point in Japanese speaking English to each other?); Eigo ni tannō na yatsu ga shigoto mo dekiruto wa kagiranainodewa naika? (英語に堪能な奴が仕事もできるとは限らないのではないか, It is not necessarily true that those fluent in English are competent in their jobs, is it?); and Nanimo zenshain ga eigo wo tsukaeru hitsuyō wa nai (なにも全社員が英語を使える必要はない, There is no need for the entire staff to use English).

In response to those arguments, Mikitani says in his book that kokoro hisoka ni (心ひそかに, secretly) he thought to himself, “It’s just English. Why does everybody ‘dekinai riyū wo are kore narabe tateru‘ (できない理由をあれこれ並べ立てる, list reasons for being unable to do it)? If we don’t try we will never know if it can be done or not.”

Mikitani goes on to explain why he decided to zenshain ni eigo no shiyō wo kasu (全社員に英語の使用を課す, force the entire staff of his company to use English), instead of simply asking executives and employees who need to use English often.

He says that Rakuten places a lot of value on cross-department communication — for example, it holds an all-company chōkai (朝会, morning meeting) every week in which staff share seikō jirei (成功事例, success experiences) and shippai jirei (失敗事例, failure experiences) — which enhances Rakuten’s overall kyōsōryoku (競争力, competitiveness).

Also, Rakuten often transfers employees who have yūyō na nōhau (有用なノウハウ, useful know-how) from department to department to share the knowledge across the company, according to Mikitani. That means it is possible that a Rakuten employee may be transferred from the sales department, where English is used less, to the service development department, where English is used heavily.

As Rakuten will have to share know-how on an international level in order to improve its level of service, Mikitani says in the book that he decided to force his entire staff to use English, yakushoku mo busho mo kankeinaku (役職も部署も関係なく, no matter their rank or department).

In the past few years, Rakuten has acquired many Internet-related companies in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Mikitani says those acquisitions could not have happened without the Englishnization project.

Baishū sareru tachiba wo sōzō shitemireba (買収される立場を想像してみれば, If you imagine things from the standpoint of being acquired), foreign employees may not feel that they are a part of the Rakuten group if meetings are conducted in Japanese — a language they may not understand. Even if there is an interpreter, they may sogaikan ga umareru (疎外感が生まれる, feel isolated) because they cannot conduct direct communication, Mikitani says in the book.

Saiakuno baai (最悪の場合, in the worst-case scenario), they may hikansuru (悲観する, be pessimistic) when employed in a Japanese company under Japanese bosses, he says.

He is totally convinced that in five or 10 years he will be glad he implemented Englishnization, because Rakuten is, and will be, looking at the global market, not the domestic market.

“I want to prove Japanese companies can tsūyō suru (通用する, thrive) in the world service industry,” he says.

Mikitani admits in his book that he thought he kurutteiru kamo shirenai (狂っているかもしれない, might be crazy) trying to make more than 7,000 Japanese master English in two years, but he believes that if Rakuten succeeds in Englishnization, it will Nihon no keieigaku ni kakumei wo motarasu (日本の経営学に革命をもたらす, bring revolution to Japanese business-management theory).

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