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English teaching comes home to roost as foreign corporations invade Japan


When I was teaching English to Japanese business people in the late ’80s, the main purpose was to prepare them for overseas assignments. In many cases, the students were not management people, but technicians and blue-collar workers. They were being sent to the U.S. or Europe to train employees in factories that their companies had either set up or bought outright from local companies.

Most of these workers had little or no English language ability to start with, so we drilled them in phrases that would help them get their work done. If there was time, we’d also teach them how to handle everyday situations, anything from ordering a meal to asking directions.

Those were halcyon days for the English-teaching industry in Japan. In the early ’90s a lot of the work dried up and many language companies, in fact, went out of business; which isn’t to say that Japanese companies didn’t need English language training any more. But once the red ink started to flow, education sank lower in the budget.

With the economy continuing to flounder in the doldrums, then, the English language teaching business ought to be moribund, but according to an NHK special that aired last Saturday, it is now raking in 2 trillion yen a year. More impressive is the fact that 60 percent of all private companies in Japan pay for some kind of English training service right now.

This huge turnaround can be partly credited to one development: the arrival of foreign companies in Japan, mainly in the form of corporate buyouts and partnerships. Whereas once business English was taught to prepare Japanese employees for work abroad, now it is taught to them so that they can deal with foreign bosses and colleagues here in Japan.

It was appropriate, therefore, that Carlos Ghosn, the Renault executive who was brought in to turn around ailing Nissan Motors after the French automaker bought into the company, appeared at both the beginning and end of the NHK program, looking into the camera with a smile and saying with his charming accent, “Can you speak English?”

Ghosn is appropriate because he was the person the media targeted as the foreign scapegoat for all of Japan’s economic ills a few years back. At the time he arrived, journalists and editorial writers were sounding the death knell of the Japanese corporate ideal as represented by the lifetime employment system, and they found the perfect object for their enmity in Ghosn. The Renault executive has staked his professional career on turning Nissan around and said he would try to do it without firing anyone, but he was generally painted as a horned devil out to destroy families and communities. He was even blamed for the closing of the Zama plant, even though that decision was made before he arrived.

The NHK special was ostensibly about the resurgence in English language-learning among Japanese corporations, but by concentrating on Nissan/Renault employees, it also provided a preview of how these two contrasting business cultures will coexist.

In one scene, Japanese and French employees argued in English over an advertising campaign for a new Renault model they plan to sell in Japan. The French side wanted to stress the car’s utility, especially its abundant cargo space, while the Japanese side insisted that consumers here would not be impressed. They suggested that the ad stress the car’s Frenchness.

Though both sides had trouble with the language, their main miscommunication was cultural. When a French employee objected to the idea of selling the car with “baguettes,” a Japanese employee came back with, “Don’t you think of Japan as sumo and geisha?”

“Of course not,” the Frenchman said, offended. “I think of Japan’s amazing technology.”

The Japanese employee was dismayed, since he couldn’t convince his colleague that image is the way to sell things in Japan, and that Japanese people have a very positive image of French things. Later, away from his French colleagues, this employee, who lived and worked in Europe for 12 years, told the camera that Europeans are unbelievably stubborn. “You have to explain things over and over.”

When I taught English, a lot of my students looked on the language not so much as a tool, but as a kind of cultural prophylactic. There was never any intention of making an impact on the work environment or absorbing the culture or the place where they were going. They wanted just enough English to perform their assignments. There were, of course, individuals who were excited about living in a foreign country, but they were the exceptions.

The situation is different when this so-called cross-cultural business exchange takes place in Japan. A foreign English teacher on the program expressed frustration at the inability of her Japanese students to make decisions on the spot in business role-play situations.

No matter how much respect foreign business people working in Japan have for Japanese technology, they’re bound to become impatient with the Japanese management style. If, like Renault, they have a stake in the company, they may try to change this style. They will certainly challenge it. In that case, the Japanese side is going to need more in the way of cross-cultural exchange than the ability to speak English.