Takuya Suzuki has been taking the Test of English for International Communication exams twice a year since he joined electronic parts maker Sumida Corp. two years ago.
In January, the firm made English its in-house language.
Suzuki, 38, is in charge of management planning at Sumida’s research and development unit. He scored 655 on the TOEIC last fall, up 40 points from his first try a year earlier. He expects to get a better score in the March test.
“Taking the test is compulsory at this company, but getting bad scores doesn’t mean receiving negative evaluations from the company,” said Suzuki, who had hardly used English before joining Sumida. “If you don’t learn, your job opportunities are limited to domestic fields.”
To improve his English skills, he has taken three conversation courses simultaneously for three months at a private language school. He also learns on the job, working with a Canadian subordinate and attending meetings in English.
In Japan, people involved in international business used to be the only ones required to develop English communication skills. But an increasing number of Japanese companies nowadays are putting pressure on their employees to improve their English-language proficiency.
Sumida is a radical example. Under its policy to make English the company’s official language, the Tokyo-based firm has begun to require its employees to use English at in-house meetings that include one or more foreigners. Since 2000, employees have also had to file corporate documents in English.
To encourage Japanese staff to speak English as much as possible, foreign employees work on each floor of the head office in Tokyo, and non-Japanese cook and serve meals in the cafeteria.
One of the major reasons Sumida took such a radical step was the early introduction of an international management system: All of its production bases had been transferred abroad by the end of 1991, a Hong Kong native currently serves as chief operating officer and half of its headquarters functions was moved to Hong Kong.
Because only 2.5 percent of its group workforce worldwide is Japanese, using English as a common language of the 12,000-employee group is more efficient, Sumida spokesman Yoshihiro Hata said.
Although other Japanese firms take a more moderate approach, many are beginning to put more emphasis on English, especially for employees who hope to become executives.
Electronics manufacturer Hitachi Ltd., for instance, began last year to ask section chiefs or high-level managers to score 650 on the TOEIC. From this year, it plans to set 800 points as its prerequisite for employees to be considered for a future executive education course.
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., known for its Panasonic and National brands, requires employees trying to become sub-section chiefs to score 450 points. It plans to set a higher hurdle next year for workers trying to be promoted to higher posts.
According to the Institute for International Business Communication, which organizes the TOEIC in Japan, people who score 450 are considered to possess the minimum communication skills necessary for daily conversations in English.
Though 450 points may appear low, Matsushita officials say the score is the minimum requirement. By achieving this, people who are reluctant to approach English can lose their aversion to the language, the officials believe.
“The language-proficiency requirement for promotions (for Japanese employees) is part of our efforts to produce a global corporate culture, because the main battlefield for Matsushita has changed from the domestic market to the global one,” said Shigeru Mizuno, a manager at Matsushita’s Global Leadership Development Group.
Against the backdrop of these moves is intensifying global competition, with the spread of the Internet and Japan’s falling industrial competitiveness, according to Hideki Yoshihara, an international business professor at Kobe University.
“The current industrial innovation centers, which create new business models and production technology, moved from Japan to the U.S. and Europe (during the 1990s),” he said.
Raising workers’ English communication levels is increasingly necessary to obtain the latest information overseas, Yoshihara added.
The Japanese unit of U.S.-based IBM Corp. plans to require all employees to score 600 points on the TOEIC within three years as part of its strategy to improve its information technology services, said Katsuhiko Koike, a human resources development director at IBM Japan Human Resources Services Co.
“Although our main customers are Japanese corporations, employees need to get information on the latest IT services and technologies from our parent company on the Internet,” he said. “The key to survive in the IT services business is to offer the latest services as fast as possible.”
Currently, IBM Japan Ltd. requires section chiefs or high-level managers to score more than 600 points on the TOEIC and general managers to score 730 points or more.
The number of foreign chief executive officers and executives at Japanese firms is also growing, as more firms accept foreign investment and become affiliated with major foreign companies.
Some examples include Nissan Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Japan Telecom, which came under the control of the British mobile phone firm, Vodafone Group PLC.
English skills are becoming increasingly necessary for employees to better communicate with executives and win promotion in such companies.
Professor Yoshihara said that without a bilingual management system, firms may also find it hard to speed up decision-making in groupwide businesses and to attract more talented people from around the world.
IBM’s Japanese unit and Matsushita admitted that they have experienced how the language barrier can hinder information flows between parent companies and subsidiaries.
To increase the efficiency of global management, many companies — in addition to encouraging Japanese employees to learn English — are also promoting efficient foreign employees to senior positions.
To optimize human resources at their group units worldwide, Matsushita, for example,introduced its global career development program in 1998. The program allows foreign employees overseas to move to Japan and work as senior managers.
“We are trying to promote efficient foreign employees to positions that suit them best,” said Mizuno of Matsushita’s Global Leadership Development Group.
In fact, more local employees of the consumer electronics giant are taking top posts in its overseas units. In 2001, 19 percent of the presidents, 6 percent higher than in 1990, at Matsushita’s 230 group firms overseas were locals.
More than a third of board directors, up 10 percent from the 1990 level, at overseas units were locals, according to Matsushita.
Amid such a rapidly changing business environment, survival for Japanese workers, notorious for their insufficient English skills despite long-term English education at school, is becoming tough.
“I’ve had a lot of embarrassing experiences,” said Suzuki of Sumida. “But you’ve got to speak and write in English to acquire skills, just like you worked hard to learn about new IT tools like Windows 95 four or five years ago.”
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