Learn to speak English, or else!

That’s the message for employees of Internet services company Rakuten, Inc. Back in May, the company announced plans to adopt English as the company’s official language by 2012. That means all meetings and communications within the company would be conducted solely in English.

Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani added more details in an online interview June 16 with business publisher Toyo Keizai. He created shock waves in the media when he indicated that company executives who failed to master English in two years’ time would get the chop. Not that the lower echelons can rest easy, either: Employees lacking requisite language skills may be held back from promotion.

Why so drastic an approach? Rakuten says English skills will be critical to achieve its plan of entering 27 overseas markets, where it expects to become the leading player, particularly in the field of online shopping. That part of the plan isn’t so surprising. Many of Japan’s major corporations are eyeing overseas markets, having largely given up on Japan’s, which has been stagnating for the last decade or so and where the population is graying rapidly.

Nor is Rakuten’s take-no-prisoners approach to English unique. Fast Retailing Co., Ltd., purveyor of Uniqlo casual clothing stores, announced its own in-house English-only policy this spring. Meetings with at least one non-Japanese in attendance are all to be conducted in English, and internal reports will need to be written in the language. Staff are being asked to achieve a score of at least 700 on the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC.

Responses from Japan’s media over such bold plans range from surprise to skepticism. Can a Japanese company with a predominantly Japanese workforce really pull off an English-only policy in just two years?

In a commentary in Shukan Asahi (Aug. 20), Web site editor Junichiro Nakagawa is downright critical of the brave new world as seen by the bosses at Rakuten and Fast Retailing.

Business skills, he points out, are about ability. Foreign-language skills are not. They have more to do with a person’s familiarity with the language than with intellect or inherent talents, he argues.

Policies such as Rakuten’s, Nakagawa says, “will inevitably lead to the squandering of human resources, as they heighten the likelihood that people who can’t do their jobs but speak English would be given higher evaluations than people who can do their jobs but can’t speak English.”

In capping his argument, Nakagawa notes that some of Japan’s top performing corporations take a dim view of the Rakuten approach.

“Using English here in Japan, where Japanese people are concentrated, is crazy talk,” Nakagawa quotes Takanobu Ito, CEO of Honda Motor Co., as saying recently.

Gendai.Net (Aug. 6), the online arm of the Nikkan Gendai tabloid, is also a tad dubious. While in Rakuten’s headquarters building on the way to a news conference earlier this month, a Gendai reporter asked an employee in Japanese: “Is conversation in the company already in English?”

The worker said nothing, instead making an odd gesture. Taking another stab, the reporter said: “So, you’ve got to speak nothing but English, eh?”

The employee then nodded his head with an exaggerated motion.

In another encounter, a separate Rakuten worker said slowly and deliberately in Japanese, “Sorry, we cannot say anything.”

Very odd, thought Gendai.Net, concluding that employees who can only gesture or speak like robots don’t seem to bode well for the company’s future.

But it’s not all bad news. If Rakuten and Uniqlo are truly at the forefront of a wider trend, then just think of what that means for the industry of foreign-language training, enthuses Sankeibiz (Aug. 3).

The Web site of the Sankei Shimbun delves into the implications of massive numbers of office workers scrambling to learn lots of English very quickly.

The Berlitz chain of schools, for one, reports a surge in applications — a 240-percent increase — in the number of applications for its summer-only business classes.

Aeon Corp., operator of the Aeon chain of schools, has similar cheery news to report. “We’re seeing an increasing amount of inquiries about lessons from salarymen who are prompted by necessity,” a company representative says.

The surge in business comes at an especially good time for the foreign- language study business. After peaking in 2006 with sales of around ¥826 million, it shrank to ¥740 million last year due in part to the collapse of two of the industry’s biggest players: the Nova and then Geos chains of conversation schools.

The English-only policies of Rakuten, Fast Retailing and others could well become the surprise savior of a battered industry in an otherwise anemic economy.

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