Rakuten forges ahead in English

E-commerce giant Rakuten has managed to do what the educational system apparently can’t — get Japanese people to speak English competently. After years of Rakuten building the English level of its employees, Chief Executive Officer Hiroshi Mikitani noted recently that the effort has finally paid off.

Recently, the firm announced that the average employee’s score on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) reached 802.6 points out of a possible 990. That’s up from 526.2 in 2010, an advance that most students and employees in Japan would be proud to have achieved. A score above 800, according to TOEIC, indicates advanced proficiency.

Of course, test results are not everything. But Mikitani has based his company’s global expansion on employees following an English-only policy, which the company calls “Englishnization.” All meetings, presentations, documents, training sessions and emails inside the company are conducted entirely in English. More than almost any other company in Japan, Rakuten has radically transformed its corporate policies — indeed its corporate culture — to embrace English as its working language.

Of course, in this day and age, the pressure is on. If Rakuten is going to continue expanding and competing against rivals like Amazon.com and Alibaba, English is an absolute necessity. Without the ability to quickly respond in English by email, in meetings or during presentations, no company can succeed globally.

Rakuten offers an important case study in how to change the mindset from resting on traditional corporate structures and procedures toward establishing new policies and approaches, not to mention new languages. No matter what official language Japanese companies use, they will increasingly need to develop what Rakuten calls a “knowledge ecosystem,” which includes not only English competence, but an ease with exchanging information, skills and know-how to better engage with customers, clients and business partners outside Japan.

It is impossible to calculate what effect the relatively low level of English inside Japanese firms actually has had on the economy already. One wonders, though, if it is profitable to continue without English for many companies. It is important for the government, education and business to understand that English is not just a practical way of doing business, but involves a turn outward to search for new ways of thinking about doing business.

Whether the company will continue to expand successfully overseas will depend on many other factors, including the ability to reapply the many practical, effective and durable business practices that have worked well for Japanese firms in the past. Through its all-English policy, though, Rakuten has laid the groundwork for a truly global mindset and a strong global future.

  • jcbinok

    Got a chuckle checking the rakuten website just now. I have never found it an inviting site for an English speaker, but today I noticed…way down at the bottom of the home page…WRITTEN IN KANJI…the characters for “Eigo.” Voila, they do have their page translated into English. I Never knew that before. Why hide your light under a basket? Amazon has their English translation icon (written in English!) right on the top of their homepage. Doesn’t that make more sense?

  • Jay

    At a party last night, a few people spoke Japanese to me, one person sat down and made an effort to speak English for about 20 minutes, but the majority of people avoided me and wouldn’t make eye contact. It’s the same in my work place. Either they are terrified of foreign people, or of speaking English, or both. Whatever it is, I find it tedious and childish. Japanese people need to get over their xenophobia if they want to communicate with the outside world.

  • Omar

    I don’t believe this at all. If Rakuten employees were so proficient at English, why does the Rakuten stock-trading website have no English whatsoever? And why is the Rakuten shopping website as shockingly bad in Englush as any I’ve seen? Check out this gem advertising a badminton racquet on the front page of their site, “History of the narrow shaft and power-ups – voltage systems in the smash energy increases.”

    Virtually all Japanese companies, schools, administrators, and educators that I’ve met, cling to outdated and ineffective approaches to language education. Until there is a paradigm shift in this country as to how to view, teach, and use English, we can expect a continuation of “systems in the smash energy increases.”

  • Pedro

    This article must have been written by some Rakuten execs! If you want to learn the sad truth about Rakuten’s Japanese employees English ability, simply ask any of their foreign employees working in the Shninagawa headquarters. Even easier, just read these employee reviews on Glassdoor.

  • sighclops

    Glassdoor reviews are damning.