[lg policy] blog: English at work in Japan

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 23 15:05:29 UTC 2010

English at work in Japan
Posted on July 22, 2010 by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

In Japan, “English as official language policy” (英語公用語化) is currently
trending on social networking sites. Two large Japanese corporations,
Rakuten and Uniqlo, recently announced the adoption of English as
their official corporate language, and everyone is talking about it.
It all started last month when Rakuten’s CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, told
the media that the company - the biggest online shopping site in Japan
- would adopt English as its official in-house language by 2012. The
new language policy is part of their strategy to expand into the
global market. Shortly after Mikitani’s announcement, Tadashi Yanai,
President of Uniqlo - the sixth largest fashion retailer in the world
-followed suit, also announced the switch to English by 2012. Nissan,
led by their French-Brazilian CEO Carlos Ghosn, had already had
English as its official language for some time.
The level of public debate about these corporate language policies is
amazing and is characterized by two contradictory positions: pro and
contra English-as-an-official-language at work in Japan. From the
perspective of Nissan, Rakuten and Uniqlo, English is obviously the
language of globalisation, an indispensable tool to increase their
competitiveness in the global market. Mikitani asked rhetorically: “If
our workers can’t speak English, like those workers in Europe, how can
we compete in the global world?” It makes perfect sense to many
debaters, and some are even suggesting that it is an opportunity to
consider adopting English as the national language.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic, of course, and the other side of the
debate is led by scholars such as Masaki Oda and Tatsuru Uchida.
Uchida is concerned that the English-Only approach would demoralise
workers and have a negative impact on the overall quality of the
workforce. The English-as-corporate-language policy might create an
environment where competent workers without English competence are
being marginalised or even dismissed from their jobs, while
incompetent workers with good English proficiency are being promoted.

The strongest criticism, however, has emerged not from academia but
from within the corporate world. Takanobu Ito, the CEO of Japan’s
giant carmaker Honda has labeled the imposition of the use of English
in workplaces within Japan simply as “stupid.” He argues that to be
competitive in the global market really means to be strategically
flexible in all areas, including language use. As a successful
corporate leader with ample international experience, Ito’s words,
too, carry a lot of weight with the public. As soon as he made his
statement, uncountable tweets and blog posts gave a thumbs-up to Ito’s
stance with a common expression of “ホンダ△” (Honda △ - the triangle
symbolizes the upward status of Honda).

Those opposed to the imposition of English as the corporate language
within Japan complain that Uniqlo and Rakuten are now focusing less on
the needs of their Japanese workers and customers. The idea that
Japanese workers would converse in English among themselves in shops
in Japan has predictably drawn a lot of ridicule as in this example:

wife just declared “We will adopt English as our official family
language from today”. I’m scared. This is scarier than Rakuten and
Uniqlo. I will just have to remain silent from now on).

I chuckled at this tweet but cannot help wondering whether the fear to
be condemned to silence in English is not very real for some of the
workers at the companies with English as their official language.

So far, the two sides of the debate are still battling it out and it
remains to be seen who will win the argument. However, one winner has
already emerged: the English language teaching industry.
English-as-corporate-language policies may well turn out to be an
unexpected savior for the industry with its shrinking market share.


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