Making English an official language to make the company stronger

The Yomiuri Shimbun

It has been 10 years since Rakuten Group Inc. made English its official internal language. While the company has expanded its business by hiring employees who are fluent in English and training its employees to become fluent, it still faces some challenges. This article will explore the meaning of Japanese companies using English as their official internal language.

A sense of unity

“I have a question about the project,” a Japanese employee said in English during a regular meeting of the company’s personnel information system department in early July. The meeting, at Rakuten’s headquarters in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, was attended by employees from five countries including the United States, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Rakuten uses English for all documents and all meetings including those attended only by Japanese employees. Employees use Japanese almost only for chatting. The company gradually started to use English internally in 2010 and completed the transition period to make English its official internal language in 2012.

There were many advantages. This initiative helped Rakuten hire not only Japanese people hoping to make use of their English skills but also talented foreigners. It became easier to communicate with overseas branch offices while a sense of unity was easily created among employees including foreigners.

Foreigners make up about 20% of the company’s total employees in Japan. A 36-year-old Italian who was hired in 2014 for her English language ability feels that employees with different cultures, experiences and ideas help increase the company’s problem-solving abilities.

Morning study, afternoon work

Things were not so easy at first.

There were not many Japanese employees fluent in English and some even left because their English skills did not improve. It wasn’t rare for employees to complain, “My hard work will not be rewarded unless I am fluent in English.”

Takashi Katsuragi, 50, deputy director of the media business department who promoted the internal use of English at that time, said, “The company started to offer full support to employees to learn English, which was a big turning point.” At first, the company appreciated employees’ voluntary efforts to learn English but later changed that stance and had them study English as part of their “assignments.”

The company prepared a large room where 400 employees could study at one time and had them concentrate on studying in the morning and working in the afternoon. Also, the company introduced to employees the study methods used by peers who had improved their TOEIC scores.

But there were some negative side effects. Shinji Kuroda, 45, Rakuten’s executive officer responsible for human resources, said with a wry smile, “Talented employees with excellent English skills are sometimes headhunted by other companies.” Some employees have changed jobs to work for U.S. information technology giants, major Japanese or international companies or startups.

Many Japanese people feel that they are bad at English. Rakuten believes that some people do not apply to the company due to the English ability requirement even though they have high skills. While employees of different nationalities can communicate in English, achieving deep understanding between them is sometimes more difficult than between Japanese employees. For that, the company has been implementing training lately to help employees understand diversity and different cultures as a phase following the use of English as an official internal language.

Competing with IT giants

Money Forward Inc., a financial IT company, will make English an official language for its engineering division by the end of 2024, with an aim to attract digitally skilled talent. The company started to hire foreign nationals several years ago. Takuya Nakade, director, executive officer and chief technology officer of the company, said, “Hiring top-class foreign IT engineers is more than 10 times easier than hiring their Japanese counterparts.”

However, to acquire skilled workers, the company must compete with IT giants such as Google, which often have a significant edge in terms of salaries. In addition to the internal use of English, the company needs to make its businesses attractive to skilled workers and create an employee-friendly working environment.

Other companies, such as Uniqlo clothing store operator Fast Retailing Co. and cosmetics maker Shiseido Co., are currently making English their official internal language. Sharp Corp. announced in June that it too had plans to do so.

Prof. Yoko Okabe of Kyoto Sangyo University said, “More than for manufacturers that can deliver value by making quality products such as automobiles, English is important for IT companies, trading companies and service sector companies to globalize themselves. Japanese companies should take a top-down approach and think about the economic value brought about by English.”