For the 8,000 employees of Rakuten Inc. group, one of the world's top 10 online retailers, the coming week may fill many with dread. Then again, not.
From July 2, it will be company policy to speak only in English during business meetings.
As for whether Rakuten is ready to switch from Japanese to English as the in-house lingua franca, company president Hiroshi Mikitani remains confident.
During a speech delivered in English at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo's Yurakucho district on June 29, Mikitani noted that the average TOEIC score among Rakuten employees had risen by 160 points over the past 18 months.
It was only two years ago that Mikitani announced his decision to force employees to converse in English.
TOEIC, which stands for Test of English for International Communication, is a yardstick used by many Japanese businesses to measure the English language skills of employees.
A perfect score is 990.
Mikitani, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, repeated his view that Japanese companies have only themselves to blame for failing to grow into global leaders through their lack of English ability.
He said Japanese businesses will not be able to grasp what is going on in the world unless they have a good command of English.
Mikitani said the Japanese industrial sector should wake up to the imperative of English proficiency, citing a slump in business performance among some Japanese electronic companies.
Rakuten, which aims to become the world's largest online service provider, has aggressively gone after foreign businesses in recent years.
At Rakuten Travel Inc., an online travel agency based in Tokyo's Shinagwa Ward and a Rakuten subsidiary, a male supervisor addressed 200 subordinates in English during a morning meeting on sales reports in late June.
"Today's topic is area promotion business," he said.
Meetings have been conducted in English, rather than Japanese, since April.
At all of its group companies, 70 to 80 percent of meetings are held in English, according to Rakuten.
English is hard to miss at a typical Rakuten office. It is used for employee ID cards, floor guidance in the elevator and on the menus at company cafeterias. Rakuten uses English on its website for Rakuten employees.
After the switch-over to English, using Japanese at in-house meetings will be banned in principle although chatting with colleagues in Japanese is allowed.
Employees still greet with each other in the morning in Japanese.
Foreign nationals account for about 10 percent of all regular employees in the Rakuten group.
But most of them speak with Japanese colleagues in Japanese because they have a good command of the language.
Still, many Japanese workers say the shift to English as the common language has produced positive results.
"It became easier for us to share information with staff at our foreign affiliates," said one.
Naohiro Mori, 34, at the media business department, said better English skills enabled employees to broaden their search of potential business partners to overseas.
"When we place an order for a system, we no longer need to limit a pool of potential contractors to those in Japan," Mori said. "We now gather information on inexpensive, foreign suppliers in English."
But the shift to English also has a downside.
There has been a flurry of cases in which employees with a good track record have not been promoted to managerial positions simply due to a lack of English skills, a requirement for moving up the corporate ladder, according to Rakuten.
Mori had to wait for two years to clinch his current position after his promotion was decided.
He was exempted from coming to work in the morning for three months through March to attend in-house courses to improve his English fluency.
Some are finding it tough-going to offer their opinions in meetings due to their poor English ability.
But Mikitani is confident that English as the common language will serve the company's interests in the long run even if productivity suffers in the short term.
Fast Retailing Co., which runs the Uniqlo casual clothing chain, switched to English in March.
But many of its meetings in Japan are held in Japanese and the company's rules are not so stringent as Rakuten's.
The company said that only one-quarter of its regular employees achieved a TOEIC score of 700, the company’s target.
For Fast Retailing, English as common language means “speaking in English at meetings that are attended by people whose native language is not Japanese."
Holding meetings in Japanese at its headquarters in Tokyo is not a problem because most foreign employees speak decent Japanese, the company said.
Still, Tadashi Yanai, president of Fast Retailing, will push for better English literacy among employees.
"If they cannot understand English, they will not be able to perform their work in the future," Yanai said.
Fast Retailing has added many overseas operations in recent years to expand its global reach.
Eventually, up to half its work force at company headquarters in Tokyo will be foreign nationals.
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