English at work in JapanIn 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:

妻が「今日から我が家の公用語を英語とする」と宣言した。これは怖い。楽天やユニクロ以上の怖さだよ。俺はもうずっと黙っているしかないな。(My 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.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Do you think the fear aspect is what is holding people back? The only way to really become proficient in a language is to use it. Japanese people, in general, can already read and write in English. What is the last hurdle? Speaking. And with that one thing I have noticed is confidence. More than anything else the thing that separates the good English speakers for the poor ones, is the level confidence.

    This is a more charged question, What is the confidence level of Japanese people, in general when it comes to languages, or other areas of culture and life?


  • Motoko Sugano

    Good-bye Uniqlo!
    When I read this news elsewhere in Japanese, I made a little resistance act: I threw all of my Uniqlo clothes away (except the pair of black skinny pants … ) and decided never to buy anything from that brand. I always felt guilty buying clothes at Uniqlo shops — I mean whos behind cheap clothes? Now the company is cutting more costs by introducing monolingual corporate language policy. Lets keep our eyes on how the company evaluate the employees English competency.

  • Khan

    Thanks Kimie for the lovely post. It offers an extremely interesting case of language policy at the level of financial institution where people are unable to understand or politically confuse the real issue behind such moves and the interest of the people who benefit from such moves at the expense of others. I really want to comment on the oft-repeated, less questioned argument of English-only: If our workers can’t speak English, like those workers in Europe, how can we compete in the global world?” As we can see it makes a clear and direct equation between English and Competition in a global world. It seems to follow from a wrong assumption that global market competetion means competion in English. Do workers compete in global market in English or do they compete because of the quality of work they do in these industires? The second part of the argument makes a rather huge and false picture of Europe as if entire Eurpoe speak English-only. Workers in Europe speak a multitude of Langauges. Europe is as multilingual a continent as any other continent in the world. It is not English-only. There are two more important words in the argument which needs to be unpacked: our and we. The use of plural pronouns are very well known for their covering up mechanism though you have hinted in your post on the social actors these seem to hide. Who do we mean by our people we?

    Thanks once again for allowing me to see how change in policy is initiated and how rhetorics help people achieve or win their battle on weak arguments!

  • vahid

    Dear Khan,

    I really liked this:
    Battle of arguments vs. Rhetorical weapons


  • Khan

    Hello Vahid

    Thanks Vahid for your kind words . It really boils down to agrmumentation and rhetorics in the case presented by Kimie- the most enduring intellecutal legacies of Aristotle and his followers. I am sure you will have noticed the play on emotion by the use of the we and our. In fact, people have won and lost many battles by the application of false logic and emotional rhetorics- dangerous weapons!


  • vahid

    Dear Khan,

    Hello Again,

    Yes, you are definitely right!

    They use their own rhetorics to intensify THEIR OWN truth. Nietzche writes:

    What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors,
    metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of
    human relations which became poetically and rhetorically
    intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after
    long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding…
    (Cited in the Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Language, Peter Lamarque, Ed.)

    Health Peace,

  • steven

    English is not taught as a means of communication in Japan – it is taught simply as a subject that must be passed at school along with maths, science etc. In a test you are either right or wrong with little middle ground – pass or fail. Consequently, when many people try to speak English, they are continually asking themselves is what I just said right or wrong? or in many cases they will not even speak for fear of being wrong and hence embarrassed.

    With a declining birthrate, no immigration and the highest public debt in the world, the need for japanese companies to source more markets outside the country is obvious. The need for every staff member to speak English however, isnt. Having one section dedicated to overseas business is a strategy that has been used by many companies throughout the world quite successfully over many, many years. Forcing current staff to speak English will have a negative impact on productivity and morale.

    Also, in regards to the concept of being international, there is a little more to it than just the ability to speak English. It also covers the fair and equal application of legal and social standards to all people, both native and non native people (ie: foreigners) in your home country. The idea of one rule or expectation for locals and another for non native cannot be considered international.

  • Khan

    I agree with the points raised by Steven. It makes sense to have a section of the department which can or entrusted with the responsibilty of communicating with the world outside. I also as Steven, question and challenge the word: International. Does it mean a few selected countries of the world where English is spoken as the first language or it means all the other countries. The word International is very deceptive and doddgy and a lot of discriminiation has been going on based on this word. Similarly the word Standardized, Native and Non-native etc.

    I think in a multilingual world with so fact communication and travelling, it is our responsibilty to revist the denfinitions of terms like native and non-native, mother tongue etc They need change, dont they?

  • sam c

    it will only hurt the company, It could be beneficial for certain jobs but should not be applied to the entire corporate structure. Remember China is starting to manufacture better quality stuff these days watch out japan

  • Soren

    A quick one: who says that workers in Europe speak English? In which part of Europe? In Geneva? In Paris? In Munich? In Rome? I admit that Scandinavians/Dutch are good at second and third foreign languages. But not the Romans (France, Italy, Portugal, Spain) nor the Germans/Austrians. You will not find many English speaking workers at Peugeot, Renault, BMW or Audi. Of course, engineers and managers at those companies might speak English with various levels of proficiency – but dont take it for granted, either. I have worked with many directors/managers in French-speaking countries with no or little English proficiency. Just look at the way French politicians sound and you can imagine the rest of the country…

  • noaa

    I wonder how could this influence in terms of employee relations..

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