16 November 2010

Japan's Rakuten, Uniqlo opt for total immersion in global English

The Japan Center for Economic Research (JCER) has published a report about how two new 'new economy' companies in Japan, Uniqlo (casual clothing similar to the Gap) and Rakuten (a web-based 'shopping mall'), are making English the official language of their company.

These bold, controversial decisions come about mostly because their executives see overseas markets as the key to future growth. Moreover, Uniqlo is a retailer centered in Japan, but its clothing and accessories are almost entirely manufactured overseas, in China.

Japan, with its low birth rate and aging society, has actually started to record decreases in population. Although the economy has been alternating between government-subsidized low growth and stagnation for the better part of two decades, Uniqlo and Rakuten have both experienced rapid (if at times uneven) growth. Long before this, Sony Corporation, an OLD 'new economy' company (they still relied on hardware manufacturing for most of their sales) said that it was going to use English as its primary language for international operations, but it didn't ban Japanese.

The JCER piece is here, and can be downloaded in .pdf.


Japan Times ran an article on the phenomenon, found at the link and excerpted below.


Why so drastic an approach? Rakuten says English skills will be critical to achieve its plan of entering 27 overseas markets, where it expects to become the leading player, particularly in the field of online shopping. That part of the plan isn't so surprising. Many of Japan's major corporations are eyeing overseas markets, having largely given up on Japan's, which has been stagnating for the last decade or so and where the population is graying rapidly.

Nor is Rakuten's take-no-prisoners approach to English unique. Fast Retailing Co., Ltd., purveyor of Uniqlo casual clothing stores, announced its own in-house English-only policy this spring. Meetings with at least one non-Japanese in attendance are all to be conducted in English, and internal reports will need to be written in the language. Staff are being asked to achieve a score of at least 700 on the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC.

CNN recently ran TV and online stories also, link and excerpt below.


By 2012, Mikitani's pledge is to make Rakuten an English-only corporation. All communication, verbal and email, would be sent not in Japanese, but in English. It's a daunting task for a Japanese company headquartered in Tokyo.

Last year's Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) rankings showed Japanese test takers scored second worst in the East Asia region, below North Korea and Myanmar. Only Laos ranked lower than Japan.

Additional multimedia coverage is available at Japan Probe.


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