An increasing number of Japanese businesses are making English their official in-house tongue in specialized departments but not across the board as in the past. 

Fast Retailing Co., operator of the Uniqlo clothing store chain, and e-commerce marketplace giant Rakuten Group Inc. announced plans a decade ago to designate English as their lingua franca. The move drew much attention nationwide.

“The moves of Rakuten and other corporations some 10 years ago can be called the first wave of designating English as their in-house language, and the second wave just began around last year,” said Masuyo Ando, chair of Progos Inc. in Tokyo, which offers English education support programs for businesses.

GRADUAL CHANGE

Digital technologist Kartik Naik, 23, spoke to co-worker Yukari Nishimura, 34, in English at the main office of cloud service provider Money Forward Inc. in Tokyo, pointing to the programming problem that resulted in the malfunctioning of a prototype system.

Viewing Naik’s computer monitor, Nishimura replied in English that she understood the cause and admired Naik for having quickly pinpointed the issue.

Hailing from India, Naik graduated from a local engineering college.

Though many of his classmates found jobs in European- and U.S.-affiliated companies, Naik grew interested in Money Forward after hearing its officials state at a career fair that being unable to understand Japanese would pose no problem at the company.

With digital technicians accounting for 30 percent of its 2,000 staff members, Money Forward started making it mandatory for workers in the division for computer engineers to interact with one another in English in phases from last fall. 

The language shift is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.

English is expected to be relied on during any departmental meeting attended by at least one non-Japanese speaker.

Money Forward arranges for Japanese employees to take a weekly one-hour English lesson in an outside school free of charge. The students are also allowed to do the homework assigned by the school during their work hours.

The shift was made with the corporation’s shortfall in engineers in mind. Finding it difficult to secure enough Japanese, Money Forward decided to replace Japanese with English to attract foreign personnel.

The change did not trigger a significant objection from existing staffers because even coding experts from Japan are apt to refer to English-written documents from the United States for the latest information.

“Our narrowing the goal of gaining cooperation on this exclusively to those who must speak in English is a big factor behind its success,” said a Money Forward public relations representative. “We have no plans, at present, to switch our in-house language to English on a company-wide scale.”

CASTING A WIDER NET

The shortage of tech professionals is emerging as a serious concern among enterprises in tandem with advanced digitization.

Doda, a recruitment site operator, said the ratio of job openings to job seekers for mid-career engineers in the information and communications technology community topped 10-to-1 last fall, compared with more than 5-to-1 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

IT firm Cybozu Inc. set up a new section last autumn so English would be used as the lingua franca in it. The division is responsible for developing new services, with an eye toward expanding its sales network overseas.

Soliciting software engineers, Cybozu saw 500 people from across the globe apply for its openings.

“Those applicants are equipped with far more exceptional skills as more people learn computer science outside Japan,” according to a Cybozu public relations official.

Of the newly installed section’s 15 workers, 10 engage in computer engineering and Japanese is not the mother tongue for five of these.

Sapporo Breweries Ltd. is planning to ask the 50 members of its international business department to use English for work-related activities from 2024.

“The reason is that we anticipate having more opportunities from now to communicate with others in English both in and outside the company as our global business growth increasingly becomes an important theme,” said a Sapporo Breweries’ public relations representative.

NARROWING THE SCOPE

Many employers are seemingly moving toward utilizing English as their official tongue as they actively work to extend business and start new projects following the end of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Ando said.

In the first wave of this trend a decade ago, workers in all departments and divisions were expected to converse in English, drawing strong criticism from employees.

A leading IT firm’s public relations official described it as “inappropriate to uniformly force even non-English dependent personnel or units” to adhere to the rule.

In comparison, in the second wave, employers are said to typically limit their English-only request to international business departments, sections needing difficult-to-find IT-relevant specialists and other such divisions.

“Businesses are more conscious of their labor crunch than 10 years ago,” said Ando. “They are alike facing a dire need for doing business overseas to achieve growth amid Japan’s increasingly shrinking population and dwindling birthrate.”

Factoring in these, Ando predicted the “latest shift will likely spread considerably.”

NOT WITHOUT PROBLEMS

One of the companies that substituted English for Japanese is encountering drawbacks as well as benefits.

Having 270 employees in Tokyo, IT firm Hennge KK designated English as its in-company language for all workers in 2016. The objective was securing computer scientists as it was growing more difficult to find them.

The decision greatly contributed to more foreign nationals being employed: their ratio exceeded 20 percent compared with 1 percent of the total in 2014.

The policy, however, made it harder to find Japanese engineers than previously. Some have shied away from talking in English. There were even some who quit Hennge because of the change.

In its struggle to motivate Japanese employees to learn English, Hennge paid allowances based on their language skills.

In spite of the efforts, however, communication speed inside the corporation slowed.

“Conveying something that takes just three minutes in Japanese requires nearly 30 minutes in English,” said a Hennge public relations representative. “Conveying nuances is likewise difficult, making information sharing challenging.”

Tadataka Nagai, a linguistics professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, alike expressed his concerns about a possible communication problem.

“Japanese are normally not able to best native English speakers in discussions in English,” he said. “If foreign nationals are appointed as their bosses and executives, those individuals’ opinions could end up being accepted more easily inside companies no matter how absurd their views are.”

Facing such problems, Hennge last summer raised its language compensation ceiling to 1.08 million yen ($7,700) per year in hopes of making its Japanese staffers more open to English communications.

The company’s public relations division said abandoning English is not among the options, taking into account the advantage of resorting to the international auxiliary tongue.

“Giving up English as our lingua franca and introducing an in-house interpreter may be cheaper than paying such an expensive allowance,” said a Hennge representative, “but we believe the direct communications between Japanese and non-Japanese can create excellent business ideas and solutions to problems, bringing about larger merits than drawbacks. For that reason, we will keep adhering to this approach.” 

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