Many years ago, when I was a university student in Japan, I had a part-time job as an English teacher for small children. Really small children. My youngest student was 3 years old. As I recited nursery rhymes about turnips the little girl’s mum would stand behind her firmly holding her head and forcing it towards me while I spoke.
For Japanese people, the pressure to succeed in English starts at an early age…
Last year, Deputy Chief of Japan’s Cyber Security Strategy office and the Minister-in-Charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Mr. Yoshitaka Sakurada, caused some controversy with the Japanese public. Talking with journalists at a technology forum, he spoke of his anxiety surrounding two issues: he can’t use a PC properly and he also can’t speak English. In a half-hearted joke, he also commented that he’d given up hope to become Prime Minister because of his lack of English skills. But, he added thoughtfully and with a glimmer of hope: “If technologies become more advanced, the world will be more enjoyable for those who are not good at foreign languages”.
Japan has been investing heavily in language technology recently, as it seeks to deliver solid solutions to support the huge influx of international tourists during Tokyo 2020. Wearable translation devices and smartphone apps are in development, which are aimed at enhancing the visitor experience.
But as the Olympic Games approach, and while Sakurada-san looks back with regret on his English skills, there is another Japanese man forging ahead, ripping up any language barriers in his path. His audacious policies will bring the English skills of all those around him right up to scratch.
Hiroshi Mikitani is CEO of Rakuten Inc., a Japanese company founded in 1997 with a collection of businesses spanning e-commerce, digital content, communications and fintech. It operates Rakuten Ichiba, which has become one of the world’s largest e-commerce sites.
In March 2010, Mikitani-san shocked his company when he announced that all communication from that day forward would be in English only. Japanese employees were offered English lessons, and job openings without any requirement for Japanese ability began opening up a much wider pool of job candidates. His workforce would be globally competitive, and the common language would be English. Here in 2019, after much publicity and research, it seems that Mikitani-san’s bold plan – “Englishnization” – has been a success.
From the social perspective, and with the pressure of holding one of the greatest events on earth, Japan looks to technology to bring people together. It is technology which will help everyone to overcome the language barriers during the Olympic Games and support the diversity of the languages represented. But to grow a business it seems, at least for Rakuten, English is the only way forward.
Despite Sakurada-san’s hopes for technology solutions to solve language barriers, is this just a pipe-dream?
Rakuten, with its multicultural workforce, could change the face of Japan through its Englishnization policy. It can attract a global workforce, unaffected by any language barriers. Regardless of large-scale investment in all the latest language technology for Tokyo 2020, is English the future for Japan?
Better get your kids signed up for those extra English classes, just in case.