English Only Spoken Here (in Japan)

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An article by Daisuke Wakabayashi entitled "English Gets the Last Word in Japan" in the August 4 issue of The Wall Street Journal describes how English is becoming the language of Rakuten Inc., Japan's biggest online retailer (by sales volume).

For the past few months the weekly meeting, like much of Rakuten's other in-house business, has been conducted in English, by order of its founder and chief executive. Not only must work documents be written in English, so must the menus in Rakuten's cafeteria and signs in its elevators.

By 2012, Rakuten's employees will be required to speak and correspond with one another in English, and executives have been told they will be fired if they aren't proficient in the language by then.


Rakuten isn't the only Japanese company to have embraced English. It is widely used at some multinationals, including Sony Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., which both have non-Japanese CEOs. Fast Retailing Co., which operates Uniqlo, Japan's largest clothing chain, with stores in New York, London, Paris and Beijing, recently said it plans to hold meetings in English by 2012 if they include non-Japanese participants.

The article comes complete with interactive graphics and an interesting video.

[Thanks to Stefan Krasowski]


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    On our first trip to Asia so far, last summer, my wife and I spent about a week in each of three cities—Nagoya, Seoul, and Beijing. In Seoul, we found that hotel staff, tourism personnel, and most of the professionals we met spoke very good English (at a comparable level to large European cities. In Beijing too, a fair number of people (not including cab drivers, however) had passable English. In Japan, though, both in Nagoya and when we spent an evening in Tokyo, people really struggled with English, whether we were in a restaurant, a hotel, or a room full of physicians.

    We learned that English is taught in the schools from an early age, but it is clear that the teaching is not very effective.* So if corporations want to take the initiative to get adults to learn English, more power to them. More and more, as has been noted on Language Log, English is the lingua franca for people with disparate first languages. Anything that helps people communicate freely would seem to be a positive development.

    * My unscientific surmise is that Japanese children expend so much intellectual energy learning all of the writing systems needed for mastery of their own language that they just don't have the processing cycles left over to learn English too, whereas Koreans can master their writing system quickly and thus have ample capacity to take on another language. Yeah, I know I'm munging languages and writing systems, and this hypothesis is about to be ripped to shreds by a professional who is going to tell me it's all about culture and economics and has nothing to do with the difficulty of learning their own language, but what the heck, it's been a while since you guys have called me an ignoramus.

  2. A S said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    I'm not Japanese myself, nor have I ever been to Japan, but from what I've been told (by a Japanese National, no less) the quality of English education in Japan is pretty dismal. It's main purpose isn't to foster actual language competence, but to prepare students for the various written entrance exams required to gain entrance to schools and universities.

    Japanese also tend to be rather shy about attempting to speak a foreign language, even if they do have some knowledge of it.

  3. Tom D said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    This sounds very familiar; company practices in Korea are a lot like that. I hear many companies do job interviews for jobs which you'd never interact with an English speaker in English, sometimes.

    Though to me it does ring (more than) a little ridiculous to force someone to use a non-native language with other non-native speakers who share a mutual language or be fired.

    If the language wasn't so stable otherwise, it would also be quite reminiscent of various forms of linguicide (though, for speakers of the various dialects and Ryukyuan languages, many of which already are in trouble, it may be just that).

  4. Carl said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    @Dick Margulis,

    The hypothesis that the writing system makes the second language education worse isn't born out by the high level of English proficiency you saw in China.

    Anyway, as someone who once worked in a Japanese high school teaching English, allow me to say, we had no idea what we were doing and our methods were ineffective at best and more likely seriously harmful since we reinforce poor pronunciation that can never be unlearned later. Uh, sorry about that?

  5. Hamish said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    I went to school in Japan. The education system is bad to start with: rote learning, no teaching kids how to think analytically. History tests were literally text with blanks in which you filled in the missing date, place or name. English was taught in the same way as I learnt Latin in Australia, as a dead language. All the focus is on grammar and none on how to actually speak and hold a conversation. Add to that societal pressure to not stand out or do noticeable better than one's peers and you have a potent action plan for mediocrity.

  6. Richard said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    The Japanese are also handicapped by
    1. the fact that their native language has simple phonotactics, so a language like English with consonant clusters will be more difficult.
    2. Japanese grammar being so freaking different from English grammar.
    3. it being a big closed country that hasn't had big inflows or outflows of people for a while now. Koreans are heavily exposed to the US/English and many people move between the 2 countries. China is as diverse as Latin Europe or Slavic Eastern Europe, so many Chinese are exposed to different languages/sound systems even from birth, plus many of the best students go abroad for education. Japanese can rise up as high as they want in their society without ever having to communicate with anyone in anything other than Japanese.

    I would put those down as the main reasons why the Japanese tend to lack behind their East Asian peers in English skills.

  7. Conan Kudo (ニール・ゴンパ) said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Uhhh… What?

    Japan has had huge influence from America. Heck, America was the country that forced Japan out of the isolation era it was in. Then after World War II, America rebuilt the country as a democracy. Additionally, since Japan isn't allowed to have a full blown military (according to their Constitution), the United States has permanent bases strategically placed across Japan to defend the country. They do have their own National Guard, the strongest in the world.

    The largest reason for their weakness in learning English is societal. Pressure to not stand out makes it quite difficult to find a reason to attempt to practice and get better at English. Compound that with lazy and possibly inept teachers of English, and you have a recipe for disaster.

  8. Zubon said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    Richard, your #3 is an interesting mix. The USA is a big open country with big inflows and outflows of people for centuries, but Americans can rise up as high as they want in their society without ever having to communicate with anyone in anything other than English. Not p but still q.

    (Many Americans are surprised by the notion of Japan as a "big country." We seem to compare its size to the USA, China, and Russia, instead of the nations of southeast Asia.)

  9. June Teufel Dreyer said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I found the same impressive level of English in Korea and lack thereof in Japan as Mr. Margulies. My off-the-cuff hypothesis was that Koreas had access to the armed forces TV channel 24-7; it broadcasts news, weather, job openings on bases, US TV shows, and films, heavy on the patriotic ones. Japan has nothing like that; English language instruction remains a classroom-only arid exercise, without the real-life reinforcement that Koreans get from their TVs.

    My landlord in Kyoto told me his experiences of arriving in Seattle as a post-graduate student and discovering to his shock that Americans didn't talk anything like the English he'd learned in his textbooks. Which was standard, correct etc, but don't most of us say "yeah" rather than "yes"? And t' rather than "to"? And so on. No wonder Japanese are shy about speaking English to foreigners.

    Professor June Teufel Dreyer
    Department of Political Science
    University of Miami
    Coral Gables FL 33124

  10. Greg Morrow said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Richard: In my admittedly limited experience as a student of Japanese, I found the grammar quite tractable. Hard to master, probably, for similar reasons as English, but not hard to achieve a minimal level of fluency.

  11. Carl said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:49 pm


    I personally like Japanese grammar and find it enjoyable. I was even thinking to myself this morning that if I were going to make the perfect grammar I might start with Japanese then add some more ways of differentiating time (a future tense, disambiguating the progressive and perfect, etc.).

    All that said, Japanese grammar is pretty radically different from English grammar, it's no wonder that Japanese students have a hard time with it. Going from French or Spanish to English, you have to get used to a different frequency of article use and different ways of pluralizing. Going from Japanese, you have to be introduced to articles and plurals. It's a very high conceptual bar for students to hurdle, and many never really master it.

    On top of that, as others have noted, Japanese has a small set of syllables to work with but (what makes that handicap much worse) it has a well-defined mapping from English to that set of syllables for use in loan words. (Hot dog –> hotto doggu, apple –> appuru, hello –> haroo, etc.) This means that Japanese students already think they know how to pronounce English words and never really grapple with the foreignness of the sound structure.

    I'm sure there's a lot more to be added here. Really, the terrible performance of Japanese language education is overdetermined. We can point to any number of factors that would be sufficient on its own to ruin language acquistion, and Japan has almost all of them except perhaps poverty and whatever-the-deal-with-the-Pirrha-is. Bad schools, closed culture, anti-individualism, different sounds, different grammar, different writing systems, etc., etc.

  12. michael farris said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    Maybe the reason that so few Japanese become really fluent in English is that English isn't especially useful for them?

    I know that's heresy, but the barriers caused by bad teaching, phonetic dissimilarities and the like are faced by many learners who overcome them if they need to.

  13. Nanani said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    @the first commenter:

    Your bad experience in Japan might be because you were in Nagoya of all places. Do step over to Osaka, at least, next time!

    Sincerely, a J-E translator in Osaka surrounded by English-profiecent colleagues born and raised right here.

  14. Dylan said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    The explanation always seemed quite simple to me — motivation. *

    Did you need English to get a job / earn a living? No. Did you need English to ascend the social ladder? No. If you didn't know English well, did you lose out on friends, opportunities, prestige? No.

    There was no societal need for English (or any other language), so unless you were incredibly motivated of your own accord, there was little external pressure to learn English.

    I disagree with the idea that the education system is largely to blame here. The bottom line is that if you wanted to learn English in Japan, you needed to supply your own motivation.

    *I taught in Japan for five years. I spent one year rotating between elementary and junior high schools, two years at a 'mid-level' high school, and two years at a university. None of the schools I worked at were private, most were in smaller cities / off-the beaten path.

    During that time, I worked with a number of teachers – some fantastically good at what they did, almost all of them competent, and only a few who were not very good. Though I met people who struggled with English even after ten or more years of classes, I also met people who had learned to speak English quite well without ever leaving the country. (And others who were near-native fluency after having lived abroad.)

    I also spent one summer working for an HR firm in Tokyo. The company leadership felt that knowledge of English would provide them with a benefit / competitive edge, and they put pressure on their employees to improve their English (and looked to hire people with better than average English skills). Many of the multinational corporations work this way too, and as this trend grows, there will be more motivation to learn another language (interest in Chinese seems to be growing too) — since being multi-lingual will start to help you get a job *in* Japan.

  15. Ted O'Neill said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    This statement about TOEFL scores comes up with great regularity, but typically with no analysis.

    "Among the 34 countries designated as "advanced economies" by the International Monetary Fund, Japan had the lowest scores last year on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, a proficiency test given to foreign students who want to study in the U.S. It had the second-lowest score among Asian nations, outperforming only Laos."

    Though perhaps interesting and related to language proficiency in Japan, using these test results in this way is not very helpful.

    1. How well does TOEFL actually correspond with proficiency of the type discussed in the article and these comments?

    2. While comparison with some countries might be valid, the comparison within Asia is meaningless. It reflects essentially a "First World" problem and misuse of the test in Japan and especially by some Japanese universities.

    Many TOEFL test takers in Japan should not even be taking the test. Though expensive, it is less of a barrier for many Japanese than students in some other countries in Asia. Some students take the test without actual plans to study abroad. Also, universities that mis-use TOEFL as a placement test for incoming freshman or as a pre- and post-test for all students in compulsory courses fill the testing pool with many irrelevant results.

    In the Japan vs Laos case, TOEFL is given to essentially a set closer to the general 18-21 year old population, but in Laos is probably mainly taken by that country's elite. Not a good grounds for comparison.

    What it may represent is a fixation on testing in Japan. This seeming need for certification through testing, regardless of applicability, is not limited to English in Japan, but is a general tendency in many areas of education and in life.

  16. JR said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    At least some of the explanations above are quite similar to explanations for poor foreign language proficiency among Americans: it's a large, geographically isolated country with often-pitiful, grammar-oriented language education and often little opportunity for students to hear or interact in the target language.

  17. Richard said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 12:18 am


    Heavily influenced by the US? Yes. Have to use English/interact with English speakers (or really, use any other foreign language) or adapt to other cultures/people to gain prestige/get ahead in the world? No (there's a reason why there's been heavy immigration of Korean & Chinese speakers to the US while virtually no Japanese have since WWII). Which is why I still consider them to be pretty closed. JR's point is a good one; they probably are the best analogue to Americans (at least when it comes to foreign language acquisition) there is in the world today. To take the analogy further, you could say Chinese/Mandarin is to the Japanese as Spanish is to Americans (last time I was in Japan, I heard far more Mandarin than English; in fact, I only heard Japanese (98%) and Chinese (2%)) while English to the Japanese is maybe akin to what French was to Americans some 200 years ago.

    BTW, the Japanese also think of Japan as a small country, which probably is due to them being close to big, populous China & geographically vast Russia, both of which now have several times pacifist Japan's military might (and sharing the same continent with big, populous India to boot), even though they're bigger than every country in Europe (if you don't count Russia).

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