Mikitani, Japan’s third-richest man, lived in Connecticut as a boy and received an MBA from Harvard. He speaks English with fluency and charisma, as he showed in a recent speech that touched on the failures of Japan’s English education system.
“Japanese study more than 3,000 hours of English,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “And when you study more than 3,000 hours of English and you cannot speak English, there is a huge issue. It’s a huge waste of time.”
English is required for all Japanese middle and high school students. But measured by scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, Japan ranks 27th among 30 Asian countries in English proficiency, behind North Korea and Afghanistan, ahead of only Laos, Tajikistan and Cambodia. (Educational Testing Service, which administers the TOEFL, discourages such comparisons across countries, underscoring that its test is only accurate for individuals.)
The ineptitude has withstood decades of government attempts to overhaul the curriculum and cultivate better teachers. Several years ago, education authorities here decided to begin English classes in the fifth grade rather than seventh. Japan has also tried to shift the emphasis in lessons from memorization and grammar to conversation, said Haruna Yumioka, an international education chief at Japan’s Education Ministry.
Minutes before the first company-wide meeting after the July 1 deadline, several thousand employees filed in among rows of narrow folding chairs. They whispered “sumimasen” — excuse me — as others stood up to make way.
“Good morning,” Mikitani said.
“Good morning,” the room boomed.
In the two years since the announcement, employees’ test scores had improved sharply, Mikitani said. About 80 percent of executive meetings were being conducted in English. It was enough that Mikitani declared the transition a success. He said his company was ready for the next step.
“From now on, the company standard language will be English,” Mikitani said. “The only thing I would like to emphasize is, don’t be shy.”
The new English policy doesn’t entirely outlaw Japanese. But English is required for all internal e-mails, meeting memos, internal presentations and formal meetings. It is also to be used in training sessions.
The company also has major expansion plans. It hopes to operate in 27 countries within a “few years,” Mikitani said, up from the current 13, and it plans to drive overseas business from the current 10 percent of sales to 70 percent.
But the results, on the ground level, are harder to assess. One member of the creative and Web design department, Akihiro Miyata, 36, chosen by Rakuten’s media staff for an interview, has an above-average test score. But that’s good enough only to convey simple ideas, and during the interview, he occasionally shifted to Japanese to express himself more accurately. (Like many Tokyo employees, he still speaks Japanese during lunch, he added.)
Nobody has been demoted for falling short of English benchmarks, Yee said, but it could happen in the coming weeks as the company receives scores from last-ditch test-taking attempts.
Because of its English-only policy, executives say, Rakuten now attracts talent from around the world; one in three hires is non-Japanese. Mikitani says employees in the Tokyo headquarters now communicate better with overseas subsidiaries. Tech developers benefit, too, because they can attend global conferences and perform Web research in English.
At the meeting, Mikitani congratulated his employees on their achievements. He also introduced a group of 34 foreign managers visiting from overseas.
“Stand up, wave,” he asked those in the group.
“When you see these guys, say hello,” Mikitani continued. “And discuss with them whatever you want to discuss. Because you can speak English now.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.