From education to employment

Fostering English language in a Japanese business environment: Learnings from a Japan cultural insight expert

Natalie Meyer, Founder & CEO, Tokyoesque

Let me tell you about a situation that didn’t actually require any English. One of our researchers at Tokyoesque was recently on an excursion with a Japanese client.

We saw our clients line up in front of each British person to exchange business cards. This is a common sight in a Tokyo meeting room, but not in the UK. And the British counterparts – who ran out of business cards, a big no-no in the Japanese context – looked very awkward!

On the UK side, they had prepared some light food to welcome their guests, but the Japanese never touched it, as is polite – they did not want to come across as greedy. The British would have needed to push them repeatedly before they would feel comfortable eating.

Yet, again, they looked on awkwardly not knowing why the Japanese were ignoring their kind offer – had they done something wrong?

This is an unfortunately common scenario. It is a situation requiring no knowledge of English whatsoever (it could entirely be conducted through interpreters), but ultimately, if they could speak each other’s languages, they would be able to understand their actions. The misunderstandings stemmed entirely from a cultural perspective.

Throughout its modern history, Japan has been an extraordinary example of a nation pushing ahead to succeed globally using its own cultural models. Culturally very different from most of the Western world – and set apart from other Asian nations in that it has never been under colonial rule – Japan has held its own, becoming one of the dominant markets globally. Today it remains the third largest market in the world by GDP.

In recent years, however, a radical downward trend in population, an aging society and competition from other markets means that the stance in Japan has become one of an increasing awareness of the need to do things differently. There has been a push from the top to participate on a global scale in a way Japanese individuals have not done before. It has also typically been the exception, not the norm, to find a Japanese businessperson who speaks English and feels comfortable abroad. Prime Minister Abe is looking to change this and many other corporations are slowly beginning to create a path for change.

One result has been that Japanese businesses are reaching outside their borders more and more frequently. As an example, international acquisitions and mergers have reached record highs, peaking in 2018[1]. And with M&A, comes a need for integration – and English skills.

A push to instill English language within society in a long-lasting, effective way is at the forefront of this changing market. According to a 2016 survey, less than one in ten Japanese citizens deem themselves good speakers of English[2].

The lack of English awareness has meant that the typical Japanese person in the office place does not feel experienced or comfortable enough when dealing with non-Japanese businesses. As anyone familiar with Japanese culture can attest, a lack of comfort from a Japanese point of view means that progress in business will be very, very slow.

Some corporations have taken the most radical step: requiring English at every point of the business process. Internet company Rakuten is one of the first businesses to pioneer this in 2010, claiming English as their official company language and requiring its use throughout the workplace. A company mandate is a fairly strong driver to promote English learning, although measures as hard-hitting as these have been kept mainly to large organisations and remain rare.

Additionally, tangible results are hard to track. It is naturally difficult to force native speakers to speak a non-native language with each other. So what else can a business do? It can bring in more global talent to assist with integration across its global business. This, theoretically, will help create a more global atmosphere, with a more global mindset for the company. But the problem here is one of dynamics. If you bring in someone junior, they will have to learn Japanese to participate in Japan’s hierarchical business culture. If you bring in someone senior, the other senior directors very likely may not speak enough English to get down to the nitty-gritty of business. Meetings will continue being conducted in Japanese. Japanese stays the focus.

It is true that simply having the presence of diversity in the workplace – the Japanese speaking fluent English; the American or British colleagues in the corner – can be enough to shape a company. This is only true however, if done consistently. Otherwise, they will get lost in a culture formed of the group rather than the individual. Fluency in English must seem both unattainable and unnecessary in day-to-day-life. For example, language teaching company Berlitz finds that the top challenge for companies teaching English in the workplace is to ‘keep employees’ motivation high’, at over 40%.[3]

There is one more fixture of the Japanese corporate which, if done often, will eventually have a lasting impact. This is the business employee exchange programme. Keep in mind that this is the domain of the large corporation and not, generally, something that the SME – which constitutes 99.7% of all businesses[4] in Japan – has the access or resource to put in place. Employees are sent to live abroad for years at a time to gain experience and English skills abroad.

Often, when they return to Japan these employees have been set up for a promotion. They are now considered to be an even more valuable member of the company, with the ability to bridge cultures and mindsets. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way. A Japanese expat can easily choose to spend most of their time in Japanese communities if they are placed in one of the key hubs like London, Dusseldorf and Amsterdam. It is not uncommon to find expats who have been away for years without many English skills. Alternatively, equally as common is the case of the expat who, upon returning, now must learn to ‘fit back in’ to the system. Neither of these are ideal outcomes.

While none of the above initiatives are a guarantee, they are certainly contributors to a more globalised Japan. Over time, bringing in an outside influence – in the form of both Japanese employees with diverse backgrounds and non-Japanese talent – will have an impact, which we are only just beginning to see.

What it really means is there is no quick fix. In Japanese culture, change takes time. What Japan requires is a philosophy of English learning that will engender comfort working in English (and by extension working with people who are not Japanese); and this can only be done over many years. The question of how to change inevitably goes back to the level of education, not just in business and abroad but also within Japan’s primary and secondary schools.

This is where Abenomics – the prime minister’s goals and objectives for Japan – comes into play, including an initiative for more thorough and frequent English education in school. Currently, English is a graded subject at the secondary but not primary level. From 2020, in addition to introducing English language earlier, at grades 3 and 4, English will become an ‘official’ subject for those in grades 5 and 6, and the hours taught will double from 35 to 70 hours per year. The number of English teachers will also increase from one to two teachers per primary school.

Additionally, the Japanese government has recently released a tender calling for more English language education and a dose of Western style education in schools nationwide.[5] Whilst materials and textbooks will be produced by the government, private organisations will have an opportunity to be a part of this new wave as the government seeks to ‘get it right’ with the upcoming implementation of these changes. Indeed, current English classes are often taught by teachers without confidence to read or speak the language. And despite knowledge of a language’s mechanics, many students are fearful to put this knowledge into play.

Those who have grown up in multi-language environments know that there are two main ways to generate confidence in a language: 1) you either include it very early on in childhood, so that it becomes a natural part of daily life; or 2) you force people into it with immersion situations, where there is no choice but to speak it.

The UK and Japan (and also the US where I am from) are perhaps alike. There is no special need or requirement to speak another language. So why would we?

The main difference is that Japan understands the global dominance of the Western business style, however fortunate or unfortunate this may be. Thus it knows it must speak English, and by extension, do ‘Western’ culture in order to fully participate on a global scale.

As an American, I can say that many US businesses do not think this way in terms of non-English markets; and those from the UK perhaps understand this, but a similar environment has created little except a measure of shame about the lack of second language skills.

Despite this, the typical Japanese businessperson does indeed act very ‘Japanese’ when abroad, as my story at the beginning of this piece illustrates.

So, again, it is not merely about bringing English into the workplace: it is much more about bringing cultural understanding into the workplace. This is needed on all sides.

I like to put the problem of a globalising Japan in this way. It is not necessarily about creating more English language skills, but rather about creating a sense of security with foreign cultures.

Forget language. Instead, focus on the ability to be secure and understanding in a different culture. If employees can build up confidence and curiosity, this will enable those on all levels of the spectrum, from SME to big business to entrepreneur to non-profit, to participate on the global stage.

Natalie Meyer, Founder & CEO, Tokyoesque

About Natalie Meyer: Born in Silicon Valley, Natalie Meyer obtained her MSc in Global Media & Communications after studying in London, Washington DC and Tokyo. Finding herself being approached by both Japanese and UK contacts requiring local access to global, innovative knowledge, Natalie established Tokyoesque to promote mutual understanding and connections across markets.

Natalie works on a range of market entry and research projects throughout Europe and Asia, often dipping in and out of the startup scene, corporate Japanese world and Major Events industry. She has a keen interest in the impact of global cities, yoga, meditation, new technologies and cultural differences.






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