Japanese Companies Go English-Only; Headaches, Outrage Follow

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In Japan, people have been taking English classes for decades — but mostly as an academic exercise, something to forget after high school. Now some businesses in Japan are requiring that all their employees speak English — and use it for all meetings and e-mails.

That's the policy announced by e-commerce company Rakuten, Inc., this summer. Employees were given until 2012 to adopt the company's new official language. And the apparel chain Fast Retailing has a similar policy.

The trend has set off a range of reactions, as Lucy Craft reports for today's All Things Considered. The president of Honda Motor Co. said it's boneheaded.

And many young people are against it — even despite the early exposure granted by television programming like this English-language instructional show:


After all, as Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, tells Craft, the language barrier was never an issue when Japan's manufacturing heyday.

"Manufacturing goods speak for themselves, if it's a very good quality," he says.

"But now 70 percent of Japan's GDP is service industry, and when you're in the service industry, particularly if you're aiming at the global market, you have to communicate in English. That's the facts of life."

So, with English established as the most widely accepted language of business, people in Japan — home of the world's third-largest economy — are now taking classes after work and adding lessons to their iPods.

At least those lessons are likely to be more helpful than the TV show the above clip was taken from. There's very little chance, after all, that they could be worse.

The government is jumping on the bandwagon, as well. By 2013, all high school English classes are to be taught not in Japanese — but in English.



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