Japanese Companies Go English-Only; Headaches, Outrage Follow : The Two-Way Japanese people have been taking English classes for decades -- but mostly as an academic exercise. Now some businesses in Japan are requiring that all their employees speak English. And that's set off a range of reactions.

Japanese Companies Go English-Only; Headaches, Outrage Follow

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. English has become the most widely accepted language of business. It's also considered the most efficient. But Japan, the world's third-largest economy has been slow to jump on the English bandwagon.

Lucy Craft reports on efforts there to catch up.

LUCY CRAFT: Imagine this, your boss has announced a drastic new globalization policy. The company will adopt a foreign language. Every meeting, every email, every piece of communication from now on won't be conducted in your native tongue. You've got just two years to get fluent or get demoted.

If that sounds extreme, you might understand the mood at a company called Rakuten. Right now, most employees of this online company are Japanese nationals who can't speak anything besides their native language. Needless to say, they are rushing to learn the new lingua franca.

Rakuten isn't alone. Apparel chain Fast Retailing says it's going all-English by 2012, although it's taking a more liberal approach. Spokesman Daisuke Hase is one of the few staffers who's fluent now.

Mr. DAISUKE HASE (Spokesman, Fast Retailing): In general, younger people or maybe business people in Japan, they're really against the idea of studying the English.

CRAFT: Nevertheless, Hase says his colleagues have dutifully plunged in, taking classes after work and adding lessons to their iPods.

Outside these companies, reaction to the extreme English policy has been swift and surprisingly outraged. Even the president of Honda Motors has dismissed the move as boneheaded.

Speaking English badly is so widely accepted here, so ingrained in the Japanese psyche, it's often assumed to be a genetic trait. The language barrier was never an issue during Japan's manufacturing heyday, says Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Mr. YOICHI FUNABASHI (Editor-in-chief, Asahi Shimbun): Manufacturing goods speak for themselves if it's of a very good quality. But now, 70 percent of Japan's GDP is service industry. And when you are 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.

CRAFT: The controversial adoption of English comes as young Japanese seem to be turning away from the world, with record numbers refusing to work or study overseas. Editor Funabashi finds this troubling.

Mr. FUNABASHI: I think that it's more important to watch the strong reaction against this decision from the younger generation. And I think that they feel very much insecure.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: I have a bad case of diarrhea.

CRAFT: Probably no country spends more time and money trying and failing to learn English.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I have a bad case of diarrhea. I have a bad case of diarrhea. I have a bad case of diarrhea.

CRAFT: Back in the 1980s, businessmen could tune into this memorable TV show, phrases chanted by leotard-clad aerobics dancers.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Almost every Japanese teenager will endure years of dreary English classes like this one at a cram school run by the Eikoh Company in Tokyo.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible).

CRAFT: Hunched over their desks, the students memorize arcane grammar and obscure vocabulary to be regurgitated on their college entrance exams.

The system not only guarantees few will ever learn to speak English, but that most will develop a lifelong aversion to it. Yasumi Yokota is public relations manager for Eikoh Inc.

Mr. YASUMI YOKOTA (Public Relations Manager, Eikoh, Inc.): (Through translator) English for passing entrance exams is not the same as English conversation. Kids study just to pass exams, and that means reading and writing.

CRAFT: Change won't come soon enough for Japanese business, but the government has promised a concept radical for Japanese education. By 2013, all high school English classes are to be taught not in Japanese but in English.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Is there anyone who speak Japanese? Is there anyone who speak Japanese? Is there anyone who speak Japanese? Is there anyone who speak Japanese?

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