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Japan’s New Business Language

Japan continues to work inside a linguistic bubble – not least because many firms in Japan are oriented to the domestic market and pay little heed to global trends. But this approach is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and companies are finding that switching to English makes them more competitive.

TOKYO – Six years ago, I stood before several thousand mostly native Japanese speakers and addressed them in English. From now on, I told them, Rakuten – Japan’s largest online marketplace, of which I am CEO – would conduct all of its business, from official meetings to internal emails, in English. I still remember the shocked expressions on listeners’ faces.

Their reaction was certainly understandable. No major Japanese company had ever changed its official language. But the simple fact is that adopting the English language is vital to the long-term competitiveness of Japanese business.

Of course, my decision faced plenty of criticism. One of my fellow Japanese CEOs went so far as to call the plan “stupid” – notable, in a country where executives do not generally criticize one another in the press. Clearly, I would have to fight an uphill battle for cultural acceptance.