Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group
People in Japan often ask, “Do Rakuten employees really all speak English at work?” Through the years, our company has become almost notorious for our bold commitment to unifying the language of communications to one: One that happens not to be Japanese.
More than a decade ago, I stood on stage in front of a room full of Rakuten employees and made a surprise announcement that the company would be officially changing its internal language from Japanese to English. At the time, the decision was a controversial one. Not only was our “Englishnization” program met with skepticism from media and other Japanese business leaders, but it garnered strong reactions within the company as well.
Fast forward to 2021 and we are serving our members through businesses based in more than 30 countries and regions. Domestically, our embrace of English has allowed us to bring in talent from around the world. In our Tokyo headquarters alone, we have employees from more than 70 countries.
“We have to be one team. That is why I want everyone to be able to communicate in English. Of course, I’m not saying it has to be perfect English. I, for one, make many grammatical errors. But that’s fine. I don’t worry about it. As long as we can understand each other, we don’t need “native” English to do great things together.”Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group
Of course, the efforts we are taking to globalize our workforce and improve our communications skills are ongoing. It’s a point I touched on during a recent Mobile Asakai presentation, our weekly all hands meeting for Rakuten Mobile employees. While many of our businesses are focused on the domestic market, as a company, we are all part of one Rakuten team. It’s a team that spans borders and businesses, one that must be able to communicate with colleagues and stakeholders from all corners of the world.
Take Rakuten Mobile as an example. While we started by serving customers in Japan, we are now working to transform the global telecom industry through the Rakuten Communications Platform, offering our innovative network architecture to customers around the world.
At this time of critical global expansion, our three objectives for first launching Englishnization are as important as ever:
1. For business growth: Competing in a globalized world
Simply put, companies that don’t globalize will not be able to compete in the economy of the future. Japan used to account for almost 15% of the global economy. Now it’s closer to 5%. And in the future, it will probably be 2-3%. Looking forward 20 years from now, we will need to be global to continue to grow and compete. It’s not a choice — it’s something we have to do.
Even for those working at businesses primarily serving local customers in Japan, I encourage everyone to keep working to improve their English. At the end of the day, every business has the potential to have global impact.
What we are doing in mobile is a tremendous example of this. Not only are we working to democratize mobile in Japan by bringing prices down for customers but because of our innovative technology, our ecosystem of services, our agility and speed, the world has taken notice.
2. For the team: Creating a “one team” culture
Many of our employees joined the company because they see Rakuten as a global leader, not just a Japan leader. This includes engineers and other experts from around the world. I don’t want to draw a line between Japanese and non-Japanese employees. We have to be one team: That is why I want everyone to be able to communicate in English.
Of course, I’m not saying it has to be perfect English. I, for one, make many grammatical errors. But that’s fine. I don’t worry about it. As long as we can understand each other, we don’t need “native” English to do great things together.
3. For the individual: Developing global perspectives
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I hope that through Englishnization we can help open the eyes of our all of our employees; to help broaden their perspectives about what’s going on in the world. Not only is it important for us as employees of a global tech leader; it’s important to us as global citizens.
“Japan used to account for almost 15% of the global economy. Now it’s closer to 5%. And in the future, it will probably be 2-3%. Looking forward 20 years from now, we will need to be global to continue to grow and compete. It’s not a choice — it’s something we have to do.”
On a personal level, I know how much I owe to the opportunity of living and working abroad in my early years. The perspective I gained as a child from moving to the U.S. with my father while he was a visiting scholar at Yale, and then later pursuing my own studies at Harvard Business School, has been invaluable to my life. It’s why I decided to establish the Fulbright-Mikitani Memorial Grant, a scholarship that honors my father’s academic career in Japan and abroad by offering Japanese participants the opportunity to pursue their dreams of education in the United States.
Englishnization: Building the path to the future
I truly believe that by developing global perspectives, we can better understand the future of our own business. Some of our competitors in Japan seem very comfortable within a purely domestic mindset: They do not seem to even try to understand what’s going on outside of Japan. But what is happening outside of Japan will happen inside of Japan sooner or later.
Now almost everybody in the Rakuten Group can read, write and communicate in this common language. I know some of our employees joining from other businesses are struggling now to achieve a TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score of 800, but we got it done together six years ago: Before we started Englishnization, many within the company in Japan were unable to understand even simple phrases in English. The success of all of our employees on this front lifts the entire level of our organization and helps lay the framework for a truly global future.