There was a moment, shortly after starting his new job at Rakuten, when Teppei Kobayashi found himself wondering what he’d got himself into. Just days after he joined, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani made a particularly bold announcement – English would replace Japanese as the company’s official internal language.
“This was announced at my first company meeting,” Kobayashi says, smiling. “I didn’t know English at all. I was very surprised since I was suddenly being told I’d have to speak English every day. This changed everything dramatically for me!”
Fast forward six years, and it’s clear that Kobayashi (who happily recounts this anecdote in English) has no regrets – and is a good example of how Rakuten’s ambitious switch from Japanese to English is paying off.
It was in February 2010 that Mikitani broke with Japanese corporate tradition as he addressed thousands of employees – the majority Japanese – to unveil his Englishnization plans. The decision, he explained, was propelled by the growing forces of globalization and digitization requiring top players to communicate in the language of the internet age – namely, English.
Like many colleagues, Kobayashi, 41, a manager in the Corporate IT Department, has only vague memories of failing English at school: “I studied English for about six years, but I was a very bad student,” he recalls. “I remember wishing I could understand English so I could watch movies and TV dramas. But the way English was taught in Japanese schools was very traditional.”
After the program launched in 2010, Rakuten staff had two years to obtain their assigned target scores of between 600 and 800 points through the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), a widely recognized language proficiency system. The required TOEIC threshold then rose gradually, with regular tests, until it hit 800 points.
“I studied very hard, for one or two hours every day during the week, and then all weekend,” explains Kobayashi. “We had a lot of support from Rakuten with free classes and courses. I attended many classes, both before and after work.”
He adds with a laugh: “It was high pressure. The TOEIC test was on my mind, 24 hours a day. I had to do it though – it comes with the job!”
It took five years – and 61 tests – before Kobayashi hit the company target of 800 points, in February this year.
And he quickly saw his efforts pay off professionally: “Many employees cannot speak Japanese – this is increasing day by day. One of the developers in my team can speak only Chinese and English. So if I need to communicate with her, it’s in English.”
He adds: “Having English conversations with co-workers is very exciting. I’m enjoying learning about new cultures.”
Kobayashi is not the only success story. In October 2010, the average TOEIC score among staff was 526.2 – a figure that passed 800 in May 2015, and has continued to rise since.
With the first 800-point phase of the Englishnization project now completed, phase two – focusing on speaking – is currently underway (the final phase emphasizes global understanding).
“It’s been a very difficult challenge for many Japanese workers at the company,” admits Kobayashi. “But it is worth it. The goal of the company is to become a global player. We’re not just a Japanese company now – and our English abilities will contribute positively to our global activities.”
Best of all, Kobayashi has achieved a childhood goal in the process: “I can finally watch English movies and understand them – just like I wanted in my schooldays.”