The Lingua Franca Mandate
On Monday, March 1, 2010, Hiroshi Mikitani stepped to the podium at the Tokyo headquarters of his company, Rakuten. At forty-four, Mikitani was the billionaire celebrity CEO of Japan's largest online retailer and was renowned for making daring business decisions, made all the more controversial in Japan, where conformity and tradition are esteemed. Fourteen years earlier, he had left an enviable career at the Industrial Bank of Japan to launch Rakuten with a small founding team. By 2010, his company was a household name and Internet destination of choice for the majority of Japanese online shoppers. Mikitani was often dubbed the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of Japan for his prescience in seeing the changes technology would bring to commerce and for the acumen he had demonstrated in Rakuten's meteoric rise.
Mikitani adjusted the microphone. These weekly company-wide meetings, called Asakai, were attended by over seven thousand Japanese employees — crowded into an enormous auditorium, often weaving around the corner and into an overflow room — and by a loyal contingent of Rakuten's three thousand overseas employees who watched via video. Most of the managers watching remotely understood little Japanese, but they liked watching their charismatic CEO in action. Later, they would receive translated summaries of his speech.
On this particular day, Mikitani had an announcement that departed from the usual format. He spoke from the podium in English. "For the first time in the entire history of Rakuten," he said, "we held today's executive meeting in English. Many executives struggled quite a bit, but we managed to get through the entire agenda." As the audience strained to listen he announced that "our goal is to catch up with the global market. To step up to this challenge we must try to change our language gradually from Japanese to English. This is going to be a long-term effort for us. Starting this month, my own speech will simply be in English." Mikitani went on to explain why he believed it was critical for Rakuten in particular and the country of Japan in general to acquire proficiency in English.
Language, he insisted, was the bottleneck that precluded the organization from leveraging valuable business knowledge that had accrued within the Japanese headquarters and existing subsidiaries. A common language was the only way to extend knowledge sharing across the organization's existing global operations, as well as those that would be newly and rapidly established in order to efficiently achieve business results. He reminded his employees that Rakuten aspired to deploy operations in twenty-seven countries and raise the overseas portion of their revenue to 70 percent within ten years. An important market for the e-commerce global growth strategy was the U.S. market, in line with companies like Amazon and eBay, where English proficiency would clearly be necessary. The Tokyo office was then steadily hiring engineers from India and China who spoke English, but not Japanese. Mikitani said what was perhaps most difficult for his workforce to hear: he wanted to continue expanding his talent pool and sought to hire non-Japanese workers for the Tokyo office as well as elsewhere in the company.
Finally, there was the shrinking Japanese GDP. Mikitani told his audience: "By 2050, Japanese GDP as a portion of global GDP will shrink from 12 percent in 2006 to 3 percent." Fast and direct communication — without the cumbersome time delays that translation incurred — was the only way to integrate his business across multiple nations and insert his company effectively in non-Japanese markets. He reminded his workforce that "our goal is not becoming number one in Japan but becoming the number one Internet services company in the world. As we consider the future potential growth of the Japanese market and our company, global implementation is not a nice-to-have but a must-do." And he promised that changing the language employees spoke would affect more than just communication. It would revolutionize how Rakuten workers saw themselves and interacted with the rest of the world.
Mikitani saved the bombshell of his speech for last. By April 1, 2012, two years from the first all-English meeting, Rakuten employees would be required to score above 650 on the 990-point Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) or face the consequences. If his audience did not understand the precise wording they would soon feel its impact. Mikitani promised: "We will demote people who really do not try hard. We will monitor their progress and their test scores, and I will get reports from all the managers about employee progress." Soon after, he instructed division heads to provide monthly reports on the average TOEIC scores of their employees relative to the desired target.
By the next morning, Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced with their English equivalents. English replaced Japanese floor directories in Rakuten elevators. Even the corporate executives were stunned. Mikitani had not consulted with them before announcing his decision because he had assumed they would resist the idea of a full-on English conversion. Instead, by announcing the mandate directly to the entire company, he made the policy immediate and irreversible. In Mikitani's mind, the future of Rakuten and Japan depended on what he called "Englishnization" and was too crucial to postpone. He had invented the term to embody what he called an unprecedented, radical idea for a Japanese company. One of Rakuten's most critical principles, "Speed!! Speed!! Speed!!" was in action. Englishnization had begun full force.
Global Organizations and Language
The style in which Rakuten mandated a common language may have been unusual, but the adoption of English was in step with the practice of global organizations. Multinationals adopt a lingua franca for at least four reasons. First, the pressure to grow globally, as well as the mergers and acquisitions that often cross national and linguistic boundaries, drive organizations to find a common way to communicate. Second, translators and interpreters for everyday work relationships tend to be inadequate. Meetings between individuals who speak different languages that rely on translators can become cumbersome and unnecessarily lengthy; likewise, translated documents often lose nuance and slow down transactions. Third, the absence of a lingua franca makes it challenging for linguistically diverse, and usually geographically dispersed, employees to share knowledge and collaborate. It has been long established that global team members who do not share the same language struggle to convey tacit knowledge that will advance their organization's goals. Finally, when subsidiaries are unable to communicate with their headquarters in the same language, the organization can find it difficult and inefficient to communicate a shared mission and values.
On the other hand, research demonstrates that a lingua franca not only enables a company to have better external and internal communication but also can promote a sense of belonging for employees located worldwide and serve as a reminder of the organization's global vision. Over the last three decades, English has overwhelmingly become the most commonly adopted lingua franca. According to linguist David Crystal, one in four people in the world now speak a useful level of English and there are over one billion fluent speakers. English's flexible grammar and lack of masculine and feminine forms make it relatively easy to learn. Its centuries-long habit of integrating vocabulary from other countries — "bonsai," "kamikaze," "tycoon," and "sushi," to cite a few Japanese contributions — lends it a familiarity to learners.
However, history has also shown that a language becomes global not because of intrinsic properties but because of the military, economic, and political dominance of its native speakers. Just as Greek, Latin, and Arabic were once the common languages of international communication at the height of their respective empires, English as a lingua franca is due in large part to the long history of colonial Britain and the superpower position of the United States. The consensus is clear: not only has English become the common language spoken around the globe, but it is the fastest-spreading lingua franca in human history. Linguist John McWhorter points out, "English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before." As will be further detailed in chapter 5, scholars at MIT have found English to be the number one written language worldwide, signaling its overriding influence in communication.
Global companies from nearly all the major industries — Audi, Atos, Deutsche Bank, IBM, Lufthansa, Microsoft, Nokia, Nestlé, Samsung, SAP, Uber, and the list goes on — are already requiring employees to use English. By mandating English, Rakuten was prepared to join the approximately 52 percent of multinational companies that had adopted a language different from that of their originating country in order to better meet global expansion and business needs.
Initial Employee Responses
Rakuten employees were astonished by Hiroshi Mikitani's radical announcement of the Englishnization mandate. This abrupt change that would soon affect all aspects of their work life also provoked a bevy of emotions.
Kenji (36), an engineer, could not believe what he had just heard. Kenji had seen Rakuten grow by leaps and bounds in the previous eight years. He had always admired Hiroshi Mikitani, and it was in these company-wide Asakai meetings that he grew accustomed to hearing the CEO's ambitious goals for the company and its workforce. Today's announcement was different and seemed nearly impossible to believe. Did he just hear Mikitani say that the official language of Rakuten was going to be English? Would his salary really be linked to his English ability?
Kenji had never traveled outside his island nation of Japan. Like nearly everyone in Japan, he had studied English for six years during middle and high school, but he had graduated with a minimal ability to understand English — and even this smattering of comprehension had long been forgotten. Suddenly thrust into a situation where he would be forced to learn a new language later in life or face demotion, Kenji felt like he was at a colossal disadvantage. He felt that his eight years of diligent, hard work in service to Rakuten should speak for itself, yet now — no matter how hard he worked — it wouldn't amount to anything without English. As a "salaryman" who expected job security in exchange for diligence and loyalty, Kenji was gripped by total shock and fear.
Robert (29), a marketing manager, was viewing the meeting remotely from New York. Watching the meeting live was highly unusual for him because of the significant time difference and language barrier. In the past, he had made it a priority to start his week by reading the translated transcripts of the meeting, which disseminated throughout the company. Robert grew excited as he heard Mikitani speaking in English. Even more surprising was Mikitani's declaration that Rakuten's Japanese workforce would shift to English for all internal communication. He was thrilled at the announcement, and also relieved that Mikitani had picked his native language. Having worked for the company for only two years, he instantly imagined the many ways the decision could positively impact his daily work and potentially even his career trajectory.
When Robert started working for Rakuten, his interactions with his Japanese counterparts were few and far between. Translators were necessary in nearly every exchange with Japan, whether it was an e-mail, phone call, videoconference, or in-person visit from headquarters staff. Even these limited interactions bred frustrations because a brief meeting could easily run twice as long as a typical U.S. meeting. Translators were also not immune from misunderstandings. Robert imagined how these issues would change for the better if lines of communication were direct. Gone would be the struggle to discern information from e-mails, PowerPoint slides, or other documents written in Japanese to even determine if they were relevant to his job. As a native English speaker, he anticipated that there would be great things around the corner for him. Experiences he previously could only dream of could now become a reality.
Inga (30) worked in the information technology department in Germany. The scope of her daily work included development of the e-commerce platform and other software for internal use. As someone who was moderately fluent in English, Inga was pleased with the English language announcement. Communicating in a mix of English and her native German would be a natural extension of what was already commonplace at work. She hoped that day-to-day communication in English would help the German office gain more insights from Japan that would assist in further developing the local market.
Historically, most of the IT documentation received from headquarters had been in Japanese. A recent example was fresh in Inga's mind. Several days into developing a prototype for a technology platform, Inga hit a roadblock and could not move forward without vital information from her Japanese colleagues. It took her several days to get what she needed. She hoped that a standard language would make information readily accessible. What now took several days might someday soon take several minutes. Inga had worked in Germany for a company with an English lingua franca before joining Rakuten and believed that the shift to English was normal for a global company where people needed to communicate across countries. She hoped that English would allow her to overcome not only language barriers but also the cross-cultural differences inherent in cross-border communication.
Over the next eighteen months, as Englishnization became central to daily life at Rakuten, I found that Kenji, Robert, and Inga came to embody the three central types of experiences that employees underwent as the company's culture and business practices transformed. Inchapters 3, 4, and 5, I will elaborate on these crucial categories of experiences and responses and on how employees adapted (positively and negatively) to the global, English-only work shift in the organization.
Employees were not the only ones who had responses to Mikitani's announcement. News organizations around the globe picked up the Englishnization story instantly — over a hundred articles appeared in leading sources like CNN, the Financial Times, the Japan Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Corporate Japan reacted with both fascination and disdain. In a culture where deference takes precedence over public criticism, the magnitude of Mikitani's mandate was evidenced by Honda Motors CEO Takanobu Ito's public assertion: "It's stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese."
Mikitani was unshaken. His response to criticism was consistent: "I don't react. I just ignore it. I am trying to make Rakuten a globally successful company. It's a good thing for employees — in both their professional and personal lives — because English will open up their vision to what's happening all over the world. I would like to open our eyes." Quite correctly, he surmised, "I'm sure that other companies will regret it [not switching to English]. They will follow us if we become successful." Three years later, Honda made English the official business language for global meetings, and in 2015 they committed to making English their official language within the company. Mikitani pointed to the decision already made by another globalizing Japanese firm, clothes retailer Uniqlo, to require English in internal meetings by 2012. He underscored his prediction for the future by adding, "I have noticed that English language schools are full these days, and not just with Rakuten employees."
Behind the Mandate: CEO Hiroshi Mikitani
Mikitani's exposure to the English language and the world beyond Japan began when he was a child. Between the ages of seven and nine, while his father was a visiting scholar at Yale University, Mikitani lived in Connecticut, garnering English language fluency and exposure to American culture. His father, an economics scholar, was among the first Japanese academics to study as a visiting professor at three major U.S. universities (Stanford, Harvard, and Yale) following World War II. His mother had spent several years in New York as a child. Back in Japan, the Mikitani family regularly hosted foreignluminaries from the world of economics; it was not uncommon to hear English spoken at the dinner table.