“Once, I asked a newly hired employee to make a telephone call to an overseas vendor,” an unnamed Rakuten executive relates to Shukan Gendai (April 27). “At first their conversation seemed to be going smoothly, but afterwards I got a call from the guy responsible for that account. The person he called was a Chinese, and while he could speak English, he wasn’t a native speaker. Turned out he couldn’t follow what our man said at all.
“When you speak over the telephone, you use simple words and talk slowly, but this new kid didn’t even have the common sense to do that. He just kept on yakking, not even realizing he wasn’t making himself understood to the other fellow.”
Rakuten made English its internal language for all internal communications from July of 2012, and from this year required a minimum score on the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) of 750 points (maximum possible score is 990) for new hirees.
A former store manager at Uniqlo, another company which has emulated Rakuten by requiring English in-house, tells the magazine, “I joined the company because it was promoting itself as seeking ‘globalized staff.’ But at the shop where I was assigned, I never had a chance to use my English. The staff who got assigned overseas were just a handful who kept clearing tests. That’s the reality at Uniqlo.”
Nevertheless, more than 2,500 major companies, including East Japan Railway Co, require applicants to take the TOEIC.
“Over the past three or four years, there’s been a big jump in the number of companies that place importance on English ability—even domestic firms like food and beverage where one wouldn’t expect English to be needed,” says Reiji Ishiwatari, a journalist knowledgeable about employment trends.
Shukan Gendai’s article presents several examples of the mismatches that occur between expectations and results.
The sales manager at an electronics firm brought in a new staff member who appeared to be able to converse in English with no problem at all.
“But when he was taking a meal with a customer, the man asked him, ‘What do you feel about your prime minister’s worshiping at the Yasukuni Shrine?’ He knew nothing of the historical background and couldn’t make an articulate response. After that, the customer tended to look down on him,” he sighed.
“One type in particular you have got to watch out for are the ‘bilingual’ men and women who have been raised abroad from a young age due to their parents being assigned abroad,” points out Makoto Naruge, a former CEO of Microsoft Japan. “That’s because neither their Japanese nor English levels reached maturity, and they can’t speak persuasively in either language. What do they say in English? If it’s lacking in human ‘depth,’ then it’s more or less meaningless.”
“Their English is at the level of the 3 Rs in school,” says Kiyohide Kugisaki, president of Puff Co Ltd. “Just because someone can use the abacus doesn’t mean they can do any job. It’s the same for English. If you grew up in an English-speaking country, you can speak English. But that doesn’t mean you’re qualified for a job. That should be common knowledge to anyone who thinks about it, but the problem is that some companies forget this.”
Be that as it may, last year an all-time record number of 2.3 million Japanese sat for the TOEIC exam.
“I started prepping for the exam from my junior year and knowing how to cram for it, just like any other test, I scored 900 easily,” recalls a graduate of the University of Tokyo who joined one of Japan’s megabanks from 2012. “Then I went for a vacation trip to the U.S. with two friends, both of who scored over 800 on the exam. None of us could make conversation, and we wound up having to depend on gestures. ‘TOEIC is meaningless,’ we concluded.
“Except that it did make a big impression on the interviewer for my job,” he laughed.