A daily bulletin of news & opinion

18 February 2011

Verb conjugation; adverbial clauses; the future progressive: forget financial jargon, these are the words that may soon be found flying around the offices of Japan’s banking world.

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, Japan’s second biggest bank by market value, has just unveiled a series of initiatives to encourage its staff to pick up the grammar books and learn English.

This month, rows of “language booths” will open in its Tokyo and Osaka offices where staff will be able to join one-to-one classes between 07.00 and 22.00 daily. Workers are also being encouraged to take officially-recognised English language tests, with perfect scores required for those planning to ascend the career ladder. The bank’s overseas presence – there are currently 15 branches outside Japan – will also expand, with more staff sent on international postings.

The move taps into a slow but growing trend of Japanese companies embracing English. Indeed, even now, fluent speakers are often few and far between. Rakuten, the internet mall operator, is making English its official language, for use in meetings and documents (even staff canteen menus are in English apparently). Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing also plans to make English the main language of communication, as well as increasing foreign employees.

Some commentators say it comes not a moment too soon. Efforts by Japan to sustain itself as a global economic powerhouse, leading manufacturer and major political player may well have been limited in the past by a failure to open up and connect with the outside world – starting with language.

Even the prime minister Naoto Kan is now waking up to this: just last month, he started a blog which, unusually, is written in English. It allows his voice to directly reach a much wider audience than before.

How easy it will be to embrace these new English policies in companies, however, remains to be seen. This becomes clear when I call Sumitomo Mitsui and a slightly comical (but very typical) conversation ensues. As I try to explain that I would like to write about their new English language initiatives, I am cut short by several members of staff with the panicked words: “No English. Japanese only!”

I do finally find Kyosuke Hattori, a press officer who speaks good English. “We don’t plan to make English the official company language but these initiatives are for around 13,000 regular staff in Japan,” he explains. “The move is in line with our customers’ requirements to support their activities expanding overseas business.”

It may take a while before all international queries to key Japanese companies are greeted with polite and fluent English speakers such as Hattori. But for Japan’s economy – officially overtaken by China’s this week – it could be a step in the right direction.


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