Global Economy Exposes Japan’s Shortage of English-Speaking Graduates - The Chronicle of Higher Education
In Japan’s business world, they call it the “Rakuten English shock.” The country’s largest online retailer has told its 6,000 employees that they must be fluent enough in English to converse with one another by next year. Executives who aren’t up to speed will be fired; rank-and-file workers will find their path to promotion blocked.
That dramatic move by Rakuten’s Harvard Business School-educated founder, Hiroshi Mikitani, is the latest sign that some Japanese companies are accepting a long-held truism: English is the language of global business. It is also, however, exposing a long-term shortage of local university graduates fluent in the world’s lingua franca.
Japanese children learn English starting in elementary school and throughout high school, and many go on to study it at college. By the time they’re ready for work, hundreds of thousands of graduates have spent nearly 10 years struggling with the language, but few can do more than speak a handful of wobbly phrases: Japan ranks lower than North Korea, Mongolia, and Myanmar in the much-watched Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl.
The problem is compounded by a sharp cooling among Japanese for study abroad, a trend that has rung alarm bells at the highest levels of government. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently joined a growing list of officials expressing concern that Japanese university students are increasingly staying at home.
“As recently as 1997, Japan sent more students than any other country in the world to study in America,” Secretary Clinton told the U.S.-Japan Council in Washington last month. Today “Japan ranks sixth.” She pointed out that the number of Japanese students studying in America has dropped by almost 50 percent over the last 14 years.
While cost is certainly a factor, experts in Japan also noted structural barriers at home, including the lack of credit reciprocity, the traditionally low value attached by Japanese employers to foreign degrees, and the reluctance of most Japanese universities to waive fees for students who decide to study outside the country.