Japan’s Firms Get Wise To Global Talent

“The Japanese economy has been expanding through the competitive advantage of excellence in manufacturing, but that has changed,” he said. “We need to globalize our businesses.”
Hiroshi Mikitani, founder and CEO of Rakuten

With increased competition making the global business world more cut-throat than ever before, the leaders of Japan’s top corporations have recognised the need for their firms to up their game.

Japan’s well-deserved reputation for quality, efficiency and the application of cutting-edge technology to create world-beating products and services is no longer sufficient. Which is why the most visionary companies here are investing heavily in their most valuable asset: their people.

Hiroshi Mikitani, the founder and CEO of online commerce giant Rakuten, stunned corporate Japan by announcing in February 2010 that English was to become the official in-house language and that all his staff would be required to become sufficiently proficient to communicate with their colleagues around the world.

Rakuten was already expanding rapidly, even though it remained a primarily domestically focused company. From day one, however, Mikitani told a recent press conference that his vision was to become a world leader in the online sales sector. And of all the problems he faced, the language barrier was the most formidable.

“As we moved on, I felt that we were missing something,” he said. “We had to use translators to talk to employees at our foreign subsidiaries. And then I had an ‘a-ha’ moment and thought that we should all communicate in English.”

The imperative is not only for his own company, which is today the world’s third largest e-commerce firm by revenue, has 76 million members in Japan alone, operates in 23 countries and market capitalisation of a healthy $13.9 billion.

“The Japanese economy and our GDP need this,” said Mikitani, pointing out that Japan accounted for 12 percent of the global economy in 2006, although that will have shrunk to 8 percent in 2020 and a mere 3 percent by 2050.

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Article by Julian Ryall, March 2014