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Language Issues and Monolingual Myopia in Japanese Business

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The study explores the status of English used in businesses in Japan using an inductive approach to find out how English is being used in corporations in Japan. I interviewed Japanese bilingual professionals who use English for their daily business. Interviews were conducted on twelve Japanese bilingual professionals who use English for their daily business, searching for potential patterns or characteristics. The interviews revealed that most Japanese firms monolingually use Japanese and rarely use English. Yet English is now increasingly required in various types of corporations in Japan. Further, the study revealed the attitudes of monolingual myopia in the management of Japanese companies. Also, to improve English proficiency, it is not adequate to encourage the use of English among Japanese, but better to recruit people with diverse backgrounds.
JALT Business Communication Working Paper, 2023
Language Issues and Monolingual Myopia in Japanese Business
Saeko Ozawa Ujiie, SBF Consulting LLC
The study explores the status of English used in businesses in Japan using an
inductive approach to find out how English is being used in corporations in Japan. I
interviewed Japanese bilingual professionals who use English for their daily business.
Interviews were conducted on twelve Japanese bilingual professionals who use
English for their daily business, searching for potential patterns or characteristics. The
interviews revealed that most Japanese firms monolingually use Japanese and rarely use
English. Yet English is now increasingly required in various types of corporations in
Japan. Further, the study revealed the attitudes of monolingual myopia in the
management of Japanese companies. Also, to improve English proficiency, it is not
adequate to encourage the use of English among Japanese, but better to recruit people
with diverse backgrounds.
Saeko Ozawa Ujiie is an international business consultant. Before taking the current
positions, she worked at Morgan Stanley, UBS, and Merrill Lynch in London and New York.
Saeko holds an MBA from Kellogg School, Northwestern University, an MA in
Sociology and Anthropology of Education from UC Berkeley, a BA from Waseda
University. She has served as an adjunct and visiting professor of business administration
at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for more than a decade.
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1. Introduction
The Japanese economy has been stagnant in recent years. There are several reasons for
this, but mainly the economic development of neighboring Asian countries has been remarkable,
and Japanese companies are overwhelmed by emerging rival companies. In particular, the
manufacturing industry, which has been one of Japan's strong points, tends to be unable to keep up
with the flow of the latest technology. It is said that the Galapagosization of Japanese products is
adding to this trend. Galapagosization, also known as Galápagos syndrome, refers to an isolated
development of technology that is unrelated to global trends. One of the causes for the
Galapagosization might be communication difficulties induced by the language barrier.
In this study, I explored the language problems faced by Japanese companies and the
possibilities for solving them.
2. Background of the Study
Language issues in international business have received a great deal of attention in recent
years (e.g., Brannen et al., 2014; Feely & Harzing, 2003; Harzing et al., 2011) . However, there are
still few studies that focus on Japanese businesses. In this study I explored the status of English
used in businesses in Japan to present and analyze the issues faced by Japanese corporations.
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English Skills Considered Essential in Japan
In Japan, English is in the position of the first foreign language. Japanese firms see the
ability to communicate in English as one of the most important abilities that their staff may have.
According to the survey conducted by The Institute for International Business Communication
(IIIBC) in 2013, 75% of 305 Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed Japanese companies that responded to
the survey said they are using English in their work. 15.8% of those companies consider the
TOEIC scores as the indicators of employees’ English proficiency and use or plan to use the scores
for promotion. Also, increasing numbers of Japanese companies are setting certain levels of
TOEIC scores for recruiting new employees (Yamao & Sekiguchi, 2015), and the expected TOEIC
scores are 565 on average for new graduates, and 710 on average for mid-career hires, rising from
550 points and 600 points in the 2011 survey (IIBC, 2013).
English in Japan
In Japan, language has very unique characteristics. First of all, in Japan, English, as well
as Japanese, has no official status. As for English, not being used for an intra-national
communication, and any particular fluency is not required in it for everyday lives (Yano, 2008).
Further, there are no legislative restrictions on using any particular language in Japan.
Japanese is used for documents intended for use within the country and English for outside the
country. However, there are no definitions or regulations regarding the legal justification for using
either language. In other words, from the standpoint of language policy and management, Japanese
and English are used based on custom and tacit understanding. The Japanese situation contrasts
with many other countries with more stringent language laws and legislation.
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Even in discussions with international business researchers in Japan, the focus on
language issues has been on whether English should be used and how it should be used, with little
discussion of multilingualism and multiculturalism within organizations (e.g., Yoshihara, 2001;
Yoshihara et al., 2001). In other words, it seems to be taken for granted that overseas business or
communication with foreigners (non-Japanese) should be done in English. The number of foreign
employees working in Japanese companies is increasing, but most of them are from neighboring
Asian countries, and English is a foreign language to them as well. Nonetheless, they are expected
to communicate in English, if not in Japanese.
English is functioning as the de-facto second official language (Hashimoto, 2002), or can
be said as the first foreign language. For example, Japanese official documents issued by the
government for international use such as passport are written in both in Japanese and English.
Also, English is omnipresent in Japan, being used and seen in street signs, in signs of almost every
storefront, and heard in pop-songs, and announcements in trains and airplanes as well as at railway
stations, airports, and so on.
Generally Low English Proficiency
I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by
immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be
a horrible idea. Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo
expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world
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capital…. On my first morning in Tokyo, on the way to Murakami’s
office, I descended into the subway with total confidence, wearing a
freshly ironed shirt — and then immediately became terribly lost and
could find no English speakers to help me, and eventually (having missed
trains and bought lavishly expensive wrong tickets and gestured furiously
at terrified commuters) I ended up surfacing somewhere in the middle of
the city, already extremely late for my interview, and then proceeded to
wander aimlessly, desperately, in every wrong direction at once (there are
few street signs, it turns out, in Tokyo) until finally Murakami’s assistant
Yuki had to come and find me…
(The New York Times Magazine online version, Oct. 21, 2011 by S.
The passage correctly depicts the experience of an average foreigner in Tokyo. Although
Tokyo is a world-famous metropolis, the city remains an alien environment for foreign visitors.
Language is the primary cause of this. Although English, French and German words abound
throughout the city, many visitors who do not know the local language, Japanese, find the city a
perplexing labyrinth. As I mentioned above, Western words are mainly used only for decorative
1 The New York Times Magazine, “The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami” by Sam Anderson, Oct.21,
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purposes in advertisements, the media, and popular culture.
For most Japanese people, learning English is a lifelong process that begins in elementary
school and continues throughout college and beyond. Many students devote more than a few hours
a day to studying English for high school and university admission tests. While many surveys and
statistics demonstrate that Japanese people have a low competency in English, this condition has
not improved at all, despite experts' cries.
According to a survey by the Yano Research Institute, the size of the English education
industry in Japan is said to be about 800 billion yen. Despite the enormous amount of money spent
on English learning, the average Japanese person's English ability is considered very low.
According to EF Education First (EF), a global language education service provider, Japan ranked
Japan 78th out of 112 in their 2021 EF EPI English Proficiency Index, a benchmark for English
language proficiency.
3. Methodology
The present study is based on interviews with 12 Japanese bilingual professionals who
use English for their daily business. The data was collected through interviews, using semi-
structured and open-ended interview questions, asking the participants about their unique
experience, and their opinion and feeling about using English as common or official language.
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4. Findings
Majority of Japanese companies are still monolingual and rarely use English.
English is now required for businesses in various types of corporations, across many
different industries, regardless of the sizes of organizations, from small, medium to large
corporations. However, although the areas of business where English is used seem to expand, it is
not extensively used for general daily business operations among most rank-and-file employees in
Japan. It should be noted that the Japanese business world remains largely monolingual, and
professionals who can conduct business in English are still regarded as elites.
Additionally, I spoke with people who work for Japanese corporations in casual situations
and discovered that their organizations are primarily monolingual in Japanese and only use English
on a very limited basis. Although English is the first or only foreign language that most Japanese
businesspeople know, they rarely use it since they have few opportunities to contact non-Japanese
English considered important as career progresses.
It was indicated by the interviews that as an employee progresses in his/her career path,
English is considerd increasingly important. Many Japanese companies have begun to appoint non-
Japanese board members. Therefore, as the person goes up the career ladder, the need to be
proficient in English becomes greater. For instance, Participant 2 said that she speaks English to
communicate with the management level personnel, and Participant 6, CFO of a small Japanese
real estate investment fund, said that he uses English for meetings and teleconferencing with the
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shareholders and large investors.
Use of English is increasing in a wide variety of industries.
In this study, I surveyed Japanese bilingual professionals, who are proficient in English,
in various industries, including consulting, finance and investment, pharmaceuticals, law firms,
cosmetics, and manufacturing companies. Although there are varying degrees of English use
depending on the industry, target market, and type of work, English is now being used in a
variety of settings, and at this point, all of the survey participants felt that the need for English
use would continue to grow and become more widespread.
In particular, the use of English is increasing even in traditional Japanese companies that
seem to be more domestically oriented, and English is becoming necessary even in departments
that did not previously need to use it. For example, English was only needed in sales and marketing
in the past, where it was necessary to negotiate with overseas customers. However, with the
increase in overseas manufacturing, the need to use English has also increased in manufacturing
In knowledge-intensive industries, English is essential even for small and medium-
sized companies.
As I mentioned, majority of Japanese companies are monolingual and rare use English or
any other foreing languages. The level of English use by general employees is still low.
On the other hand, in industries with a high degree of knowledge concentration (venture
capital, real estate investment funds, management consulting, legal services), the degree of English
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use is very high. One of the respondents works for a small company composed of Japanese people,
but most of their investments are overseas, and their main investor is a Chinese national with an
MBA from the U.S. English is used for communication in documents, phone calls, emails, and
teleconferences. At a management consulting firm with a high profile worldwide, it is beneficial to
have input from a different perspective than that of Japanese people, so even projects in Japan are
sometimes conducted with foreigners, and in such cases, communication in English is essential. In
an interview with a lawyer working at a Japanese law firm, he said that due to the recent increase in
the number of acquisitions and mergers of foreign companies by Japanese companies, even if the
client is a Japanese company, all negotiations with the client's counterpart company's personnel and
lawyers are often conducted in English and English is used very frequently.
U.S.-based companies’ NNESs feel disadvantaged.
The survey of Japanese arms of U.S.-based companies indicated a slightly different
situation than that of non-English speaking companies. According to the participants, U.S.-based
companies tend to emphasize English proficiency and native-like English proficiency. The
participants who work for U.S.-based companies are concerned about not speaking English with
the U.S. native-like pronunciation. Also, although they were confident in their ability to
communicate English for their business, they expressed concerns about their inability to follow
casual conversations with their colleagues, as mentioned above.
Participants were worried that they might be excluded from essential people networks
within the company. Another respondent who works for a U.S. company pointed out a different
issue: U.S. companies tend to emphasize English language skills in hiring. In many cases, native or
near-native English speakers are preferred. However, from a Japanese employee's point of view,
they may not always be regarded as having good business skills. One of the participants mentioned
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the following as hearsays: he often hears stories of great frustrations from Japanese middle
management. Employees who feel their English skills are low tend to feel they are not adequately
evaluated even though they have worked hard to achieve excellent sales results due to their low
communication abilities.
In contrast, Japanese employees in non-Anglophone countries' Japanese offices did not
perceive being non-native English speakers as a disadvantage. Furthermore, Japanese employees at
Japanese companies felt that being bilingual in English and Japanese gave them an advantage over
their monolingual Japanese colleagues and that they were not particularly disadvantaged because
they were not native English speakers.
Monolingual and monocultural Japanese business communities.
Numerous testimonies in this survey indicated that English is being used in a broader
range of situations. However, my impression from interviewing at several companies was that only
a few departments use English in their work and that the environment remains monolingual, with
only Japanese being spoken.
Though not formal interviews, I have asked Japanese businesspeople on several occasions
about their attitudes toward using English for business and recent trends toward mandating English
as the official language in corporations. The general response was that English is unnecessary as
long as they stayed in Japan and did not use it in their work, so there is little point in making it the
official language. They all said that it would be impossible to conduct business in English alone,
especially for those who did not have reasonable enough levels of English competence to conduct
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Japan's business community lacks linguistic and cultural diversity.
I discovered that the Japanese business environment lacks language and cultural diversity.
The majority of the enterprises had only Japanese employees, and even in the divisions in charge
of international markets, non-Japanese employees work using Japanese. It was remarkable to
observe such a high level of monolingualism, monoculture, and lack of ethnic diversity in a
developed country like Japan, a highly developed economy with a large GDP. According to
Yoshihara 2001(2001), even the offshore operations of Japanese corporations are mostly managed
by Japanese expatriates using only the Japanese language. The study is a bit old, but I don't think
the situation has changed much.
5. Discussion
Why are Japanese people's English skills so low?
The following have been discussed as causes of problems for Japanese people in learning
foreign languages, especially Western languages such as English.
First, some scholars point to the issue of linguistic distance. Linguistic distance means
how different one language is from another, and the greater the linguistic distance, the lower the
level of mutual intelligibility (Chiswick & Miller, 2005). For example, there is considerable
distance between English and Japanese, and it is not easy for Japanese employees of multinational
corporations to become proficient in business-level English compared with their European
Second, Japan is an island nation and culturally and politically isolated from other nations
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for most of its history. Therefore, although there have been increasing foreign visitors to Japan,
most Japanese people still have very few opportunities to interact with people who speak different
Monolingual and Monocultural Society
Japan is a country often considered being monolingual and monocultural. However,
monolingualism in Japan is fairly recent phenomenon and a product of the political movement by
the government developing unified national language equal to the Western European countries as a
part of the modernization policy (Gottlieb, 2005, 2008; Heinrich, 2012). There is a strong
monolingual ideology and societal pressure to conform to the standard Japanese norms. Although
ethnic diversity has been increased. According to (Nakamura, 2016), it is becoming more diverse
as a result of the influx of migrants, sometimes known as "newcomers," who have been arriving
since the economic boom of the 1980s. Also, prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the country
was far more diversified in terms of languages. However, the development of a modern nation-
state required the establishment of a national language (cf., Heinrich, 2012). Canagarajah (2013)
argues that Western colonialism invented ideologies that favored monolingual orientations and
bounded notions of community and identity, distorting vibrant multilingual and translingual
practices (p. 33). Meiji Japan tried to westernize in its eagerness to modernize the nation hastily,
and language unification was a key component of its modernization policy.
Monolingual myopia, or myopic monolingualism
Monolingual myopia, or myopic monolingualism, exists in Japan. And it is a deeply
ingrained, taken-for-granted view.
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According to Ujiie (2020), the company that made English the official language of the
company failed to use only English among their Japanese employees, and both English and
Japanese are now used in the company. Initially, however, the company decided to use only
English and tried to discourage employees from using Japanese. This is because, the traditional
monolingual attitudes distorted the perceptions of the management of Japanese corporations. They
tend to take the ability to speak Japanese and understand Japanese business practices for granted,
focusing too much on acquiring English proficiency. They are too eager to replace Japanese with
English without seriously considering the potential consequences of losing respect for their cultural
and corporate heritage by imposing the English-only policy on their employees. They also fail to
recognize that various kinds of English are spoken in different regions of the globe (cf., Kachru,
1992; Kachru et al., 2006; Matsuda, 2003).
6. Conclusion and Further Study
Japanese companies, in general, tend to regard English as a foreign language used to
communicate with foreign companies and foreigners outside the company. Japanese is the only
language used inside the company. However, I believe that general language proficiency will
improve if the companies more actively recruite people with diverse backgrounds. Japanese firms
are still dominated mainly by Japanese males who work only using the Japanese language. I
believe that a more diverse workplace will create a broader perspective and new ideas, which will
allow Japanese businesses to break from the stagnation that has endured for so long and allow for
further growth.
The limitations of the study reflect difficulties involved with the qualitative interview-
based study of the corporate language policy: it was not easy to find informants and participants to
JALT Business Communication Working Paper, 2023
study and closely observe the situations inside corporations and businesses in Japan.
Some Japanese companies reportedly use English as the official language, such as Takeda
Pharmaceutical Company and Nissan Motor Corp. UNIQLO, among others. Further research is
needed to study corporations that successfully manage language issues and cases of failure.
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