Hiroshi Mikitani started Rakuten’s Technology Conference in English, but quickly switched to Japanese. He claimed there was a strong demand from the Japanese participants for him to present in Japanese. This shows how much work ahead of him he has if Rakuten is going to meet the company’s goal of adopting English as their official language in 2012.
Mikitani’s speech talked about how Japan’s market share will decrease over the next 50 years, and for Japan to survive it will have to adapt itself to the global marketplace. In particular, it is important for engineers to use English, and not rely on translations, he said, for besides Japan, English is the common language of engineers.
Despite this English emphasis, the conference was almost entirely in Japanese. Not even window dressing attempts at English like its policy that menus and elevator signs must be written in English were applied to the conference’s signage. For instance, the conference was entitled “楽天テクノロジーカンファレンス2010” instead of the equally understandable by all Japanese “Rakuten Technology Conference 2010”. Had Rakuten held this conference in English, it would have been a great chance for them to lead by example, and show Engineers that even as a Japanese speaking to another Japanese, you can use English.
One session I attended was conducted in English, despite requests otherwise, by Hirotaka Yoshioka. Despite its positive beginnings, I was disappointed by the revelations of PriceMinister’s CTO Justin Ziegler and tarad.com’s founder Pawoot Pongvitayapanu’s about how their companies changed “for the better” since being acquired by Rakuten. Zeigler decried France’s labour laws, and how they meant employees don’t work the long hours that their Japanese counterparts do. Pongvitayapanu explained that Thailand has a laid-back culture, and since joining Rakuten, he was impressed that all his employees assembled for Rakuten’s morning meeting at 5:30am before he did. If long hours and meetings are the best of Rakuten, they have a long way to go.
Overall, Rakuten is trying to become a global corporation just by changing their language to English. But if the company culture doesn’t change as well, English is just window dressing.