The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Japanese Language: Advantage or Necessity?

By John Ghanotakis, Amir Khan, and Timothy Trahan

Watching the news in recent months, you may have noticed a rising number of Japanese CEOs talking about the need to globalize and, therefore, the need for a workforce able to speak English. With all this lip service being given to the importance of the English language, it is perhaps a good time to consider how important it is to study Japanese.

Looking around the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, you are likely to find many very successful foreigners who have little to no Japanese language ability.

Many young professionals may jump to the conclusion that they can do without local language skills, but the truth is far more complex.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Japan had a significantly higher percentage of expatriates living and working in Tokyo than it has today. Many executives had been brought over by multinationals. For those companies, knowing the business was more important than knowing the language.

Likewise, for many middle managers, their assignments were of a limited duration, and thoughts of returning home in a year or two did little to motivate them to study such a challenging language.

However, the situation started to change as the extra costs involved in employing expatriates eroded already falling profits. As a result, company leadership encouraged more local hiring.

The Lehman shock was the catalyst for change, which was further exacerbated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the resulting economic downturn.

Recently, contrary to the hype surrounding English-language learning, many recruiters have seen an almost 95 percent increase in the requirement for Japanese fluency in new job openings. This is the single biggest barrier for foreigners looking for work in Japan.

It is an especially acute problem for low- to mid-level positions, underscoring the importance of Japanese-language study. While a few industries are language-flexible, the vast majority remain closed to candidates without a minimum level of business Japanese.

Given the changing landscape and general increase in competition for jobs, it is worth considering studying the language. Fortunately, there are many good learning options, ranging from private tutors and language schools to university courses and software aids.

Match budget and timing
Sorting through the myriad of language-training possibilities can be bewildering. But many options are available, whether you want to begin an evening course once a week, or a full-time intensive program. Start by fixing a budget, then decide how much time you can realistically devote to your studies. When calculating, make sure to include homework and travel time.

Focus on testing or daily functionality?
Some courses are specifically designed for students who wish to pass Japanese-Language Proficiency Tests. Such programs tend to follow narrow subject parameters to maximize the chances of exam success.

This may be ideal if your target is meeting a minimum requirement for a new job or promotion, but less useful if you want more general language tuition. Then there is the option of tailored tuition. Knowing your end objective is essential for choosing correctly.

Benefit to your workplace
Assess the work-related benefits your study program will bring, both for your own cost–benefit analysis, and to determine the chances that your employer will contribute time and/or money to your endeavor.

Learning Japanese can certainly yield great professional and social benefits. Thus, if your long-term future lies in Japan, a good grounding in the language may well be your passport to a better career path and lifestyle.






John Ghanotakis (chair), Amir Khan, and Timothy Trahan (vice chairs) are members of the ACCJ Young Professionals Group Subcommittee.