Japan tech firms embrace English in quest for talent

Japanese tech companies are increasingly making a difficult but necessary pivot to an English-first policy in the push to keep up with competitors overseas. The trend is particularly pronounced among companies hoping to draw AI experts from around the world to account for a shortage in Japan.

Tokyo start-up Rapyuta Robotics develops warehouse robots that use artificial intelligence. More than 80 percent of the firm's engineers are non-Japanese, meaning most communication is in English.

A steady stream of overseas recruits is being added to the company's workforce

Tadokoro Saori, a recruiter for the company, says her aim is to attract highly skilled people who can work well in a team, regardless of nationality.

The company recruits talented people, wherever they are from

Companies like this used to require foreign employees to speak fluent Japanese. But now it's local hires who need to speak English.

Observers say there has been a trend toward making English the official language among Japanese companies, especially IT-related ones.

Ando Masuyo is the chairperson of Progos, a firm that provides English-language training solutions. She says in the past, companies would only require passive English-language skills -- reading and listening. Now the ability to speak and interact in English is essential at many firms.

Ando Masuyo says Japanese companies have missed business opportunities because of a lack of English.

Competition for talent

Tokyo-based tech firm Money Forward opted to prioritize English a year ago, with a view to drawing more overseas talent.

The head of the firm's global division, Komaki Masakazu, says bringing foreign expertise on board is crucial in the drive to compete globally.

Komaki says there's a dearth of Japanese experts in AI, and free agents get snapped up quickly. As a result, the company widened its approach to recruitment. Komaki says they are confident they can find talented personnel overseas but they need to make the firm an attractive place to work. Part of this involves providing an English-first workspace.

Dramatic change

Switching to English is not easy. Money Forward has started by making it the official language of a small team, and plans to expand it to other divisions as time goes on.

The pilot unit is called Team Nikko. It's named after the tourist destination in Japan that attracts visitors from all around the world, just as the firm hopes to do with AI specialists.

No more than 25 percent of team members are local, which tips the balance sharply in favor of English. Some domestic staff have trouble keeping up on occasion, but they learn fast because they cannot revert to Japanese.

Komaki says luring AI talent from around the world into an English-speaking workspace will help drive product development and expand the business.

Komaki says using English will help them achieve their ultimate goal of becoming a global tech giant.

The huge demand for AI experts has the potential to dramatically change the business environment for both overseas and domestic tech workers in Japan.

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