TOKYO, July 8 (Reuters Life!) - In a bid to plug dwindling domestic consumption by tapping into overseas markets, some of Japan's big-name retailers are telling their employees to start speaking English -- or find another job.
As Japan's population shrinks, the country's retailers are increasingly looking to boost sales by expanding abroad and some firms are waking up to the necessity of being able to speak the global language of business in order to succeed overseas.
Rakuten, Japan's biggest online retailer, plans to make English the firm's official language, while Fast Retailing, operator of the Uniqlo apparel chain, wants to make English more common in its offices by 2012 and plans to test its employees for proficiency.
"It's about stopping being a Japanese company. We will become a world company," Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani said last week at a news conference in Tokyo -- conducted almost entirely in English.
Employees at Rakuten, which hopes overseas sales will eventually account for 70 percent of all transactions made through its websites, will need to master English by 2012 to avoid facing the sack.
"No English, no job," Mikitani told the Asahi newspaper.
Other high-profile Japanese companies, including automakers Toyota Motor and Nissan Motor, have announced moves to make the use of English more common in the workplace.
Some experts say the switch to English is healthy but just one of the changes companies need to make to go global.
"What's interesting is that these companies really stand out as pioneers," Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
"They have a relatively new outlook. They realise that Japan is going to need to strike into foreign markets given the dormant state of its economy," he said.
Facing dwindling domestic demand, Fast Retailing plans to broaden its consumer base by expanding into Malaysia and Taiwan later this year.
To keep up with the company's internationalisation, employees at Uniqlo's head office will need to score at least 700 out of a maximum 990 on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), a measure of English proficiency.
Many Japanese employees may struggle to make the grade.
On average, Japanese candidates perform worse than those from almost any other Asian country in English aptitude tests, according to a report published by the Educational Testing Service, which administers more than 50 million exams including TOEIC each year.
Japanese tied with those from Tajikistan to finish joint 29th out of the 30 Asian countries surveyed in 2009.
But Fast Retailing has no plans as yet to provide extra training to help staff meet new English-language expectations.
"How (employees) choose to meet these expectations is a personal choice," Daisuke Hase, a spokesman for Fast Retailing, told Reuters, speaking in English.
Temple University's Kingston said, however, that the trend towards using English in office life was hardly likely to sweep the nation: "Will English become Japan's business lingua franca? I doubt it."
In fact, Yoichi Wada, president of videogame creator Square Enix, tweeted an alternative suggestion this week.
"Rather than make English the office language, let's use 'C'," he wrote -- a reference not to Chinese, but to a computer programming language.