By Kyoko Hasegawa, AFP

TOKYO–In the cafeteria at the headquarters of Japan’s top online retailer Rakuten, employees with furrowed brows can often be seen trying to comprehend the company’s strictly English language menus. The online giant is swapping Japanese for English as its official language company-wide in preparation for an overseas expansion, a move “crucial for us to survive in this competitive industry,” said spokesman Hirotoshi Kato. It is not the only Japanese firm to eschew its native tongue as it searches for overseas growth beyond a moribund, shrinking domestic market. As the population shrinks and a stronger yen boosts companies’ power for overseas acquisitions, the need for better international communication is growing in Japan as firms pin their survival on emerging markets. Fast Retailing, which operates the cheap-chic Uniqlo brand, also plans to evolve into a more global company, looking to increase its overseas sales ratio to more than 50 percent in five years from about 10 percent now. “The Japanese market is shrinking while overseas markets are expanding,” said Hideki Yoshihara, professor of business management at Nanzan University. The increasing use of English as a communication tool is “a natural consequence” as the number of non-Japanese coworkers grows, he said.

But at home such moves have ignited a backlash amid fears for Japanese jobs and criticism that a drive to relegate the native language will be more of a disadvantage than advantage against overseas rivals more at home with English. “You have to have a clear goal of why you need to speak English” said Chikako Tsuruta, professor of interpretation studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “Speaking in your mother tongue is essential to convey information correctly and swiftly, and that’s crucial for doing business,” said Tsuruta. Debate was rekindled after a report last month that electronics maker Sharp will adopt English as its official language in its research and development division in Japan. Meanwhile, electronics giant Panasonic says about 80 percent of its global new recruits for white-collar positions will be foreigners in the financial year starting next April.

A recent survey by the Mainichi Shimbun daily said 57 percent of Japanese are against the use of English as an official language in companies, compared with 43 percent who support the idea. “There is no more absurd thing than speaking English in business in Japan,” Honda Motor president Takanobu Ito said recently.