Case | HBS Case Collection | August 2011 (Revised April 2013)

Language and Globalization: 'Englishnization' at Rakuten (A)

by Tsedal Neeley


Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, (Japan's largest online retailer), is at the helm of an organization that is rapidly expanding into global markets. In a critical stride toward becoming the world's No. 1 Internet services company, Mikitani announces Englishnization—a highly publicized aggressive two-year English proficiency mandate for all 7,100 of Rakuten's Japanese employees. Mikitani's goal is not only to ensure the success of the organization, but also to break down linguistic and cultural boundaries in Japanese society. At the time, only an estimated 10% of the Japanese staff could function in English. The stakes are high: those who do not reach their target score by the deadline risk being demoted. As Englishnization progresses, loss of productivity, lack of time to study, and conflicted views among managers impede staff success. Some employees even question the relevance of Englishnization, particularly for staff working exclusively in Japan. Fifteen months since the announcement, the vast majority had not yet reached their target English proficiency scores. With the deadline rapidly approaching, Mikitani must decide how to proceed to ensure the success of Englishnization, the continued global rise of his organization, and even the future of Japan.

Keywords: Teaching; Human Capital; Change Management; Transformation; Social Enterprise; Communication Strategy; Internet; Disruptive Innovation; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Strategic Planning; Leadership; Global Strategy; Technology Industry; Retail Industry; Japan;


Neeley, Tsedal. "Language and Globalization: 'Englishnization' at Rakuten (A)." Harvard Business School Case 412-002, August 2011. (Revised April 2013.)