TOKYO — Former Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito famously said five years ago that it was “stupid” to make English the official work language of a Japanese company. Now that he’s left the building, however, Japan’s No. 3 carmaker is changing its tune.
Honda, in its annual sustainability report issued June 29, announced that English will soon be the official language for all interregional communications at the Tokyo-based company.
The move is part of a new global human resources management plan meant to cultivate an international workforce that better represents the company’s far-flung and diverse customer base.
It is also a reflection of that fact that Honda, the first Japanese automaker to assemble vehicles in the United States, now produces 81 percent of its vehicles outside Japan.
Indeed, for the first five months of 2015, Honda exported a paltry 9,620 vehicles from Japan, down 27 percent year on year. North America alone accounts for 40 percent of its global sales.
“While Japanese associates [expatriates] led management at Honda’s sites in each region in the past, we have now shifted to a system of management by local associates,” Honda’s report said. “It is vital to develop an environment that achieves close communication between associates in six regions worldwide.”
Honda aims to make English its interregion work language by 2020. By then, employees working across regions, such as a Japanese engineer from Tokyo speaking with an American plant manager in Ohio, will have conduct their business in English. English also will be the lingua franca for documents shared internationally, and presentations and interoffice queries.
To make sure everyone is up to the task — especially the outnumbered Japanese employees back in the home country — Honda said it will step up its language training and make English proficiency a requirement for promotion to the management level.
Japanese employees account for 32 percent of the Honda’s global workforce of 204,730. And their share is only shrinking.
Last year, Honda hired only 719 new employees in Japan. In North America, by contrast, it added 4,778 new workers.
In North America, native employees already account for 59 percent of the senior management at Honda’s regional operations.
New boss, new rules
Honda’s outreach to the outside comes as a new president steeped in international experience takes the reins from Ito.
Takahiro Hachigo took over last month, while Ito stepped down to be an advisor following a rash of quality problems and a derailed global sales driver critics called overly ambitious.
In contrast to Ito, who logged just two years overseas at Honda’s Ohio r&d Center, Hachigo is a veritable globetrotter.
Hachigo has served stints on three continents. And until he was called back this year to president, the veteran engineer had been working overseas since 2012, most recently in China.
He played a key role in Ito’s single-biggest initiative: a still-unfinished realignment of Honda’s global operations around six regional hubs, each wielding its own r&d and production power. Hachigo helped set up those regional centers as president of Honda’s European r&d operation in 2012 and then as head of purchasing, production and development in China from 2013.
Back in 2010, Ito called out internationalists whom, he thought, had taken the idea of radical globalism too far.
When large Japanese retailer Rakuten Inc. tried to reach out to global markets by adopting English as an internal working language, Ito called the idea “stupid.” But his main point: forcing Japanese engineers to speak English to one another is not a recipe for success. But being open to outsiders is.
Hachigo hosted his debut meet-and-greet July 2 at a Tokyo hotel, a formality to exchange name cards with suppliers, politicians, bureaucrats, dealers and other business contacts.
True to form, the new CEO not only had a greeting prepared in English but also an interpreter on standby for foreign guests.