Honda to make English official work language by 2020

TOKYO — In 2010, then-Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito famously said it was “stupid” to make English the official work language of a Japanese company. These days, however, Japan’s No. 3 carmaker is changing its tune.

In an annual sustainability report issued June 29, Honda said English will be the official language for all inter-regional communications at the Tokyo automaker by 2020.

The move is part of a global human resources management plan meant to cultivate an international work force that better represents the company’s far-flung and diverse customer base and production operations. Honda now builds 81 percent of its vehicles outside Japan.

“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.”

By 2020, employees working across regions — such as a Japanese engineer from Tokyo speaking with an American plant manager in Ohio, or a local engineer in Thailand on a conference call with a Japanese executive in Brazil — will have to conduct their business in English. English also will be the lingua franca for documents shared internationally, as well as presentations and interoffice queries.

To make sure everyone is up to the task — especially the outnumbered Japanese employees 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 Honda’s global work force of 204,730. That share is shrinking.

Last year, Honda hired only 719 full-time employees in Japan. In North America, it added 4,778.

The new English policy was actually implemented internally by Ito in 2013. His earlier “stupid” comment applied to a Japanese retailer, Rakuten Inc., which wanted to use English for internal communications. His point: Forcing Japanese engineers to speak English to one another is not a recipe for success. But being open to outsiders is.

Now, as Takahiro Hachigo, who has worked on three continents, takes the reins, Honda is ready to embrace English internationally.

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