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Speak Out in English Japan! Leading Through Communicating

Effective communication in English is an essential skill for success in international relations and business, explains the author who shares his own experience.



Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responds to questions after his keynote speech at the international Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 10, 2022. (©Kyodo)

In the current international turbulence, the ability to communicate effectively is more important than ever. Yet, confident English communication is one of the biggest challenges that Japanese people face. 

Japan is one of the group of seven advanced economies in policy and diplomacy. It is expanding industrial development overseas and participating in international forums. 

Japanese people need to speak out and be heard in the international community. Their failure to do so leads to criticism, putting Japan at a disadvantage internationally. Improving English reading, speaking and listening skills is a critical priority.

First of three parts

Read Part 2: Speak Out in English Japan: Learning to Communicate Logically

Part 3: Speak Out in English Japan! How to Make Communications Better for an International Future

An Island Nation with a Long History 

As you know, Japan has been in a state of national isolation or close to isolation from foreign countries for a long time

Since the time of the nation's founding by Emperor Jimmu (660 BC), Japan has been in a state of near-isolation. It is no exaggeration to say that this long history has left Japan less proficient at communicating with foreign countries.

Japan suffered a devastating defeat in World War II. But the Japanese have worked hard in the 78 years after the war. And Japan has become a materially advanced nation that celebrates peace.


However, in terms of international communication skills, it continues its backward isolation from the international community. If the situation continues, Japan will also decline politically and economically.

Japan's Emerging International Problems   

This problem has manifested itself in Japan's inarticulate response to large-scale foreign propaganda campaigns disseminating misunderstandings of Japanese history, among other things. Several years ago in response, the Japanese government set up a budget of ¥70 billion JPY (about $500 million USD) to tackle the problem. They established various new facilities called "Japan House" in London, Los Angeles, and Sao Paulo. The program tried to correct misunderstandings with a large-scale campaign on Japanese culture and history. 

We should welcome the stance of putting on an advertising campaign to correct misunderstandings of Japan. But similar facilities called "Japan Centers" already exist as part of Japanese embassies around the world. If you open the lid, both Japan Center and Japan House programs focus on introducing mainly Japanese culture. Other international misperceptions are not resolved at all.

Therefore, the biggest problem facing Japan today still remains the lack of international communication skills of the Japanese people. 

G7 leaders meet in Hiroshima, western Japan on May 21, 2023. They are joined in this picture by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Their dominant common language is English, where Japan is weak. (G7 via Kyodo)

Leadership and International Communications

Internationally, there is turbulence and aggression in several parts of the world. That makes it more important than ever for Japanese leaders to demonstrate international leadership. 

Such leaders are not limited to politicians and diplomats. Rather, they include public and private organizations as well. Leadership in the industrial sector that supports the national economy is also important for Japan's nation-building. 

Increasing the communications level of these leaders works to Japan's advantage. It ensures Japan's values of democracy and rule of law are visible. And that its international contributions are noted and highly evaluated by the international community.

Then, what are the most important international communication skills? There are three main skills worth noting here. 

First, specialized skills (professional skills) in the person's field of activity. Second, having the English ability necessary to fully participate in the specialized field in the international community. And third, logical thinking ability. 

These three comprehensive skills are critical to successful competition in today's international community. Overall, Japan competes well in the first requirement of specialized skills, so I will not discuss it here. 

On the other hand, there is a pressing need for Japanese to attain the second skill.  English proficiency," and a third skill ー "logical thinking."


Professional Skills and English

I believe that engineers in any field today have experience equal to or greater than that of the author. However, I would like to begin by describing the author's overseas experience as an electronics engineer.

Just as there are many industry associations in Japan, there are many similar associations in Europe. One of them is the European International Computer Manufacturers Association, Ecma International. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Ecma International's main mission is to create computer-related international standards. Many of the standards it created are enacted as International Organization for Standardization, or ISO standards as they are. Also, once I hosted an Ecma working group meeting in London.

Normally, when we develop a new technology, we obtain an international patent. But for new technology that requires international compatibility, rapid global standardization is extremely important. If this is delayed, it will be overtaken by new technology from competitors. 

The Ecma Technical Committee is not just a committee for European companies. All foreign companies with factories, sales offices, etc. in Europe are eligible for membership. And large manufacturing companies in the United States, Asia, and other regions are also Ecma members.

Why?  This is because it is the fastest way to make our own technology into a global standard such as an ISO. Outside participants are many manufacturing companies in the United States and Japan, and the competition is fierce. 

However, even if we try to standardize new technology in Japan (or the United States), it will be difficult to succeed because of conflicts of interest between companies. On the other hand, standardization is easier in other places. That is probably because there are relatively fewer manufacturing companies. 

Influence of Communications on Global Standards

Ecma is also influential. Once a European standard is first established, it is often easily approved in Japan or the United States if a draft standard has not yet been decided.

Many international organizations such as ISO are based in Geneva, including Ecma. Each country has one vote for resolutions on the world stage, such as with the ISO. Even a superpower like the United States has only the right to one vote. 

European countries are small. However, each country has one vote. This gives them great power to move proposals forward on the international stage. 


When Japanese people think of foreign countries, they tend to think of the United States first. But at the same time, they must consider the importance of other regions, such as Europe. In short, if there are too many competitors, it is difficult to reach a decision. And if you can't communicate effectively, you are at the mercy of others. 

Masayoshi Son, chairman and president of SoftBank Group, speaks at the annual general meeting of shareholders on June 24, 2022. However, he travels widely and meets many counterparts while speaking fluent English. (©Sankei)

Winning by Communication

The adage, "If you want to shoot the general, shoot the horse first" is important for negotiations in the international community. This will come naturally if you acquire good English communication skills.

In the mid-postwar years, manufacturing companies in Japan and the United States who understood the merits dispatched technical committee members to Ecma. This author even received a request from an affiliated company that was not an Ecma member. In that case, too, we achieved ISO standardization for a new technology. 

In addition, I actively supported the technology proposed by a US computer equipment company. That company also achieved Ecma standardization. As a result, the company thanked me, and a good relationship continued.

Lobbying: The Power of Words

Alongside formal meetings, informal lobbying is also important for understanding your adversary in negotiations. For example, an Ecma conference has one coffee break in the morning and one in the afternoon. At one conference break, I happened to be in a bathroom at the same time as a technical committee member from another country.

That person had been vehemently opposed to a certain proposal for a long period of time. "Until a little while ago, you were vehemently against it. But is that your true intention?" I asked him. "That's my country's stance, not my true intentions." He replied.

When the meeting resumed after the break, everyone expected him to continue to express his dissenting opinion. But contrary to expectations, the committee member remained silent. A vote was held on the chairman's arbitration, and the committee member abstained. The proposal thereby passed by a narrow margin. 

Through this type of interpersonal lobbying, Japanese participants can help to draw out the true feelings of the other parties. It works in assembly halls, hotel lobbies, and downtown pubs, to name a few. 

In contrast, lobbying with an interpreter rarely goes well. Communications become indirect and the other party is prepared to ignore what you have to say.

Hirokazu Sato demonstrating Japanese technology to a foreign audience in English. (© JAPAN Forward by Hirokazu Sato)

Grasping the Words in Your Own Field

My English is far from perfect. Yet I found I had no trouble communicating in my field of expertise. At the beginning of a technical seminar in the US, an audience member asked if I was really an engineer. 

She must have had a preconceived notion about Japanese engineers. That is, that they would not be able to speak English that well. However, as the seminar progressed, she became very cooperative. From this experience, I learned that technical skills are important. But at the same time, I learned the importance of engineers acquiring English skills to persuade others.

In addition to international conferences, there are other examples of successful use of English to communicate ideas to others. This author has given technical seminars on audio in all states of the United States except Alaska and Hawaii. And I have done the same in major cities in all countries of former Western Europe. before the fall of the Berlin Wall. 


Frequently I used the international trade fairs held in major cities as venues. As well, I used hotel conference rooms and audio shop floors in towns. The "Tape Clinic," a consultative meeting to diagnose compatibility between magnetic tapes and recorders,was particularly influential. It had a tremendous impact on convincing local audio journalists, critics, and audio enthusiasts

Start of the Boom in Sales of Japanese Products

At the time I was working overseas, Japanese products were just beginning to spread to the US market. And Japanese engineers who could speak English were a rarity. 

In trade papers, I was introduced as a Japanese engineer in both Europe and America.

Also, I was interviewed for the evening news by a local station (NBC-TV) during an event in Wheeling, West Virginia. Its interviewer introduced me as "An engineer from Japan who came to our town for the first time."

In addition, during my career, I was in charge of negotiations for technical tie-ups with overseas companies in the same industry. 

My experience taught me how important international communication skills are, even for a single engineer. Speaking English helps to move your foreign counterparts and the media. It's all thanks to the speaker's initiative, even if their English is not perfect. 

I am proud that I was able to demonstrate my specialized skills and comprehensive English language ability. And those allowed me to take a leadership role on a small part of the international stage. 

Therefore I can say with confidence that speaking out and expressing one's views in English makes a great difference. Japanese shouldn't hesitate to speak out in international settings. And that means improving English communication skills. 

English in Global Diplomacy

As essential as English is in business and economic activities, it is even more essential for successful diplomacy. As the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated in a policy speech, Japan must engage in diplomacy with a global perspective. This is an important policy for cooperating with the international community. 

He was encouraging a wider perspective rather than focusing, for example, on difficult bilateral relations with China. This can be seen in Japan's initiatives with advanced democracies that share common values ​​with Japan in terms of politics, science and technology, economy, and security. 


However, communication skills must be improved in order to sustain this cooperation. And to stem the needless misinformation spread in the international community. Improving English proficiency in each field is an urgent task. 

Continues in part 2


Author: Hirokazu Sato     

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