Why Study Business English in Japan?

Chen Xu


After completing a bachelor degree program in China, Chen Xu traveled to Japan to begin an MA in International Studies specializing in English Education. Why would a student of English choose to study in a non-English speaking country rather than go to Australia or England? According to Chen, the teacher training course in Japan affords him the opportunity to gain teaching practicum experience with Japanese students of English as a Foreign Language. He can find good-paying and practical part-time jobs teaching English.

While studying in the English Education program at graduate school, he can travel abroad to a Canadian university to study as an exchange student for one semester. In exchange, a Chinese-Canadian student enrolled in the Master of Arts program in Charlottetown can study at his school in Kagoshima. The international career path these students are following represents a new trend. The Japanese university serves as a hub for students to gain valuable education in three countries. During six years of study, these enterprising students can garner learning and teaching experiences in China, Japan, and Canada. They will be able to view the learning and teaching of English as a foreign language in China and Japan, and as a second language in Canada. This triangulation of viewpoints can help them to creatively think outside the box and effectively debate issues related to the effectiveness of native versus non-native speaking English teachers.


Why Study Business English in Japan?

I came to Japan to seek answers to questions about how English is currently being used in commercial affairs. Chinese company employees regularly conduct business in English, and before coming to Japan I heard that English was used to communicate with Chinese companies to some extent by some employees of Japanese companies. It is a generally accepted opinion in China that Japanese people have finally begun to use English as their first foreign language on the international stage.

Officials in the Japanese government and in companies which negotiate and trade with foreign countries establish in-house English training centers and require employees to take the TOEIC examination. But is this really true all around Japan? Perhaps it is true in Tokyo and Osaka. But is English actually used in businesses in other cities, such as those with a population of less than one million? After piloting a questionnaire with one or two companies to see how well it worked, I started to interview company and government officials on whether English is currently used and whether training is being offered in Kagoshima. I also observe classes where Business English is taught, and sometimes have a chance to speak with students.

To introduce myself to the English speaking community in Kagoshima, I wrote an article in English for the Update Newsletter that is edited and issued by the Kagoshima Internationalization Council (Chen, 2010a). The newsletter is mailed to foreign residents and to companies that do business with foreigners in Kagoshima. In response to my question, “Who speaks English in Kagoshima?” readers responded by writing letters to me about themselves and the companies where they work. For example, one reader replied, “I worked in Tokyo as an overseas trade officer for five months. Now I work in Kagoshima, but I don’t use English at the office.” Another reader answered, “I’d like to use English, but I have no opportunities to do so in my life.” A common reply from university students was, “I have friends who are ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in Kagoshima. When I meet them, I ask them to speak English with me.” I learned from readers that at least two companies headquartered in Kagoshima, Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories and Honbo Shuzo, hire foreigners to assist in the sale and export of products overseas through branch offices. Their non-Japanese employees speak to each other in English. To increase the sample size of my study, I refer to the homepage of the Kagoshima Trade Association that summarizes the information on 117 companies in Kagoshima that export to foreign countries.

Because I am Chinese I can be fair in my observations of how English is being used in Japan as a foreign language. I am observing the use of English as a non-native English speaker so I do not have much bias to impair the results of my research. However, I worried that my non-native English ability might be perceived as a distraction by respondents. I therefore asked 47 respondents to comment on a newspaper article that I recently wrote in English about the tourist industry in Kagoshima. Here is an example of one paragraph from the 500-word essay:

Arriving at the Natural Sand Bath Center in Ibusuki, all the procedures from check-in to check-out were printed in English on a pamphlet. It was easy for me to understand how to look like a veteran. There were many Korean bathers. We were from different countries, but we had the same plan—to relax and enjoy ourselves (Chen, 2010b).

Five written responses to this survey were very reassuring to me as a non-native speaker of English:

  • “His article is so great, I am poor at English, but his writing is easy to read and understand. When I finished reading (the article), I feel I should study English more and more, and I want to be a good English speaker, talk to many other countries’ people.”
  • “I think that the writer is energetic. His action is wonderful. So I think that we have to know our country better than we know another country, and we should be able to explain our culture.”
  • “The English used is very natural. Thank you for reading (the article) today.”
  • “I like English, but I am poor at speaking English. I’ll go to Europe this summer vacation, so I am worrying now. You speak English fluently. I want to speak it, like you do.”
  • “I read the newspaper yesterday, he is so great. Because he has a good dream, I’ll imitate it.”

The study of Business English is very popular in China. That is why I chose it as my major at Nanyang Institute of Technology, a Chinese university in Hubei Province. I understand the vocabulary used in American companies that do business in China. The economy of China has been growing quickly in recent years. Chinese companies are selling products worldwide, so that means sales staff must communicate in the languages of the buyers in foreign countries. The second best approach is to use Business English. Responding to this need, Chinese universities are establishing Business English courses. I gained acumen in Business English vocabulary, fluency in Business English conversation, and can efficiently write Business English letters. The majority of my classmates landed jobs at international trading companies in China. I chose to improve my research abilities and increase the number of languages I can use by entering graduate school. I would like to learn how to be a top researcher in the field.

My classmates asked me why I didn’t go to the US or Canada to take a Master’s in TESOL. I told them that Chinese, English, and Japanese are the three most important business languages in the world now. A major reason for coming to Japan is that I hope to perfect not only my English communication abilities, but also my command of the Japanese language. Entering a graduate school in Japan meant it was essential for me to learn the Japanese language before being allowed to study English Education. I was a research student for six months before being admitted to the International University of Kagoshima. During that time I prepared for my entrance exam by studying Japanese, because the exam is conducted completely in the Japanese language including the essay writing components and the interview with professors.

My research proposal included the analysis of different approaches, strategies, and techniques to teach Business English to EFL/ESL learners in Kagoshima and Canada. An approach is informed by the development of a theory on what is an effective way for an EFL/ESL learner to acquire Business English. I set the title of my research paper as Why, Where, When, and How Often the English Language is Used in Kagoshima. In addition to visiting companies as fieldwork, I conduct classroom research and enter classrooms to practice teaching Business English.

Once I got in the door of the graduate school I was able to leverage my success by applying for a scholarship to study on a university exchange program in Canada. Conducting research at Japanese companies requires an understanding of how Business English is used in international trade. To observe how English and business practices are conducted in an English-Speaking country, I applied to study at the University of Prince Edward in Canada. Japan is Prince Edward Island’s second largest trading partner. Prince Edward Island companies sell processed fruits and jams to companies in Kyushu. I intend to gather research data on how Japanese companies negotiate with companies in Canada.

By the time I return from my fieldwork in Canada, I should be able to defend these hypotheses in my thesis.

  • H1: Business English is rarely used in companies in Kagoshima.
  • H2: Business English is used at international departments in city and prefectural governments in Kagoshima.
  • H3: Students of Business English should read real texts on the Internet, in newspapers, and in literature rather than only school textbooks at their level of understanding.
  • H4: In Kagoshima, the use of Business English in companies and governments has increased over the past 5 years.
  • H5: There are companies in Kagoshima which prefer that employees do English training outside their companies.
  • H6: There are companies in Kagoshima which do not provide incentives to employees to study English.
  • H7: Employees at companies in Kagoshima require at least a 600 TOEIC score to work in English and travel abroad.
  • H8: There are Canadian companies which transact business with Japanese companies in English.
  • H9: There are Chinese companies which transact business with Japanese companies in the English and Japanese languages.


Chen, X. (2010a). Who Speaks English in Kagoshima? Update Newsletter, 236(4), 6.

Chen, X. (2010b, May 21). My Ibusuki sand bath—up to my neck in pleasure. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun, p. 24. Retrieved May 21, 2010, from <www.asahi.com/english/TKY201005200365.html>.