Japan's Business Schools Focus on Expansion
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With a declining pool of local talent, Japan’s business schools are looking for international linkages to grow.
By Andrew Jack
When Kazuo Ichijo attended the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, he studied alongside 15 Japanese managers sponsored for MBAs by large companies seeking to open up to the world. Despite a commitment from their corporate backers to lifetime employment, only a few remained for long at their businesses after returning to Japan. Most became frustrated and left to join consultancies or multinationals.
Now the dean of Hitotsubashi University Business School in Tokyo, Professor Ichijo is on the front line of efforts to enhance and expand the provision of business education in his country. The aim is to train a new generation of managers at home and to attract more students from abroad.
“The Japanese market is shrinking,” he says, reflecting on the uphill task he faces against a backdrop of modest domestic demand and an ever larger supply of courses offered elsewhere. “If we are focusing on the local mindset, we will lose out. If we are growing, we need to go international.”
Many Japanese companies realize the importance of globalization.
Shigeru Asaba, dean, Waseda Business School, Tokyo
By the standards of other wealthy economies, the provision of Western-style business education — and especially MBAs — remains small in Japan. A primary reason is the greater priority given by employers to hiring and retaining staff internally.
“Japanese firms emphasize in-house or on-the-job training,” says Shigeru Asaba, dean of Waseda Business School in Tokyo.
Local business schools face difficulties — for example, in finding practitioners to teach part-time — and there are only a limited number of teaching case studies written about Japanese companies.
Tomoya Nakamura, head of the English MBA programs at Globis, a business education training company and a university, points to the need for an overhaul in how the subject is taught, which is less academic and more responsive to students’ needs. He says his organization tracks student feedback, monitors teachers closely and holds them accountable. Nakamura recalls his own experiences on returning to his Japanese employer after taking an MBA at Harvard in the mid-1990s. He asked for extra responsibilities, after which “my boss scolded me for 90 minutes, saying, ‘You are too Americanized, how can you run a company at your age?’”. He left that job and worked for other companies before joining Globis full time. It diversified from publishing management textbooks into opening business education training centers across Japan in the early 2000s.
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, says the country’s corporate recruiters remain ambivalent about MBAs. “Human resource managers do not necessarily want bright, radical ideas from the U.S. that challenge traditional values,” he says. “In Japan, you join as a generalist and move around. Your value is knowing everyone in the firm after 20 years. Where Western companies are focused on specialized skills, in Japan there is the idea that you are valueless outside the company because you don’t have the network.”
External professional qualifications may mean early-career recruits leave the workforce for one or two years and go abroad. This may create a perception they will lose out in developing networks and expertise within their companies.
Professor Hiroshi Ono at Hitotsubashi, who specializes in the sociology of work, says, “Foreign companies offer a premium for the qualification. But there is no market value for an MBA in Japan. It’s been a problem for our graduates.”
David Hackett, director of Canada’s McGill University MBA Japan, based in Tokyo, says that at the end of the 20th century there was greater interest among Japanese companies in expanding internationally and positioning Tokyo as the headquarters for the Asian operations of multinationals.
These trends have diminished, and the focus now is on the domestic market and rising competition from fast-growing regional economies offering greater prospects for business and training, notably Singapore and China.
“Twenty years ago, Japanese companies would send employees and their whole families to the U.S. for MBAs,” Hackett says. “Now there are fewer and fewer, with strict standards. Companies struggle to find good people to go abroad.”
McGill’s part-time MBA Japan is taught in English to managers, two-thirds of whom are non-Japanese. Other business schools have also launched courses to appeal to international students. Hitotsubashi offers one- and two-year MBAs taught in English. Ichijo says courses begin in September to mirror business schools abroad, rather than the traditional Japanese academic start date of April.
Waseda also offers an International MBA in English and other specialist courses alongside Japanese qualifications. Asaba says the mood may again be becoming more favorable for business education, especially for part-time, nondegree programs, executive MBAs and specialist courses such as a master’s in finance.
In evidence, he cites Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s calls for a new generation of business leaders and growing interest from employers in training staff to prepare for foreign expansion. And, as lifelong employment wanes in Japan, more people are preparing for alternative careers.
“Many Japanese companies realize the importance of globalization,” Asaba says. “Some see that in-house education has its limitations and see business school as a good opportunity for employees to interact with people from other industries and widen their perspective.”
The language and cultural barriers facing non-Japanese staff may limit the global appeal of the country’s schools. But Asaba stresses the value of their international accreditation, partnerships with business schools abroad — and low fees of just a few thousand dollars a year.
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