Sunday, 3 January 2010

Education for Business: U.S. vs. Japan

Below is a paper that I wrote for my Japanese Society and Business class. It reflects what I have come to know of both Japans educational system and the way in which it conducts business. It's a little on the long side but I'm sure you'll find it interesting.

Education for Business: U.S. vs. Japan

When I began studying the Japanese language and culture, I was very quickly introduced to the idea that Japanese universities where very difficult to get into but easy to graduate from. This was further supported as I recently participated in the 61st Japan America Student Conference. My round table during this conference was composed of five Japanese students and five American students and dealt with “Educating a Global Citizenry”. While the main topic was global education, we started off by comparing the Japanese system of education with the American system. As we compared the two, the evidence pointing to the difficulty of getting into a Japanese university but the ease of graduating became even more apparent. The Japanese students further seemed to take a great interest in the contrasting American system. Even after this conference I have had the education discussion with many Japanese students. It was not until just recently that I believe I have come to a better understanding of the Japanese education system and the reasons behind it. It is this understanding that I will present in this paper.

Contrasting methods of entry into universities in the U.S. and Japan and the then required work load was of particular interest to us in our initial comparison of education systems for the Japan-America Student Conference. We American students were introduced to the central test that Japanese high school students take in order to place into a university. Japanese students often study intensely during high school and then even when the school day is over continue on to cram school. They do this in order to memorize various facts that will allow them to score high on the exam and therefore get into a good university. Should the student not be accepted into the school of his or her choice, he or she will often take a year off just to study and once again take the placement exam. Once in that university however, no real hard work is required of them. Often students sleep in class or don’t even attend at all yet they still seem to pass.

While the American system also uses test scores as a determining factor, it is not the only factor. During high school, American students will likely take one of two types of tests, the ACT or SAT in order to measure their acquired knowledge. Universities look at these test scores when making an assessment on whether or not to accept a student. The university however, will also often look at other outside activities when making this assessment. They may look at volunteer work or extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs. The American system is often based on the individual and what the individual has accomplished both inside and outside the classroom. Once admitted into the American university, the story is much different from that of the Japanese. Students are required to study hard. Loads of homework are given to the students to ensure that they do study. If one continuously skips class there is a very high likely hood that they will fail.

My personal experience seems to tell me what I have heard. While going to a University in the U.S., I spend countless hours engaged in homework. My life seems to consist of school, homework, sleep, school, homework, sleep, and on and on. While currently studying at a Japanese University, I am surprised at how little work is required of me. I found myself having tons of free time. I’m not saying this is a bad thing because I personally enjoy being able to sit back, breathe, and truly enjoy my study abroad experience but, the Japanese students with whom I’ve spoken to seem to believe the American system to be a much better system.

Another thing in which we looked at was the way classes are taught in American Universities and Japanese Universities. American Universities tend to emphasize that students think for themselves and teachers encourage this by engaging the students in group discussions. They set out scenarios by which the student can analyze the information and come to a conclusion based on his or her own opinion. Teachers in America often seek to fully engage the student in dialog. According to those students I’ve spoken to, Japanese universities seem to be the exact opposite of this. The great majority of classes are lecture style. Students are required to listen to what the teacher has to say and are allowed little to no opportunity to engage in discussions or express their opinion. It is once again memorization of facts.

After the comparison of the two different systems, we went on to look at global education issues which are many. We tried to narrow down a method with which one could be considered globally educated and for the most part got away from the differences between the Japanese and American school systems except for the fact that we did implement a discussion based class as part of our final project. This was not the end of the discussion between the differences of the Japanese and American school systems for me however.

At another conference involving both foreign students and Japanese students the same issues addressed above where introduced once again. As I had already had a broad understanding of the differences between the two systems, it was at this point that I began to not just focus on the differences between the two systems but to analyze them and the reasons for each being the way it is. I began to draw upon my recently acquired knowledge of Japan. As I have come to understand it, there are very clear reasons why each system is the way it is. In order to understand these reasons one must look at the end result. One must look at why students in both countries go on to universities. Though the systems may be different, the reason for going to university is the exact same. Both students in the US and Japan seek higher education for the sole purpose of obtaining a better job with a higher salary. With that being the case, we must examine businesses in both countries.

In America, companies for the most part, seek specialists in a particular field. Take Company A for example. Company A, is a finance company and they seek to hire graduates who have majored in finance. They seek to hire students who studied hard and truly grasp and understand the finance industry. They want specialists in a particular field, the finance field. These students will enter the company and do just what they have studied so hard to learn, finance. Once these students have gotten as far as they feel they can get in this company they will likely seek to move to Company B where they can advance further and will continue to work as specialists in the finance field. Basically their life is finance and that is what they will continue to do.

According to Yoshida Fumikazu, a Lecturer at the International Center of Keio University and Professor at Sanno University, Japanese companies are quite different. As part of Japans lifetime employment system, Yoshida speaks of the job rotation system. This system is just as it sounds; workers rotate jobs. Companies do not wish to have specialists, they wish to have generalists. They wish to have students that can and will do any and every job that it takes for the company to operate. Once starting in a Japanese company, the graduate, whether he or she majored in engineering or in finance, will work for six months learning every aspect of the company’s operations. After that period they will be assigned to a certain position which may or may not have to do with their major. After a period of three to five years however they will be moved to a totally different position. After the six month company training period, a graduate who majored in finance may start of in the finance section but every three to five years will be transferred to different positions at a company from sales to product research and development.

This can further be emphasized by a case study introduced in my Japanese Business and Society class. In this particular case study, Kenji Hayashi, a student who received a masters degree from Keio University, started work at a large and reputable electronics company in Japan. For the first six months he was trained in every aspect of the business and no distinction was made between him and other newly hired workers who did not have a masters degree. Once he finished this training, he went on to work for three years in the product and development section of the company. This he felt suited him well since he majored in engineering but he was “puzzled and hesitated” when three years later he was transferred to the sales division of the company (Umezu). This case study depicts the way typical big business in Japan operates.

Another way in which to come to an understanding of the difference between America’s Business sector and Japans is in analyzing the way university students search for jobs. In America a university graduate searches by position. Once again going back to the finance student, they will likely search for positions in finance. As for myself, having a certain occupational specialty in the military, I have searched for and applied for positions outside the military for that particular specialty. According to one third year student who majors in European Union Politics at Keio University, the Japanese student does not search for a position or a specialty. They search for and apply to a company with no mention of a position. She further stated that she is applying at various companies with no expectation of landing in a company that allows her to work in some form of politics. She stated that that is how it works in Japan.

In general, businesses in Japan do not wish to employ individuals. They wish to hire members of a team. They wish to hire young minds that can easily be molded to fit the needs of the company. Chie Nakane, in her article Criteria of Group Formation, speaks of the formation of the life time employment system during Japans industrialization. She states that:

Boys fresh from school were the best potential labour force for mechanized industry because they were more easily moulded to suit a company’s requirements…. Men who move in from another company at a comparatively advanced stage in their working life tend to be considered difficult to mould or suspect in their loyalties. (183)

Edwin O. Reischauer in his book “The Japanese Today” states:

Big companies select their future executives through examinations administered to fresh university graduates, often limited to a few prestigious universities. Successful candidates are enlisted for lifetime careers with the firm. In the early years they are all trained thoroughly… through a variety of jobs in order to broaden their knowledge of the company’s activities… (320)

It is easily seen from these quotes that Japanese Corporations wish to employ students who can easily be molded to fit the company’s needs. They seek to employ these young graduates for a lifetime. Unlike in America, once employed by a Japanese company it is rare to quit and be accepted into another company for fear ones loyalties may be lacking.

Taking this back to the education standpoint, if a student was truly required to study hard and to truly learn a specific field in his or her university years, that student may reject the thought of learning or doing something totally different from which he majored in. The graduate may become not as easy to mold. In the case of the Kenji Hayashi mentioned above, Kenji was certainly disheartened and did not initially understand the reason for his being moved. Since the graduate will be employed by the company for a lifetime, it is best suited for the company to move that graduate around from position to position so that he may fully understand the company’s operations and “to bring up ‘experienced generalists’ and good leaders with multiple expertise” (Yoshida).

Furthermore, the memorization of facts and the lack of opportunity to express one’s own opinion that exists in the Japanese education system are mirrored in the Japanese business world. Once hired by the company, the graduate is expected to absorb what the company’s leaders tell him or her without questioning their authority or imposing his own opinions or viewpoints which may be in direct contradiction to those of the company. This is very representative of the Japanese society as a whole. They tend to work collectively as members of a team. They may express their opinion but not in an aggressive way such as may be found in the U.S. There is an old Japanese saying that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” This is true when expressing one’s own viewpoints in Japan; the Japanese do not wish to stick out from the rest of the members of whatever social group or organization they are in. This particular aspect of Japanese society is reinforced in the education system.

From my understanding, for the Japanese student, the university years are basically an incubation period. The companies wish to hire mature young adults and universities give these young adults that chance to mature. Furthermore, university years give the student a strong sense of senpai (senior) and kouhai (junior) which is very relevant to the Japanese business’s seniority system. University years give students the opportunity to participate in circles and partake in nomikai’s which is accustoming these students to get ready to perform these roles in the business sector. For the most part however, university years give the student a chance to relax and explore other areas of life that they may otherwise be unable to. Once they enter the company, their life, for the most part, becomes all about the company. They have very little time to seek personal interests but are instead focused on the interests of the company. Without Japans universities being the way they are, hard to get into but easy to graduate, students would not have the opportunity to explore and pursue personal interests. They would not have a chance to breathe.

It is said that Japan’s lifetime employment system is eroding and becoming more like the western system of business. This may or may not be the case. What has become evident to me however is, until the Japanese corporations start seeking specialists in certain fields and stop seeking generalists that Japans education system is suited perfectly for its needs. It serves its purpose of providing moldable graduates who can become those generalists that the Japanese corporation seeks. For the company, it is not what they majored in that is important. What is important is which university they graduated from. According to Ulrich Teichler, composer of an article published in Higher Education, “If specific knowledge is more highly appreciated and examined in the recruitment process, this might challenge a more or less automatic premium put on the university one graduated from” (290). I personally believe that if specific knowledge becomes more valuable to the Japanese company, higher education in Japan as a whole will adopt and become more like that which is found in the U.S. Until that time, Japans education system suits the needs of the Japanese corporate world.

Works Cited
Nakane, Chie. “Criteria of Group Formation.” Japanese Culture and Behavior: Selected Readings. Ed. Takie Sugiyama Lebra and William P. Lebra. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. 171-87.
Reischauer, Edwin O., and Marius B. Jansen. The Japanese Today. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005.
Teichler, Ulrich. “Higher Education in Japan: A View from Outside.” Higher Education. 34.2 (1997): 275-98.
Umezu, Mitsuhiro Ph.D. Case 3: Kenji Hayashi. Keio University. 11 Dec. 2009
Yoshida, Fumikazu. Class lecture on the job rotation system. Keio University. 3 Dec. 2009

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