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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Oct 19, 2016

Japan: Your Educational Ladder Is On The Wrong Wall


Japanese education includes exciting things like adults screaming abuse, using threatening words, kids mouthing slogans at mass rallies and making over $2 million in a week.


We know that Japan has a well established escalator system for work and education. Enter on the correct ground floor and with the passing of time and effort, you get out at the top. Get accepted into the right elementary school and you will get into the right middle school, the right high school and then the right university. You graduate and get a job at the right company and then over decades of grind work your way up to the top.


Japan still loves rote learning and parents will pay cram schools to get their kids fully tuned up and on to the education escalator. I was watching a programme on television about the Waseda Academy’s week long training camp for aspirant future captains of industry. The programme focused on 6th year elementary students trying to get into the all important Middle School of their choice. They had their hachimaki (headbands), a Japanese symbol of resolute martial spirit and determination. They lived in small groups, working hard all day taking tests and doing their homework together at night.


The televised scenes showed their adult instructors yelling at them to get serious or get out. Their insufficient efforts drew harsh rebukes and extended tirades. If you were not matching the regime’s expectations, you were bluntly told to get serious or leave now. You are twelve years old.


The amazing thing was there were 2600 kids on this training camp. The organisers were also adept at psychological indoctrination using mass rally techniques of getting everyone to come together outside on the assembly grounds, for some good old fashioned chanting of slogans and thrusting of fists into the air.


This was a $2.3 million programme for the week, which is not a bad earner. This is on top of the regular monthly fees the parents already pay to cram schools throughout the year, to get Michi Chan or Taro Kun on to the right escalator.


A few things struck me when watching the show. This reminded me of karate training with my Japanese masters. A rain of criticism every class was the order of the day in the Dojo. It also occurred to me that Japan loves this type of hell fire right of passage. One of my team sent her son on this very camp and she was happy that they were dealing out lot’s of tough love. Japan is famous for companies sending their errant staff to the adult equivalent of this training camp, meeting out humiliation and abuse in large doses.


You could argue that given how the older generation decries what a bunch of molly coddled, over indulged, spoilt brats the younger generation have become, they need a bit of toughening up.


Another thing that got my attention was the focus on rote learning and exam technique. This is the standard educational approach in Japan right through to starting University classes. At University, unless you are trying for very specific careers like medicine, the elite bureaucracy or some job that requires you to pass a national exam, then the next four years are a type of Club Med for undergraduates. I know because I did my Master’s Degree at a famous Japanese University and witnessed this luxurious life of undergrad student leisure.


Getting into a University will become even less of a grind, as the declining youth population means fewer and fewer barriers to entry, as institutions go into a death struggle for survival. So the ease of graduating will soon be matched by the ease of entry.


Japan’s experiment with the yutori kyoiku ( relaxed education) approach didn’t last long. The original idea was get away from rote learning and exam technique and try to help students to analyse, to think, to tap into their creative attributes. The first dismal results for Japan, from standardised international tests and yutori kyoiku was out on the trash heap. If the object was to foster creativity and innovation, you have to wonder why they used the usual standardised tests as their ROI measure?


The innovation issue hasn’t gone away though. In the internet age, when anything you want to know can be found through a search engine, how relevant is rote learning and exam technique for the future. How much longer can a varsity system of floundering entry requirements and day care for adolescents continue? We all know we need more innovation and creativity in companies. Where is this going to come from?


There are a lot of public and private sector vested interests in keeping the current system moving forward ever nudging irrelevancy, so don’t expect change soon. The sting in the tail will be the decreasing quality of our new company recruits. They won’t have much creativity after the system has had its way with them and their rote leaning abilities won’t be of much use either. If we think about the work skills, knowledge and abilities we will demand of our employees in the next twenty years, we can be absolutely sure the current Japanese system of education won’t be producing it.


Japanese companies have never heavily relied on academic institutions for educating their staff. With lifetime employment, investing in training people made economic sense because you would reap the rewards. With greater job mobility on the horizon however, this social contract between staff and company will be broken. Young people, who will be in short supply due to demographic changes, will become like baseball free agents. They will rapidly discover they are able to swap teams for a better deal.


The “lost decade”, now in it’s third decade, gutted in-company education. Training budgets were cut and many were never resurrected. Instead they relied on OJT (on the job training) and so the investment on skilling up staff never occurred. This is sustainable for a limited period of time and that point was reached long ago.


So where are we up to? The companies aren’t training their staff as comprehensively as they once did. The staff themselves will find themselves being lured by recruiters to move on to greener pastures.


I believe the educational construct in Japan basically has its ladder up against the wrong wall. What will become of this country? What will we need to do to prepare ourselves for this brave new world? Are we thinking about these prospects?


If we haven’t spared a thought for this grim future of work, then now is a good time to take another look at assumptions, strategies, plans and targets. Those preparing now, will win in this coming war for talent. Game on!



Engaged employees are self-motivated. The self-motivated are inspired. Inspired staff grow your business but are you inspiring them? We teach leaders and organisations how to inspire their people. Want to know how we do that? Contact me at


About The Author

In the course of his career Dr. Greg Story has moved from the academic world, to consulting, investments, trade representation, international diplomacy, retail banking and people development. Growing up in Brisbane, Australia he never imagined he would have a Ph.D. in Japanese decision-making and become a 30 year veteran of Japan.


A committed lifelong learner, through his published articles in the American, British and European Chamber journals, his videos and podcast “THE Leadership Japan Series”, he is a thought leader in the four critical areas for business people: leadership, communication, sales and presentations. Dr. Story is a popular keynote speaker, executive coach and trainer.


Since 1971, he has been a disciple of traditional Shitoryu Karate and is currently a 6th Dan. Bunbu Ryodo (文武両道-both pen & sword) is his mantra and he applies martial art philosophies and strategies to business.