Training September 2016

Is Japan’s Ladder to the Future on the Wrong Wall?

Japanese education includes adults screaming abuse, harsh threats being offered, kids mouthing slogans at mass rallies and those running the show making over $2 million in a week as a result. We know that Japan has an escalator system for work and education—get in on the correct ground floor and with the passing of time and effort, you get out at the top.

I was watching a programme on television about the Waseda Academy’s weeklong training camp for aspiring 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 symbolic hachimaki (headbands), no distractions and lived together in small groups for the week. They were working hard all day studying and taking lots of tests. At night they were doing their homework together.

The programme showed the adult instructors yelling at these kids to get serious or get out. Their insufficient academic efforts drew harsh rebukes and extended tirades. If you were not matching the regime’s expectations, you were bluntly told to get your act together or leave now. The students were 12 years old.

There were 2,600 kids on this training camp. The organisers were also adept at psychological indoctrination using mass rally techniques, where they would get everyone to come together outside on the assembly grounds. There they conducted some good old-fashioned rants about expectations, mass chanting of slogans and lots of thrusting of fists into the air.

This was a $2.3 million programme for the week, which is not a bad earner.

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 such as medicine, the elite bureaucracy or some job that requires you to pass a national exam, then the next four years are a type of holiday camp for undergraduates.

Getting into a university will become even less of a grind as the declining youth population means fewer and fewer barriers to entry, with institutions going into a death struggle for survival. More than half of private universities cannot fill their available places. Over the past 20 years, two-year colleges have morphed into four-year schools to survive, so there are many choices available today about where to go to university.

Japan’s experiment with the yutori kyoiku (relaxed education) approach didn’t last long. The original idea was to 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 old school standardised international tests and yutori kyoiku was out on the trash heap.

The 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 declining entry requirements and Club Med-style day care for adolescents continue when we need more innovation and creativity in our employees?

In the past, firms took responsibility for training entrants, but is that old style regimen of training still what is needed? Is it still the case that job rotation and on-the-job-training systems suffice? Firms will face a less polished graduating class than in the past, but have they planned for that? Are they looking for ways to improve the sourcing of creative ideas from within the firm?

Judging by what we see firms doing about training their staff, there is still a long way to go.

Engaged employees are self-motivated. The self-motivated are inspired. Inspired staff grow your business, but are you inspiring them?