Which way with an MBA?


For the past six months, Hidenao Fujitake has been leading a double life. A fund manager by day, 35-year-old Fujitake is a student by night, at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy.

Holding down a job at a Tokyo asset-management firm and attending classes from 6 every evening — not to mention the heavy burden of homework — means that Fujitake has little free time on weekdays, or even on weekends.

But he has no regrets: “It’s inspiring,” he said of his business school studies that are fulfilling his long-held desire to improve his efficiency at work through further study.

Hiroaki Jotaki, Fujitake’s classmate at Hitotsubashi, had also been dissatisfied with what he believed was his limited understanding of the theoretical side of his job. “It’s true we can do our job properly without digging into theories, but then I haven’t met anyone at work who could explain the theories behind what we do. I can read books, but it’s not easy to stay motivated by myself,” said Jotaki, 29, a fund manager at a rival company.

Not so long ago, both men would have had to go abroad to pursue their MBA studies. Japanese universities did not begin offering postgraduate courses in business administration until a decade or so ago.

Many Japanese still choose to pursue an MBA in the United States or elsewhere, but their options at home are increasing. According to publisher Diamond Inc., which compiles information on graduate schools in Japan, 19 Japanese universities currently have business schools, and the number is growing.

Universities say that changes in Japanese society and in the workplace have triggered the expansion of business schools in this country.

Formerly, companies trained newly-recruited graduates on the job, said Kenji Shibata, administrative director of Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. Dedication and loyalty were the elements prized by employers. Critical thinking was not necessarily a requisite.

Following the collapse of the bubble economy and the advent of globalization, however, Japanese firms have had to reconsider their old practices. And universities, too, have a role to play in Japan’s self-examination and renewal, said Shibata. “Japanese universities are being challenged to contribute to society by improving business people’s skills and making them more professional,” he said.

Others point to an increased interest in lifelong education among Japan’s aging population, prompting universities to offer postgraduate courses.

But is the Japanese business school experience any different from the kind offered by overseas institutions? Elements of the curriculum sound familiar enough: marketing, accounting, statistics, securities, human resource management, logistics management, financial strategy planning and crisis management, to name a few.

American business schools are a model for many Japanese programs, and Western business practices provide many of the examples studied. A few Japanese institutions like Waseda, however, are also choosing to cover “Asian values” and the Asian style of business.

There’s a difference, too, between MBA students in Japan and in the U.S., said Hirohisa Nagai, associate professor at the University of Tsukuba’s Graduate School of Business Studies. In Japan, students commonly see their studies as a way of enriching their current jobs, rather than, as in the U.S., using the MBA degree as a stepping stone to a better job or a change of career, he explained.

As a result, most students at business schools in Japan combine their studies with work, rather than studying between jobs. It’s a pragmatic decision, too. Fujitake and Jotaki both agreed that job insecurity influenced their decision to take an MBA course part-time rather than full-time, so as not to jeopardize their jobs. “There’s no proof that I’ll be able to find a job that would pay the same amount that I get now,” Fujitake said.

Like most of their classmates at Hitotsubashi, at the moment, neither fund manager plans to actively seek another job following completion of the course.

Despite their loyalty, the two men have received relatively little support from their companies. Their bosses are understanding when they leave the office at 5 sharp every day, but their companies offer little practical support. Both students pay their own tuition, about 520,000 yen a year (cheaper than many schools, including Waseda, which charges about 1,750,000 yen in the first year).

In many cases, this indifference continues once students have got their degrees and returned to work. A common complaint among Japanese MBA graduates is that they go back to work empowered and motivated — only to run up against a seniority system that ranks people according to age and status, not skill.

“It’s true that theories don’t immediately make me more efficient at work,” said Jotaki, but both he and Fujitake agree that companies should give their MBA-holding employees greater opportunity to show what they have learned.

Japanese universities, for their part, are striving to improve awareness in the corporate sector of the value of formal business education. But Shibata fears that may be a long time coming, and that business schools may have to wait until their graduates reach senior management before companies appreciate their role.

In the short term, though, Fujitake has no doubt that his MBA experience has been worth all the hard work. “I feel that the whole experience will enable me to generate more ideas and do my job better,” he said. He is currently persuading interested friends and colleagues to follow him to business school.