It's not all about the mid-life crisis

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Finding the solution to a difficult problem lies in asking the right questions. On the afternoon of Sept. 1, in a stylish office building in Aoyama, a gathering of Japanese life coaches practiced this Socratic skill in groups of four. It was a role-playing exercise, in which one person played the role of a client with a problem, and the other three took turns asking questions.

As I walked around the room, I caught snippets of the kind of questions that you often hear in job interviews.

“What do you want to do in four year’s time?” one man asked. The “mentee” of the group, a bearded man in his late 40s, silently considered the question.

The activity was part of a conference on the future of the coaching industry, held at the Japan Chapter of the International Coach Federation, one of the largest global accreditation bodies for professional life coaches. It was also an excuse to the celebrate the fifth anniversary of the ICF Japan Chapter, led by Susumu Shinbori, an executive coach with more than 25 years’ experience.

Interest in life coaching, which is often described as a training program to help individuals or corporations achieve specific goals, has risen sharply around the world in the last five years. According to figures released by the ICF, there are 47,500 practitioners worldwide — with 3,300 based in Asia — and the industry has generated $2 billion in total revenue.

In Japan, growth has been more modest than in Western countries, such as the United States, but Janet Harvey, the current president of the International Coach Federation, says that although the numbers are smaller, the rate at which ICF credential holders are increasing here is similar to that of other countries. There are now 120 practitioners with certifications from the ICF in Japan, up from three in 2002.

“Applications for credentials have been doubling every year,” added International Coach Federation CEO Magdalena Mook.

While personal coaching has yet to take off in Japan in the same way that it has in the U.S. or Europe, the practice of executive, or business, coaching is fairly well established. More than half of the coaches in attendance at the ICF seminar were business coaches, and most of them have been practicing for nearly a decade.

Katsuhiro Suzuki, a senior manager in the airport quality-control division at ANA, has been an internal coach for more than seven years. He got into coaching about 10 years ago, after undergoing management training in the human resources department.

“Many major Japanese companies have internal coaching programs to teach the staff things like communication strategies,” he explained.

Personal life coaching has, however, been gaining some popularity and attracting a younger clientele. Tomoko Tanaka, a life coach based in Saitama, says that most of her mentees are students seeking career counseling. “(The job situation) is completely different now, and a lot of young people are very confused about what to do next,” she said.

In April, certified school coach Michie Fukuda opened a facility in Tokyo called MCA that offers coaching services exclusively for children and teenagers. In her group sessions, Fukuda encourages interaction and tries to build confidence through simple exercises.

“I would start by asking them about their day. At first, they talked about the things they couldn’t do or did wrong, but gradually they began to tell the group about their accomplishments,” she said. “I want children to understand that everyone is different, and that that’s okay.”

Like Fukuda, who is a former English-language teacher, and Tanaka, who is a lecturer at Ibaraki University, several coaches are segueing into the profession from a background in education.

While working as a Japanese-language instructor in Hiroshima Prefecture, Yuko Tanaka was looking for a way to help her students, many of whom were in transition and struggling with cultural challenges that had sparked other issues.

“I thought, ‘This is not only a language problem,” she said. “I started studying psychology and counseling, but it didn’t work for these people because they didn’t have mental problems.”

Coaching, as opposed to counseling, does not attempt to address past traumas; the focus is firmly on the present and the future, she explained.

In 2009, Yuko Tanaka decided to enroll in a coaching training program at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Since returning to Japan 18 months ago, she has been working with both Japanese and non-Japanese clients. Although she uses the same basic techniques with all of her mentees, she admits that cultural considerations factor into how she approaches each individual.

“Japanese people are not used to experiential workshops, so specific instructions are very important. They always think in terms of the actions of others, rather than seeing themselves as the subject,” she explained.

Coaching sessions typically last 50 minutes to an hour and can cost between ¥8,000 to ¥10,000. Usually, a life coach will ask for a commitment of two to three sessions per month for a minimum of three months.

But what really happens during a coaching session? To better understand, I asked Yuko Tanaka for a demonstration. Before our meeting, she asked me a series of questions, beginning with, “What are the challenges You are facing right now?”

For me, the answer was a familiar problem: dissatisfaction with my work situation.

The questions continued when we sat down together. Tanaka first asked me to describe my ideal working style and what I felt was missing from my current situation. Each answer prompted a related, more specific question. Though all the questions seemed basic, they were in fact difficult to answer. The aim was to help me formulate an ultimate goal, and then to think of small steps that would allow me to realize that goal.

I wasn’t able to solve the sprawling problem of my career crisis in an hour, but I left our session feeling more optimistic. I wondered if the act of answering questions about the things you really want out loud might be enough to imbue you with a greater sense of confidence, in the same way that smiling makes you feel happier when you’re sad. Tanaka nodded.

“That’s part of it,” she said. “Even unconsciously, you get a lot of ideas from talking and listening to yourself.”

Where to look for coaching in Japan

Many coaches will provide a short demonstration session at no or low cost with a referral.

“Look at where coaches have studied and consider their personal backgrounds,” Yuko Tanaka of Cross Continental Coaching ( says. “Coaching is very personal, so the most important things are chemistry and trust.”

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