Name: Philip O’Neill
Title: Director, McGill University’s MBA Japan Program (since December 2007)
Hometown: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Years in Japan: 27
Philip O’Neill is in the business of opening doors.
The adage of one door closing and another opening is at best, apt, and at worst, a cliche. However, as the director of McGill University’s MBA Japan Program for the past decade, O’Neill’s ongoing dedication to his students centers around a refreshing truth dating all the way back to his late 20s when he first arrived in Japan.
With a rejected job offer to be a high school teacher in Quebec behind him, his late father’s lifelong appreciation of Japan and bolstered by a former professor urging him to set off into the world and have fun, O’Neill headed for Kyoto to teach English.
However, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Two weeks after arriving and securing a job as a high school teacher, a then 27-year-old O’Neill met 26-year-old Akiko, a co-worker. She would later move back to Canada with him and eventually convince him to return to Japan.
“I came over here on a six-month working holiday visa, and now I’ve been here for almost half my life,” O’Neill said with a laugh. “That can happen.”
The two have been married for 21 years and have two children, and in that time the now 53-year-old O’Neill has grown from a young man who had never traveled to someone who has visited every prefecture in Japan except Okinawa, commuting between his home in Kyoto and his work in Tokyo.
O’Neill is adamant about taking the time to step out of the bubble of city and expat life to explore Japan’s quieter prefectures such as Shikoku or Shimame. “Tokyo itself is amazing, but the rest of Japan is amazing, too,” he said.
His career would also flourish. Unexpected opportunities he never dreamed of such as being asked to lead the program at his alma mater and meeting all manner of people. Additionally, working at both the Canadian and American chambers of commerce have taught him how powerful open-mindedness can be.
It’s a trait he sees in McGill’s most successful alumni and one he encourages young people to cultivate; O’Neill didn’t have big plans when he launched himself from his native Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a small town nestled between Lake Superior and Lake Huron characterized by its brutal winters and beautiful summers, but he did leave willing to take chances.
“There are doors you don’t even know are there, and they will open. And if you let them open, you’ll be surprised,” said O’Neill. “Sometimes you feel like you’re pushing on the door, trying to open it, but it might be a door you need to pull. Or it’s a door that doesn’t open in or out, rather it’s a sliding door.”
An English-language MBA is still an uncommon route to take in Japan, but O’Neill’s direction has resulted in the program’s continual growth and worldwide recognition.
O’Neill is particularly interested in the opportunities an MBA can create for women in a global culture that remains skeptical of their abilities.
After graduating, Rikki Takahara — who was part of the 2011 class and still keeps in touch — was promoted twice at Nissan before she accepted a position as chief of staff at Mitsubishi Motors.
A class that is 40 percent female isn’t unusual at the Japan campus and in 2016 half of the students were women.
Maintaining student diversity is another important area. McGill was recently recognized as an official Japan campus of a foreign university, making it easier for international applicants to attend and allowing McGill to sponsor students. This year’s class is an even split between Japanese and international students.
As students typically juggle jobs and family on top of a course schedule featuring a rotating lineup of professors that specifically fly to Tokyo to teach, O’Neill and his staff make a point of attending classes.
“I’m basically there every class day. We want to see what’s going on, keep in contact with the students, make sure everything is going smoothly because everyone is working very hard, right?” O’Neill said. “They’re not full-time students, so when they’re here we have to make sure they have a really good, smooth experience because this will be their one chance to meet with the professor.”
Weekend classes, outreach, organizing additional study trips abroad and discussions with business professionals take up much of O’Neill’s time, but he still makes room for fun.
O’Neill grew up in a musical household. His mother was an orchestral violinist who passed down her love of music to her children, as O’Neill has done with his own. O’Neill was most drawn to the drums, joining a marching band around the age of 8 and eventually sitting down with a drum kit.
“My father loved big band jazz music, and so he would put up with it when I was practicing on the drum kit in the basement. It sounded awful, like the noise of hitting pots and pans,” said O’Neill. “I think he believed if I kept doing it, someday I would be able to play the drums and he’d be happy. And that day happened.”
Be it in casual clothes or a suit, O’Neill tries to play every day after work in jam sessions, prepared to play anything. Some days you can find him close to campus in Shinjuku. Other nights, he’ll zip over to Okachimachi or Shimokitazawa.
Music is the constant in a life O’Neill never foresaw. “It’s joy ,” he said. “It’s pure joy.”
Experienced veteran of education in Japan
For the past decade, Philip O’Neill has served as the director of McGill University’s MBA Japan Program. In addition to operating the program, O’Neill is himself a McGill alumnus. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economic geography and a second one in education from Concordia University, leading to him working as an English teacher in Japan during the late 1990s. In 2003, O’Neill earned his MBA in marketing finance from the program he would eventually lead.
O’Neill has held a number of positions as a member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan from 2005 to 2016. He was the president from June 2005 to June 2007, vice president until 2009 and he has been a member of the board of governors from since then until today.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.