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Staff writer

As highly skilled, entrepreneurial Japanese flock to work at overseas firms, Japan will become more accessible for foreign businesspeople who want to work here, said members of a group of U.S. business school professors on a tour of Japanese companies.

“I think there are tremendous business opportunities in Japan for Americans,” James Freeland, a professor and dean at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business Administration, said in an interview in Tokyo last Wednesday.

Over the next few years, Freeland said, a drop in the number of such workers will necessitate changes in business practices that will make the country more open to overseas businesspeople.

An aging population and a declining birthrate will further force Japan to dip into its foreign population for high-quality workers in the future, said John Kraft, dean of the graduate school of business at the University of Florida.

Fourteen faculty members from various U.S. universities came to Japan on a 12-day study-trip sponsored by the Japan Institute for Social and Economic Affairs. The teachers visited major corporations, including Sony, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mazda Motor Co., and met with officials from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Finance Ministry.

Aleda Roth, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school, said that as Japan shifts from an industrial to an information-based society, most growth will occur in smaller and medium-size businesses. “Smaller companies will have to defend their turf as if they were global players, because they will have global competition,” she said. “It’s (these) businesses that really need a fresh look on how to provide the infrastructure that supports the entrepreneurial spirit of Japan.”

Computer technology and high-tech information exchanges are crucial to this infrastructure, she said. But the general opinion of the professors was that many Japanese companies have been slow to adopt new computer technology.

“It hasn’t hit the government, that’s for sure,” said Peggy Takahashi, an assistant professor of management at the University of San Francisco, when asked about computer use in the Japanese organizations she visited. “We went through MITI, we went through the Finance Ministry, and I saw piles and piles of paper, but very few computer terminals,” she said.

What she did notice, however, was a concerted effort by companies to employ American-style management practices. “A lot of the businesspeople we heard from were getting on the bandwagon, (saying) that Japanese management really has to change,” Takahashi said. “But why should Japanese corporations bag the whole practice? There may be certain things that need to be tweaked, but why throw the baby out with the bath water?”

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