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A Prescription for Inward Orientation

Shiko Lin
Professor, Waseda University Faculty of Science and Engineering

The President of Harvard University, who visited Japan in March of this year, reported that when compared to the numbers of students from China or Korea, there has been a dramatic decrease in the proportion of students attending Harvard from Japan. Similarly, at the end of July, the Sanno Institute of Management published survey results which showed that, in an internet survey of 400 recent graduate recruits newly employed this spring, one in two said they had no desire to work overseas. These sorts of examples have attracted the attention of Japan's mass media, and Japan's "inward orientation" has become the focus of discussion.

However, to me, as a specialist in corporate international strategy who comes into contact on a regular basis with Japanese companies which continue to conduct all different forms of overseas expansion, this argument that Japan has an inward orientation seems somewhat off the mark. In this article, then, I would like to consider whether or not Japan really does have an inward orientation.

Is Japan Really Inward Oriented?

The survey conducted by the Sanno Institute of Management mentioned above targeted newly-recruited recent graduate employees who had no prior working experience, and focused on the negative aspect of them saying they had "no desire to work overseas." But the latest survey conducted by the Cabinet Office which was published in September, instead focused on the positive aspect of people who said they "are interested in working overseas." After conducting 3,000 interviews of adult men and women across the country and receiving 1,913 responses, the Cabinet's survey found that 40.0% of respondents in their 20s and 33.7% of respondents in their 30s were interested in working overseas. Since the latter survey included a large number of full-time employed adult workers, I consider that as people gain experience of working in the society, they become more positive about the prospect of working overseas, as they begin to see it as an aspect of responding to the needs of the actual working world.

The problem is that the countries and regions in which Japanese people are interested in working are heavily over-weighted toward America and Europe, with 48.0% wanting to work in the US, and 43.9% wanting to work in France, Germany, the UK or other Western European countries, and only 22.8% wanting to work in China and 12.6% wanting to work in Korea. Moreover, the main reason that people who were not interested in working overseas gave was that they "lacked confidence in language skills," at 52.3%.

From this we can see that the attitudes of Japanese people toward internationalization, or the images they hold about foreign countries have become somewhat fixed. In fact, in the government work in which I have been engaged since the 1990s (attracting foreign tourists and investment from overseas), unfortunately, it has often been the case that those working with me have held fixed, stereotypical images about foreign countries, and their image of the foreigner to be targeted has tended to be someone who is blonde-haired and speaks fluent English. Only recently has some progress started to be made, to the extent that, at last, people have started to understand that it is also desirable to attract tourists from China and other rapidly developing Asian countries.

Moreover, I often encounter people's fear that unless they speak fluent (almost native level) English they will not be able to get their job done. But of course in real working situations, it goes without saying that qualities such as working well with one's colleagues as a team, maintaining a trustworthy attitude even when the going gets tough, and being diligent on a day to day basis, are far more important than such fluency.

The Inescapable Reality of Internationalization for Companies

So what then is the view of companies about inward orientation? Whether they like it or not, by the end of 2012 the official common corporate language within Rakuten and Uniqlo will be English. In addition, there are now many companies which, like Hitachi, are recruiting their recent graduate full-time employees on the premise that they will be asked to work overseas. One often hears comments about the policy of making the official common corporate language of a company English, such as "It will be inefficient when the people involved are all Japanese," or "Is it really necessary to go that far?" but I would like such critics to change their perspective and look at the issue from the standpoint of how people will be working in the future. Such leading companies are aiming for a situation in which foreigners who are not very proficient in Japanese will be able to work in the same office with Japanese employees in Japan on an ordinary basis, and the same as when working overseas, to create an environment where it will be possible to get by conversing in English. They are trying to create the same working situation, whether working in a regional office in Japan or working overseas.

As a member of a government manufacturing committee, I have also heard from executives of companies participating in the committee that there certainly seem to be a large number of new recruits who are hesitant about doing overseas training. We agreed that it seems that the most capable new recruits are happy to go anywhere and are full of the spirit to face new challenges, but most ordinary personnel who are just above-average lack the desire to stand out from the rest, which is a pity.

Gaining Experience while Young is Crucial

Given this tide of polarization, it is those who gain experience earlier and face challenges sooner who will be given the next round of opportunities. The world is becoming "flatter," as Thomas L. Friedman has pointed out in his book, The World is Flat, which means a new world view, in which anyone can more easily do the same level of activity from anywhere, making it a world in which the winner will be the person who can perform actions "faster, cheaper and more reliably."

In the globalized world of the future, a strategy will be adopted which allows the people who have gained experience while young (while their footwork can be light; in other words, "fast and cheap,") to base upon that experience (that is, "reliably") and grasp the key to the next challenge. This will become the prescription for surviving in the global economy as it continues to progress and develop. In many Asian countries, we have already entered an age in which, people known as the power elite, gain experience while they were young in harsh situations in the far corners of the world or in domestic backwaters, and use the fruits of this experience to develop their skills and abilities as the leaders of global companies.

The young people of Japan have little to gain from continuing with the current trend of going on journeys of self-discovery. Their personal identity issues may not disappear, but the skills that young people lack can be polished up after joining a company with in-house OJT, or by attending a graduate school targeted at people working full-time, etc., in order to firm up their basic foundations. And once in such a working situation, I recommend trying out new things and having adventures. One example I would offer would be that of switching between on-time and off-time, using a style of having one's fingers in two pies. For example, participating in an international contribution project to a BOP nation (Bottom of the Pyramid; home to the world's poorest 4 billion people) to the greatest extent possible as a supporting business in one's off-time, will be helpful in gaining business skills for one's on-time job. This sort of mode of operation will also gain attention as a new business model for NGOs and NPOs.

Well, I would like to close by offering my own experiences as an example. In my 30s, although very busy, I made time to take trips abroad as vacations. By actually seeing and hearing things, working up a sweat, experiencing the dust and smells of locations overseas, a sense of affinity with a particular place is generated. Talking about one's experiences of various problems and incidents on trips abroad can also win people's hearts when meeting them for the first time and it gives you something to talk about at business meetings when the conversation comes to a dead-end. Watching foreign films or television drama programs which are about a city you have visited, makes it easier to transpose more aspects in sketching out Japan's growth strategy or international strategy and many effective hints can be gained.

You, yourselves are the ones who can connect the real and virtual worlds. Young people of Japan, go out and experience the world!

Shiko Lin
Professor, Waseda University Faculty of Science and Engineering

Shiko Lin is currently Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University, specializing in business design and management. His areas of specialty include Global Manufacturing Strategies and Risk Management. After working at Nikko Financial Intelligence Inc.'s Institute of Investment Technology, and The Japan Research Institute Ltd., he established International Strategy Design & Research, Inc. and acts as its CEO. From 2006, he also served as Professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. From April 2010, he became Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. He has written numerous books including "Mother Plant Strategy (Maza kojo senryaku)," (The Japan Management Association Management Center, 2009), "An Introduction to Risk Literacy: Learning from Case Studies (Jirei de manabu risuku riterashi nyumon)," (Nikkei BP, 2005), etc.