Thursday, February 05, 2009

With Friends Like These; or, Changing Hiring Practices in Japan

Two Harvard-graduate friends of this blogger have sent their joint op-ed Why can’t Japanese kids get into Harvard? and made me green with envy with the news that they have received what would be a princely sum if that figure had been paid in dollars, not yen for their efforts, for I am still waiting for the $100 owed me by a certain conservative monthly for two short pieces since a couple of years ago. (And you wondered why they say, “Never trust a Republican”.) In any case, I decided to write a thorough rebuttal as part of my anger-management exercise.

Read the op-ed, please, then read on.
All you say may be true, Drs. Honjo and Dujarric, but snotty little ex-pats matriculating at Hahvahd, resentful Todai-graduate soldier-ants running Japan Inc., and tongue-tied semi-literates enduring slow times at Azabu High are far from the only elements preventing Japanese high school students from swarming the hallowed halls of Ivy League colleges. First, Japanese courts have made it highly difficult to fire employees. Second, the Japanese school year ends in March. Third, many of the best Japanese universities are national universities

The other side of the first coin is that reputable businesses exercise enormous care in hiring. It is not unusual for such businesses to make an undergraduate go through ten, twenty interviews by different employees at a variety of levels before they actually take him/her on. It is hard enough to do this with the thousands of, say, Kyushu U. undergraduates; imagine what it’s like with the smattering of Japanese national Ivy Leaguers scattered around the boondocks of New England and the Tri-State area. Many Japanese companies now do make an effort to reach out to overseas undergraduates, but it’s still a huge chore, on both sides.

The second point combines with the first to magnify the difficulties. New Zealand apples and Chilean salmon make sense in Japan because we want them fresh year-round. Not so wide-eyed graduates; it takes time and effort to draw, quarter and cure them before they are ready to be ingested. If you’re a human resources director, you don’t want to have to run an additional counter-cyclical orientation-assignment-training program for what is likely a handful of newbies three months after the main group has scattered to the four corners of the corporate empire.

The third point is significant because it means that many top Japanese schools are exceedingly cheap. They have become increasingly expensive in recent years, but I would be surprised to hear that they have reached the level of the in-state costs of an education at the cheapest state universities. Yes, Ivy League schools have generous scholarships, but how many of the best and brightest Japanese students are likely to meet the need requirements?

These are structural factors that have nothing to do with the human and cultural factors cited in the op-ed. They would have the same effect for a gang of teenage mutant ninja turtles.

All this begs the question though: (actually paraphrasing the thoughts of another friend, a Japanese ex-pat) Why would a guy graduating from an Ivy League school who is not short, shy, or Japan otaku want to go back to Japan to find work?

*psst, Wall Street imploded*

Oh.

Jun Okumura is an indigent blogger living on the wrong side of the Tama River. He is willing to divulge his plans to remedy the three flaws for the price of a nice lunch, preferably warm. He says that you can expense it as “structural impediment talks.” Trust him. He is an unlicensed lawyer*.

* ADD: Disclosure: The blogger spent two years at Harvard Law School.

18 comments:

Janne Morén said...

First, leaving aside that most students are not best served by the intense pressures and combativeness of a top university, and most job positions are not self-evidently best filled by the kind of people that graduate there:

A rather striking difference between south Korea and Japan are the home-grown alternatives. Japan has 10 universities in the top 200 universities (according to one international ranking); Korea has 2. Even Sweden has 4 in that list. Korea seems somewhat underserved for people looking for that kind of education, in other words, and so it's not strange that a larger proportion go abroad to seek it.

They do have a point that the Japanese system does make it rather difficult for people to come back. I understand the reasons you list, but it doesn't change the unfortunate results.

You ask why a Japanese Ivy-League graduate would come back, but I wonder how many people really do stay away for good; among Swedish expatriates most eventually return. Anyway, I believe I've mentioned before that reading Japan Times is not something undertaken lightly or without proper mental protection.

Jun Okumura said...

First, leaving aside that most students are not best served by the intense pressures and combativeness of a top university, and most job positions are not self-evidently best filled by the kind of people that graduate there.

True, but the real story is not about the Ivy League schools (oh, Dukies must be angry and Dickie (Nixon, not Moore) must be turning in his grave; it’s about the entire system of U.S. undergraduate schools. So your point, o straightforward Scandinavian, is not at issue in my friends’ narrative.

A rather striking difference between south Korea and Japan are the home-grown alternatives. Japan has 10 universities in the top 200 universities (according to one international ranking); Korea has 2. Even Sweden has 4 in that list. Korea seems somewhat underserved for people looking for that kind of education, in other words, and so it's not strange that a larger proportion go abroad to seek it.

We Japanese outnumber South Koreans—North Koreans have a hard time taking entrance exams at Seoul U.—three to one, so ten to two isn’t as awful as the absolute numbers suggest. Speaking of which, how did you Swedes, all 50,000 of you, manage to get four schools into the top 100?

They do have a point that the Japanese system does make it rather difficult for people to come back. I understand the reasons you list, but it doesn't change the unfortunate results.

Exactly.

You ask why a Japanese Ivy-League graduate would come back, but I wonder how many people really do stay away for good; among Swedish expatriates most eventually return. Anyway, I believe I've mentioned before that reading Japan Times is not something undertaken lightly or without proper mental protection.

It’s the fast-track entry jobs that are the subject of discussion here. Anyway, I rarely take up JT in my blog, for a different reason. But hey, what are friends for?

Ivycest said...

Sunshine, hugs, and good vibes for you Jun-- and I know you only say we're friends because I promised to buy you drinks with my half of my JT earnings. Which would be half a beer.

LB said...

Okumura-san, with all due respect to your friends, several years of observation have taught me that anytime I see anything written by a faculty member of Temple Japan, I should put on my tall boots. Temple's idea of "Japan Studies" seems to be not "study Japan" but "tell Japan to study America in particular and Western countries in general so they can figure out why Japan is so screwed-up". Having read the *cough* analysis *cough* at JT and what you write here, I think you've hit the nail they missed so widely square on the head.

I would encourage you to continue to avoid taking up anything written in JT. While I don't think this applies to the writers in question here, JT often seems determined to give columns to people's crazy drunk uncles in the hopes they will say something outrageous that sets people to talking and boosts their page hits. Personally I find Weekly World News better for things like that.

Y. Honjo said...

What was left out the op-ed (for various reasons I won't go into here) was that we based the piece on our observations on the dozens and dozens of candidate interviews. I have been interviewing Harvard College candidates for nearly 9 years-- and the quality of candidate has been remarkably poor. English skills are poor--and without English one is unlikely to survive in NE. Very few have outside passions.

Korean kids get in. Why can't Japanese?

Jun has a point in recruiting schedules, but surely Sony, Panasonic (OK, after they finish their lay offs) or other multinationals can manage a mere 3 month shift. . .or are Japanese companies that inflexible?. . .oh wait. . .that was my point.

LB said...

Ms. Honjo, there were several problems with the article, starting right from the beginning where you point out how the work that Prof. Shimomura's work was done at US institutions. While the final work that got him the Nobel was done at Princeton, true enough, the preliminary work which caught Prof. Johnson's attention and led him to recruit Shimomura for Princeton was all done in Japan, at Nagoya University (from which he earned his MS and Ph.D.). Shimomura and the other Japanese nobel prize winners may be "exceptions", but indeed any nobel prize winner is an exception, by definition. So the entire first paragraph is meaningless.

I will take your head count of Koreans vs. Japanese at Harvard as given. I will also agree with you that in general, Japanese high schools teach English badly. I have no first-hand knowledge of how Korean high schools do in this regard, however from anecdotal evidence from acquaintances who have lived and taught there, plus my experiences on a brief trip to South Korea, I don't think they are dramatically better in this regard.

You point out how Japanese schools "do not foster discussion and a debate in a give-and-take atmosphere" or "require their students to write long essays that demand both research and analytical skills". Given that South Koreans schools are modeled on the same pattern as Japanese, and have a reputation for being even stricter and more test- and rote-memory-oriented, I again strongly doubt that your average Korean student would do much better on the tasks you point out as vital to success in American university education. Again, listening to those who have "been there and done that" in Korea tells me that the answer to the question is not that Korean high-school graduates are English-speaking self-sure individuals who will blend right in with Americans.

I think you touch on the real reason, perhaps without realizing it, further down: Koreans think US universities are better than there own, and US degrees are "prestigious". Translation: push your kids until they get into Harvard or have a nervous breakdown. Sound familiar?

Finally, as for corporate flexibility, I wonder how many major US corporations that might have a similar orientation/training programs would be willing to run a parallel program in April for a handful of Japanese or Asian applicants, so they can start right after graduation? I doubt many would do it, yet surely it couldn't be all that difficult to accommodate a mere 3-month shift...

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks a million (dollars), Ivycest. But a 20,000 yen beer? Have you been sneaking off to hosuto kurabus again?

LB: In fact, I believe that many of the points made in the op-ed that I have caricaturized in the opening sentence of my post—I am very proud of that sentence, by the way; I am not a naturally gifted writer but I have developed a fairly good sense of what works and what doesn’t and have worked at it long enough that, like the seven monkeys that type out the entire Shakespeare oeuvre, I manage once in a while to turn out a sentence whose quality is such that, if sustained, would make me a great writer (and then there are the Updikes, whose worst passages…) but unlike the monkeys notice it—have lot of truth behind them. I say that not out of friendship but based on personal experience and credible third-person testimony. However, there are so many exceptions to any norm and their numbers have grown over the decades that any analysis of the issue that ignores the structural factors that I have laid out would be deeply flawed. I discovered that yesterday only partly by accident—I know that they did not do this intentionally, and that is why I posted it, with what I hope a humorous touch. And, no, I normally do not discuss JT articles, but a friend sent it to me, and I saw an opportunity to have a little fun with it.

Dr. Honjo: Have you tried recruiting the kikoku shijos? You will be competing at a minimum against the Keios and Wasedas… As for the impact of the inflexibility of the three-month delay, you must take it in the context of the inflexible firing system that imposes an inflexible hiring system that requires you to process thousands upon thousands of undergraduates that pass through the Japanese education system each year (like spawning salmon) and choose a few hundred who (you hope) will show up on April 1. Do you really want to set up a parallel system based largely in the United States that will perform the same function, then prepare for the one, two, three, four… or zero…candidates that you manage to unearth? Amazingly, many businesses do, but many don’t. Finally, being half-right doesn’t mean you have a case if the points that you make are difficult to alter in the near term. (Try retooling the entire body Japanese schoolteachers.) My points are actually easier to change if the political will is there because they can be changed without altering the human factor.

Jun Okumura said...

BTW, I've discovered, half by accident, that you can put invisible quotation marks on a web page. Amazing, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Also worth noting the Kennedy School, where numerous Japanese and citizens of other countries go to buy (*cough*) earn a Harvard degree.

Jun Okumura said...

Back in the day, the Kennedy School certainly did not teach a clearly defined craft nor did it lead to a serious academic career. Moreover, I thought that there were too many non-academic teachers parking their butts waiting for administration jobs. (Perhaps consulting/lobbying had yet to become that lucrative a profession.) Having said that, I know some people who have gone to the Kennedy School and I assure you that the language and intellectual requirements are such that these successful professionals did not exactly sleep through the two years they spent on their way to their master degrees. I am not convinced of the educational value of short-term midcareer courses during the holidays that some politicians proudly sport on their résumés, only to drop them when they have been exposed for what they are, but many other more or less prestigious schools and departments of higher education do the same or worse. (I believe that Alexander McCall did a hilarious send-up in one of his novelettes.)

As I’ve already mentioned, I normally do not take up articles in the Japan Times. But since the authors of the op-ed were my friends and one of them bothered to email the link and since (most important) I felt that it failed to mention some important factors influencing the decisions of the prospective Ivy League recruits in Japan, I felt the urge to respond publicly. The tone of my post reflected our personal relationship and certain facts that I knew about them as the result. Thus, there’s an element of a private joke here, some of whose choicest lines have occurred off-blog.

I tell you this not to defend the Kennedy School and its graduates but because I found the dig at the Kennedy School in the previous comment—expressing a sentiment that must not be unusual if not necessarily cloaked in those same words—not funny. Not aggressively, rudely, avoiding-responsibility, “That’s not funny” not funny, but just plain-vanilla, ho-hum, not funny. I thought about this, and realized that the commenter’s anonymity, or, more precisely, total lack of identity, was the cause for this. There was no context, such as the commenter’s own alma mater, to add fillip to this generic statement. You have to pay to play, and the price of the game is so often an identity. This is one of the more benign pieces of evidence of that. But so much for my unfunny comment.

Of course there are the purely (well, mostly) informative comments such as Janne’s that do not necessarily rely on an identity (though Janne’s identity confers a good measure of veracity when he cites facts). This post, I hope, works on that level as well.

Roy Berman said...

"Personally I find Weekly World News better for things like that."

Unfortunately, the venerable WWN went out of business a year or two back, so you may need to revert to your backup newspapers.

As for the main topic, I understand that South Korea has a few extremely expensive extremely elite prep schools (sometimes boarding schools), specifically designed to prepare teenagers for study abroad at elite western Universities. For a good example, take a look at this NYT article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/world/asia/27seoul.html

While Japan does have elite private high schools, I believe they generally follow a pretty standard curriculum designed to prepare students for getting into Todai, Kyodai, Waseda, Keio, etc. and not Harvard, Yale, Cambridge or the Sorbonne.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is that many (hundreds? thousands?) Korean students go to high school in America, living with relatives or friends of the family purely to get local residency and go to American schools, and be prepared for American universities. At my undergrad alma mater, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, there were easily dozens and possibly hundreds of students from South Korea and South Asia (India and Pakistan) who had come to New Jersey as teenagers and gone through periods ranging between the last half of high school to all of middle + high school while living in their respective ethnic immigrant communities around the state. As a bonus, they also qualified for in-state tuition in the particular case of Rutgers, but I can't help but think that a significant reason for the massive numerical advantage Koreans have over Japanese in admission to Ivy League universities is very significantly due to such students. Japanese students simply can't follow this route in numbers, because there are not really Japanese immigrant communities of significance in America today. Not to mention the various structural reasons on the Japan side that Jun and others have mentioned that decrease the relative advantages of an overseas education.

Anonymous said...

Japanese universities like Waseda (in Tokyo) has hundreds, if not thousands of students from all over the world. This is not the Eurovision (or Oscar) or education. It is just lots and lots of young kids wanting to learn about Asia, get to know the people here, and figure out a topic for their thesis.

You are really old-school.

Jun Okumura said...

Roy: WWN lives on in cyberspace and one of its recent stories relates how Michael Phelps Loses Endorsement Deal and how wrong is that?

Are you happy now? Good.

And that’s another fascinating anecdote about how South Koreans and Singaporeans have been out-Japanning us Japanese in “education”—a storyline that I’ve been hearing for twenty-some years. I also know a couple of young Taiwanese who went to U.S. high schools and completed their education there. Your point about the relative lack of community/extended family support from Japanese immigrants relates to something more general that I’ve noticed. It dovetails with a comment that a Philippine diplomat made to me about something Japanese and Filippino ex-pats had in common. I think I blogged it before. I’ll try to remember to look it up when I wake up tomorrow.

Anonymous: I know that fro personal experience. But how does it relate to any of the other comments—or my post for that matter?

Zach Baran said...

What I guess I don't quite understand, even after reading the comments, is whether or not you agree with the crux of the Dujarric/Honjo article, which was that "Japan's under-representation in Ivy League institutions is indicative of Japan's growing insularity." (I mean, regardless of their reasons.)

Personally I think your third reason is the most compelling. Anyone talking to international students (especially S. Koreans) at an Ivy League school 10 or 11 years ago would have noticed that when the times got tough either in terms of job cuts or exchange rates, people started to consider taking time off and going back home.

Your first and second points make perfect sense, but they don't mesh well with my anecdotal evidence, simply because those points are factors affecting the exit strategy of students, not the matriculation itself. Students I knew started figuring out whereabouts they were going to find work (gaishi-kei or not) later on, after a couple Boston Career forums, an internship or two, and networking with friends and family.

Roy Berman said...

"What I guess I don't quite understand, even after reading the comments, is whether or not you agree with the crux of the Dujarric/Honjo article, which was that "Japan's under-representation in Ivy League institutions is indicative of Japan's growing insularity." "

One big problem with the article is that they show no evidence of a trend. They talk about "Japan's growing insularity" but even assuming they successfully demonstrate Japanese insularity, they show no evidence that it is GROWING. Where are the statistics showing how much Japanese study abroad has declined? Or showing how Korean study abroad has risen? Or anything historical?

Jun Okumura said...

Zach: Touché, you got me there on my first and second points. But let me flip the second point around and look at it at the entry point. A high school graduate would have to wait six months after graduation before he can matriculate at an American college. There’s summer school, yes, but overall, I’d say it’s still a disincentive.

As to your main point, frankly, I don’t know. I think that Japan has become a more open society over the years towards kikku shijo, hahfu, racially-mixed couples, Korean residents and the like, the odd vodka-swillin’, bathhouse-sloshin’ Russian sailor being the exception that proves the rule. So I can’t say there’s growing insularity. As for insularity itself, compared to what? Where? And in what situations? And what does one mean by insularity? Personal experience, anecdotes, and scholarly tracts suggest to me that we Japanese and the Chinese deal with the “other” in a starkly different manner, but I would hesitate to do characterize either of that as indicative of insularity.

Roy: I suspect that the number of Japanese students has declined in the post-bubble years. I could look it up. I know that corporations cut back drastically on their overseas training programs. But of course that’s an economic issue.

Peter said...

Waiting six months is not such a big deal, perhaps. I met Japanese nationals at my Ivy League school who came out of the April to March school year, but didn't seem to mind the lag period in between. As well, but not a complete parallel, I have met college seniors who earn the necessary credits for graduation early, and have summer, fall, and winter to kick it until they get hired at a company in Japan.

You zeroed in on the "insularity", and Roy on the "growing" claims by Dujarric/Honjo, and perhaps that is where the article becomes a bit too subjective; I believe, however, that they are referring to Japan's insularity in the realm of secondary education, especially in comparison to other East Asian countries, most notable South Korea. Without any facts with which to base that argument, who knows whether or not it's true...

Jun Okumura said...

Peter: There will always be individuals who will be more than happy to take a few months off. And if that turns out at the end of the day to be a whole year’s delay in getting into a Japanese company, so be it. But so many things must come together to make a good Ivy League candidate and this is just one of them. And remember, Japanese undergraduates have an increasingly easier time of getting credits for a year at a foreign college. Japanese schools aren’t taking it lying down either.

Notwithstanding, I have seen and heard too much not to feel that Japanese society does better at receiving than going out. But I don’t think that the op-ed made a very good case out of that point. So we’re on the same page there.