“Transforming Today’s Education, Raising Tomorrow’s Leaders”

by Marina Chan

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, “Teaching 21st – Century Skills in Asia. From Tokyo to Seoul: Reimagining Education in the 21st Century” by Marina Chan, from the CALI Press-published book, The Asia Leadership Trek: Leading in 21st-Century Asia. Marina holds a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently embarking on a social venture to promote youth development. In her chapter, she investigates the skills needed for university graduates in Asia to be career-ready in the 21st century.

“People Don’t Take Risks.”

The Japanese youths that I met usually aspired to careers marked by traditional indicators of success, rather than following individual passions. Many university graduates dream of being hired by Japan, Inc., while others hope to join the prestigious public sector. Only a handful of the students I spoke with at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo had the ambition of becoming entrepreneurs or pursuing their own unique dreams, Japanese society seems to frown upon those who eschew a traditional career path. According to Sho Hayashi, founder of BizJapan, an incubator for startup companies, “Starting something by yourself – this mindset was missing in Japan.” Young people are told that to follow their passions is “meaningless.”

He wants to change this. In the hope of nourishing entrepreneurship in Japan, Sho runs pitch competitions and annual summits that provide networking opportunities and training for budding entrepreneurs. He is young and dynamic: you can feel the energy at BizJapan. I am reminded of an earlier encounter at Route H with a high-school senior, Minori Takahashi, who is interested in becoming a pastry chef and owning a café, though she is not sure what skills she needs to realize her dream. Minori is a great example of the kind of student who could benefit from Sho’s venture.

I’m feeling a tug-of-war between the old and the new generations of Japan. The societal forces that uphold convention push against the passion and innovation among Japanese youngsters, against the desire to be heard and recognized. At this transitional juncture, when students’ silence is golden and working for large organizations is still favored and praised, “starting something by yourself” seems daunting. Innovation and creativity depend on getting students to ask the right questions and break the molds of convention.

If the observations from Arisa and Sho are any guide, Japan would benefit from building an entrepreneurial culture to revitalize the country’s economic system and social dynamics and to regain the competitive edge it once had in innovation. In order to achieve this goal, Japan might consider reimagining its educational system so that it encourages independent thought and greater diversity of opinion. It might also seek support from the business community to help provide resources – financial, social, and logistical – to young startups.

At the corporate level, we will soon learn that Mitsubishi is already taking steps in this direction, reviving innovation and adapting to the changing needs of the global marketplace.

Coffee and Cultural Competency

We walk into Mitsubishi’s headquarters first thing in the morning. Jet lag has taken its toll on me after three days on the Trek, and that means caffeine is in order. I wasn’t able to get a cup of coffee at breakfast, and none of the meetings we’ve had so far served this beverage. By now I’ve devised a simple indicator: companies that provide coffee for participants gain bonus points for cultural understanding. There are no urns or cups visible as we head into the meeting room, so I gingerly ask one of the coordinators if she can find me a cup of coffee. Moments later, an attendant comes over, cup in hand. I am elated.

Our meeting with Mitsubishi breaks into small groups, and I meet Take Wako, acting General Manager for Global Human Resources. When asked what he thinks are key skills needed in the 21st century, he replies without hesitation: “The ability to change.” His response matches one of Wagner’s survival skills: agility.

For Mitsubishi, this culture of agility rests upon hiring the right people. Wako-san expresses his preference for hiring fresh graduates from pure arts majors rather than business school. He believes that these students are generally easier to mold than those who come in with technical skill sets. Agility is important as the company grows internationally, and this means hiring individuals who are agile – agile in their capacity not only to think outside the box but to connect with people in an increasingly high-touch marketplace.

Agility in a globalized economy requires cultural competency. Wako-san describes the myriad leadership programs currently in place for professional development at the Mitsubishi Corporation: many of these programs involve international travel, including corporate work abroad and partnerships with Harvard University. Executives come back with sharper business acumen and leadership skills, but, perhaps more importantly, this overseas training is invaluable in building cultural awareness, even with something as simple as coffee culture.

Impressed as I am by Mitsubishi and Japan, I can’t help wondering what the Japanese think of us. Are they also gauging our competency in adapting to their culture? Are they impressed by our questions and the fact that we have done our homework? Or are they laughing at our small missteps? Even though I live in East Asia, there are still many cross-cultural subtleties and thus much room for error.

Take the exchange of business cards, for instance. Upon exchanging cards, I would quickly glance at the card to make sure I had the name right and then put it away, carrying on with the introductions. However, I soon came to realize that while my business-card etiquette is appropriate in the West, it is impolite to pocket a newly received business card in Japan. You should study it for a moment, preferably with a furrowed look of interest. This was only a small, if embarrassing misstep for me, but it highlighted one of the main points that I took away from the Trek: education in cross-cultural competency is essential in order to give the next generation of students and leaders every chance for success, wherever their global careers may take them.

*Photo courtesy of The Japan Times