MBA Programs in Japan: A Shifting Attitude

Historically, the Japanese business world has scorned MBAs. But that may be changing.

When Leonard Leiser first started looking for an MBA program to attend in Japan, he was stumped.

"There are no schools in Japan that are famous for having a business school or degree," says Leiser.

"Companies really want to bring in young people and train them for the rest of their lives in their own system or own way. They're not seeing the MBA as a better alternative; they think they can just [teach people] themselves."

Leiser, who ended up obtaining his MBA from Nagoya University of Commerce and Business (NUCB) and now works as the coordinator for international development at the school’s Global Leader Program, is not alone in his observations on the prevailing Japanese attitude towards MBAs. Students and academic directors at institutions around the country say that the overwhelming attitude towards MBAs in Japan is one of indifference and that companies prefer to hire students directly out of undergrad and train them as lifelong employees.

The country is home to only two internationally accredited programs—NUCB's program and Keio University's MBA program—as well as a handful of other programs at schools such as Waseda University, Doshisha University and Kyoto University, and international outposts of North American business schools McGill University and Temple University.

Officials say that many business leaders simply don't understand why an employee would pursue an MBA at one of these schools when that employee could become acquainted with the particulars of a company on the job. And the proof is in the pudding, with MBA graduates rarely earning significantly more than their less-educated counterparts.

But little by little, the dismissive attitude towards MBAs in Japan is evolving.

“The environment of business is changing, and it's more globalized, and Japanese companies are very competitive against competitors out of Japan,” says Kyoko Hayakawa, Managing Director of the Graduate School at NUCB. “They need to become more competitive” by embracing the MBA.

Norihito Arima, a Japanese MBA student at International University of Japan, says he has also observed evolving attitudes towards the MBA during his studies.

"The hiring system in the [Japanese] corporate world is a little bit different from western notions. People in Japan, once they got jobs in a Japanese corporation, usually work a very long time," says Arima, who studied literature in undergrad but was inspired to learn more about business after taking accounting and corporate finance courses. "But these days Japanese corporate society is getting involved in westernization more and more. They try to speak English and they try to accept the westernized, American style of management system.”

“So I think people are more and more interested in MBA courses."

Besides the evolving attitude towards MBAs within Japan, officials say that international students are starting to see Japan as a place to jump into a thriving finance and technology scene by pursuing an MBA. And while many non-Japanese students from other countries in Asia are lured away to Europe or the United States, many others choose Japan because of the country's reputation as a highly developed manufacturing hub within Asia.

Wenkai Li, dean of the Graduate School of International Management at the International University of Japan, says his school currently attracts students from around forty different countries to its three different MBA programs. Li says that students from India, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar often see huge salary increases back home after pursuing the International University of Japan's program, while some stay and work in Japan's growing industries at companies such as Google Japan, Amazon or CitiBank.

One foreign student who decided to take advantage of the opportunities in Japan is Shikha Dhingra, who worked in information technology in India for ten years before pursuing her MBA at the International University of Japan from 2014 to 2016. Dhingra says she was drawn towards Japan because the country is a technological and financial power with a shrinking population, an ideal place to find a job in business.

But Dhingra says she's also impressed by Japan for a decidedly non-business-related reason: the country's culture.

"If you lose something here, from your pocket, you'll definitely get it back," she says. "The kind of honesty you find out here, it's rare and hard to find in any of the countries. It's been a really good experience.”

Dhingra is not alone: an interest in Japanese culture is a chief reason why many students are drawn to Japan and stay in the country. Although mastering the language can prove difficult for students, they are often enamored of other aspects of the culture, or are drawn to Japan in the first place because they were fascinated by the country.

However, officials say that they hope students will someday flock to Japan solely because of its high-quality business programs.

"What we are seeing now is people who do have an interest in Japan first, and then they want to develop their skills second, and then they'll look around for schools in Japan," says NUCB’s Leiser. "What we hope to see in the future is international students seeing Japan as a place for better business schools." 

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