Business mold the new samurai Japan's corporate boot camp face changing reality

June 14, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

Kawasaki, Japan - In the wood-floored gymnasium, some of Japan's best and brightest stand, balancing on one foot. A tape recording counts the seconds.

One by one, they lose their balance and sit down on the floor. After four minutes, the tape recording stops and the gym bursts into cheers for the handful still standing.

This scene at Toshiba Corp.'s training center is part of a daylong health check -- and gut check -- for the 330 men and 70 women who are part of the company's spring recruiting class. Throughout the country, similar rites of spring take graduates fresh from the "playpen life" of Japan's university campuses and instill a devotion patterned after a samurai warrior's absolute loyalty to his medieval lord.

But boot camps for the new trade samurai just aren't what they used to be.

A slower economy means companies can't recruit the way they did in the easy-money days of the late 1980s. Nor can they spend as much on training.

Meanwhile, changing times have added complexity to the once-steely attitudes of the trade samurai. Toshiba recruits, for example, learn that they may have to rein in corporate loyalties to avoid political pressures. The teaching tool: a half-hour videotape that features Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican, taking a sledgehammer to a Toshiba boombox.

And the human material just doesn't arrive as action-ready as it used to.

"Some of them are so spoiled their mothers call in sick for them," says Hiroshi Hasegawa, a Toshiba training manager. For just an instant, his face betrays a wince of disgust. "We have to teach them to call for themselves and get a doctor's report."

Toshiba's spring class includes about 1,400 university graduates who have climbed to the ridgeline of Japanese life, a management-track job at a major company. About 1.2 million university, trade-school and high school graduates made it this year to the economic high ground, winning lifetime jobs as government bureaucrats or corporate executives.

The new elite take their first steps in training centers like the one in this Toshiba-dominated town. The centers are designed to turn out the most formidable weapon of Japan's international trade arsenal -- the totally dedicated employee.

"A mature employee who will act as a responsible member of Toshiba, with full awareness of the enterprise," reads the first "educational direction" on the company's diagram of "orientation training for newcomers."

As part of their monthlong training, recruits memorize the Toshiba song. They spend three days at a Toshiba campground. They take classes on Toshiba computers. And they practice bowing deeply while backing out of Toshiba bosses' office.

Japanese salaries are not high, about $1,430 a month for the average university graduate this year, so recruits also are taught about the predictability of a job at Toshiba. A career with no layoffs. Promotions and raises based mainly on years of service. Bonuses based on the company's profits. A clear sense of place in a well-defined hierarchy. Periodic health checkups.

Recruits don't need teachers to tell them certain things about their new lives: expense accounts, company exercise rooms and gymnasiums, eventual golf memberships, access to corporate vacation villas.

Also well-known -- and unstated -- is what the company expects in return: long evenings over sake or Scotch whisky and weekends at golf with business contacts.

"Our work is to give newcomers knowledge, skills and attitudes," said Masao Matsumoto, a senior manager of Toshiba's Personnel and Manpower Development Division.

In the Japanese corporate hierarchy, "attitude" has been crucial since the late 19th century, when the Meiji government began to induce some leading samurai to put down their swords and build modern industries. Without devotion to the company, "even if an employee has all the skills and knowledge, he still cannot make his fullest contribution," says Yoshiaki Inokawa, a Toshiba personnel manager.

But these days, most companies report problems enforcing the military-style discipline that has been a hallmark of training schools. Several banks resort to what they call "shock therapy," giving recruits daily tests and posting names and scores on bulletin boards.

Even the much-touted corporate loyalty is being tempered.

For example, every new Toshiba recruit sits through a half-hour videotape that features Mrs. Bentley whacking a company-made boombox on the Capitol steps in Washington. All of the company's 70,000 Japanese employees have seen it.

The tape re-creates, for recruits who grew up too late to see for themselves, the outrage that burst across the United States when a Toshiba company sold top-secret submarine technology the Soviet Union.

The technology sale highlighted a common criticism of Japan's inbred corporate loyalty. It too often leads employees to believe any act is justified if it benefits the corporation, critics say. Toshiba's way of avoiding similar embarrassments might have come from an army security manual. Employees are now taught, Mr. Matsumoto says, "to report anything they see that might seem to be a violation."

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