Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Notes from the President

Educating Children Who Think for Themselves

Sep 3, 2018

The Kyoshoku Kenshu, a magazine focused on educational issues, interviewed President Deguchi for their June 2018 issue. The following is an English translation of the Japanese text.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is taking the lead in advancing “work-style reforms” in schools and revising curriculum guidelines. These represent major changes in the context of school education, but if we broaden the perspective to consider where Japanese society as a whole is headed, how can we re-assess our approaches to education and work-style? We talked with Haruaki Deguchi, President of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, who has authored numerous business and educational books based on his own extensive business experience, wide reading, and personal networks, and gained a huge following among businesspeople.

Work-Style Reforms and Theories of Leadership

-Why are work-style reforms necessary?
The cry for “work style reforms” can be heard right across Japanese society. But why did long working hours become so entrenched in Japan in the first place?
 Under the factory-based manufacturing model that powered postwar Japan, companies needed to produce as much as possible. So they wanted to keep the machinery in the factory running as long as possible, and therefore required men, who had stamina and were physically strong, to work long hours. Because they spent so long at work, men would go home simply for “food, bath, and sleep.”
 Today, however, manufacturing accounts for less than one quarter of Japan’s GDP. The economy is more heavily weighted toward service industries, where ideas are the key: long hours drain workers’ power to think. Working longer hours does not mean you produce more ideas.
 I have never seen research showing that productivity rises if you stay back late at work. The disadvantages are far greater, in terms of being less efficient at work the following day.
 Surely that is the conclusion you reach if you think logically, yet long working hours continue to exist in Japan. It is because most managers in Japanese organizations are men aged between 50 and 70, who experienced success in attaining their current positions by working long hours themselves.
 This situation will not be easy to change. It is virtually impossible for people simply to cast aside their own experiences of success. That’s why diversity is important: the only choice is to start appointing a wider variety of people to management positions.
 Diverse ideas are not generated in workplaces populated by men only. It is essential to have a wide range of workers; our economy can no longer be sustained by men who go home simply for food, bath, and sleep.
 I believe that the approach we need from now on is what I like to call “people, books, and travel.” Go home early, meet many people, read many books, and go out to many different places to build up your stock of experiences. It is in this way that you accumulate information and gain mental stimulus. This leads to new ideas and boosts productivity. At last the government too has acknowledged this, and set out to address the problem of long working hours.

Productivity is growth
-What exactly do you mean by “productivity”?

Productivity is really very simple: it is about raising performance in a shorter space of time. In other words, it is about growing.
For example: when a new recruit comes in to a workplace, a mentor teaches him/her what to do. At first, the new recruit takes five hours to finish a task. But as the recruit works on the task and comes up with ways of tackling it independently, the task can be finished in four hours instead of five. The mentor offers praise, saying, “You’ve improved.”
 To raise productivity, there is no option other than to think for oneself. If the recruit simply does what the mentor says, the task will always take five hours. Thinking on one’s own and achieving growth: that’s what raising “productivity” is all about.
 Japan has a labor shortage, so our only options are to cut working hours and raise productivity. I tell young people that “in the era ahead, you’ll be able to fight with your boss as much as you like.” Employers won’t want their workers to quit: it will be the bosses who tell them, “you can say what you like to me; just please keep working here.”

Diversity speeds up decision-making
-Doesn’t it get more difficult to make decisions when there is more diversity in the organization?

 That’s a fallacy. You can see it as soon as you start comparing Japanese companies with global ones. Decision-making in Japanese organizations, which tend to be composed of people who are alike and understand one another well, is nowhere near as fast as in global organizations, which have a diverse range of people.
 The difference comes down to the fact that in places where diverse people of different backgrounds come together, there is no choice but to discuss things based on numbers, facts, and logic. Such discussions can lead only to their rational conclusions. Discussions among Japanese people, who often relate to each other intuitively, tend to leave things vague, which can lead to behavior like sontaku [pre-emptive following of unspoken orders], and make rational, speedy decision-making difficult.
 What’s more, diverse environments are precisely where innovation is born. It makes sense that new ideas can’t be generated by people who all have the same way of thinking.

The role of a leader
-In many of your books you write about leadership. What exactly is a leader?

 The leader or boss of a workplace shapes the working environment 100%. No matter how good the salary is, or how easy it is to commute to work, you will lose motivation if your boss is no good. That’s how important the boss’s presence is.
 The essential role of leaders is to have a clear vision, to communicate that vision in their own words, and to cultivate the empathy of those around them. In other words, the three elements required of a leader are: (1) to be clear about what you want to do; (2) to be able to attract the people needed to achieve your goals; and (3) to have the capacity to keep the team focused on its goals and pull everyone through even in difficult times. You are not a true leader unless everyone is happy to follow you.
 Another condition is that a leader must always be bright and cheerful. I wrote about this in detail in Zayū no Sho “Jogan Seiyo” [A Book to Live By], but a leader must make the workplace lively and enjoyable. If people are not working happily, there is no way they can provide the type of service that makes customers happy.
 To teachers in managerial positions in schools, I think it is crucial first that we create a workplace that all teachers find enlivening and enjoyable to work in.
 At the same time, I believe that in reality, people’s capabilities are not so high, and do not differ greatly from person to person. The writer Makoto Oda says that “all humans are alike in their insignificance,” I agree entirely. There is a limit to what any of us insignificant beings can do on our own, so the only way to make an organization stronger is to rely on others.
 Each of us is born with our own capacity and ability. The idea that people’s capacity grows with effort is nothing more than a kind of spiritualism with no factual basis. Some growth may be possible, but no more than a little.
 So what can you do to increase your capacity? The answer is to throw everything out. What I mean is to rid yourself of all your personal tastes, values, and preferences. If you can reset your thinking to zero, even if your capacity doesn’t grow, you will surely be able to absorb new ways of thinking and conduct yourself accordingly.
 In addition, leaders need people who can tell them things that are harsh and inconvenient for them. Leaders must be able to accept candid feedback, no matter how much it hurts to hear it, or they risk repeating the story of the emperor’s new clothes, unable to see themselves for who they really are.
 Rather than selecting who to listen to, leaders should give their attention to what everyone has to say. One of the most important jobs of a leader is to make decisions in emergencies without a full understanding of what is going on. Having access to lots of information is useful in those situations, too.
 Leaders must not choose the people they listen to based on their own likes and dislikes. Leaders who talk only with those subordinates who are keen to please will only hear things that are favorable to themselves. Instead, leaders need to seek out and engage head-on with feedback from people who they don’t get along with, who they dislike, and who make critical comments.
 If you can determine the approach you wish to take, and conduct yourself in accordance with that approach continually, over time it will become habitual. By intently acting out the kind of leader you hope to be, you can become that leader in both name and substance.

How to foster autonomous subordinates
-One challenge for leaders, especially in recent years, is how to cultivate subordinates who can work autonomously.

 Make them think. For example, if a subordinate approaches me to discuss something but hasn’t really clarified what the issues are, I send them away. If my subordinates are always having things decided for them, they won’t have to think for themselves, and will never have the chance to grow. Of course it’s hard to think for yourself, but your ability to think will never increase unless you do so over and over again.
 To get subordinates fully used to thinking for themselves, bosses should persistently and repeatedly ask the question, “why?” When a subordinate comes to their boss to discuss something, ideally it should be just to get the boss’s opinion for reference at the final stage.
 It’s also crucial for the boss not to intervene after a proposal has been given the go-ahead. If they do, subordinates will assume that they’ll be told what to do if they get into trouble, and will wait passively for instructions.
 Resist the urge to intervene, and let them carry it through to completion. If the result is 60% success, that’s a passing mark. Then you can point out the problem areas and give guidance on how to improve.
 Bosses who fuss over all sorts of details can only give their attention to two or three subordinates at most. That sort of boss can never become the leader of a whole organization.

The Future of Education

The two goals of education
-You have written that education holds the key to rejuvenating Japan.

 That’s right. I believe that the goals of education are (1) to cultivate the ability to think for oneself and to express one’s own feelings and opinions in one’s own words; and (2) to instill the literacy needed to live in today’s society.
Let me explain both of these goals, starting with the first one: thinking for oneself. Why this is essential is because nobody knows what the future will bring. If the future is simply a continuation of what we’re experiencing now, no problem. But surely that’s not going to happen, is it? So people need be able to think for themselves when something new happens.
That’s why I want schools to cultivate students’ ability to think for themselves. People practice in order to master sports and practical skills, right? People perform awkwardly to begin with, so they have to practice in order to improve. The same goes for the brain.
 What can you do to cultivate the capacity to think for yourself? I believe that imitation is a good approach. Use reading and other methods to study the exceptional thought processes of someone who you see as a role model, vicariously experience what they have, engage in discussions with other people, and get your brain in the habit of thinking. This way you will develop your own ability to think.

-The answer to this question may be obvious, but why have Japanese people been unable to do this up to now?
 In postwar Japan, the policy was to work in accordance with a grand design to catch up to the United States. Companies, too, had no need to think about what would be best for them individually: they just needed to follow the directions of the government.
 That’s why companies didn’t look for students capable of thinking for themselves. School education in the postwar period was developed as a system for producing people who didn’t complain, and who could work patiently and get along with others. The emphasis was not on the ability to think for oneself from scratch or to generate freewheeling new ideas, but rather on raising the standard of the group as a whole by equipping people with a reasonable degree of knowledge, and at the same time fostering submissiveness, which would ensure team harmony was preserved.
 But this kind of education was optimized for the factory model, and it doesn’t suit the Japan of today. What we need in the future is people like Steve Jobs; otherwise we won’t have any new ideas.
 A new model should have been found after Japan’s economic bubble burst, but people hadn’t thought for themselves for several decades, and such a model couldn’t be found at the time. I believe that this is a reason for the stagnation in Japan today. There is no clear idea of what kind of society Japan should become in the future.
 That’s why we need to cultivate Japanese people who can think and make decisions for themselves. Naturally this is for the benefit of Japan as a country, but it is also for the benefit of each individual. Whatever situations Japan faces in the years to come, if people are able to think and make decisions of their own accord, they will be able to build a future for themselves.
 What we need is to think on the basis of numbers, facts, and logic. Numbers means data; facts means things that are connected with data and established truths; logic means to develop these things into empirically-grounded theories. In all situations, it is important first to consider the numbers, then to construct the logic on the basis of facts.

Social Literacy
 Next is literacy. This too is extremely straightforward. Senior high schools and universities in particular are places that foster fully-fledged adults, so they need to teach their students about things that they will confront as soon as they step out into wider society, such as money matters, the social insurance system, elections, and so on.
 Here too we need numbers, facts, and logic. In this era where fake news is everywhere, in order to discern what is correct and which path we should follow, the only option is to look to numbers, facts, and logic.
 This is precisely what democracy is founded on. A prerequisite for democracy is the existence of well-informed citizens. If this condition is not fulfilled, democracy soon becomes mobocracy. We live in a democratic country, so we must constantly be learning and thinking for ourselves.

Japan’s educational budget
 It’s well-known that Japan does not devote adequate budget to education. If we want to improve the quality of education, we need to think seriously about allocating more funds to improving the remuneration and working environment for teachers.
 But this will require each person in Japan to acknowledge that education holds the key to Japan’s future and that learning is the basis of their own capacity to work. People must be resolved to change learning styles for themselves if the education system is out of step with the era in which they live. This is the first step toward achieving real change.
 To tell the truth, MEXT probably doesn’t have many options, as it is sandwiched between politicians and the business world. That’s why it’s up to schools to foster children’s ability to think for themselves and cultivate their literacy. Doing so is what will change our society.

Messages to Readers

99% of our life is failure
-I was interested in how you wrote about failure.

 What I had to say about not being able to avert failure, right? Well, if you could avert failure, it wouldn’t be called failure in the first place. People become stronger if they know that there are many things in this world that they can’t avert, no matter how hard they try.
 Students who are taught that “you can do it if you try” have a really tough time if they slip up in entrance exams. But if they know for a fact that all humans fail one way or another, they can learn from their failures and move on.
 This might sound harsh, but people who say “you can do anything if you try” must never have challenged themselves to their limits when they were young. If you’re in a sports club, for example, you soon come to understand that there are some things that just can’t be done by trying.
 This goes back to the idea that all humans are pretty much the same. If there isn’t much difference between us, the differences lie in our attitudes. We need to teach students facts that enable them to be forward looking.

People, books, and travel are for teachers more than anyone!
 Schoolteachers are the ultimate role models for children. If teachers are constantly learning through people, books, and travel, children will see this and start to study for themselves, too.
 Sometimes it might be tough, but at least while you are teaching, you should maintain a bright, cheerful attitude and show children how you are always learning from people, books, and travel. I believe that’s the best education possible.

(Edited and compiled by The Kyoshoku Kenshu Editorial Department)

Article Source: Haruaki Deguchi in The Kyoshoku Kenshu (Kyoiku Kaihatsu Kenkyusho, June 2018 issue)

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