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Author: Bill

The MBA and JAPAN – Changing Perceptions

An MBA (Master of Business Administration) is easily the most popular and widely regarded professional degree for those pursuing a career in business management, particularly in the context of today’s global economy.

In Japan, as in other countries, an MBA can be a ticket to more highly paid managerial and consultancy work, with one or two caveats for foreigners which I will attempt to outline below, for as we shall see, the positive global perception of MBA program content has not always been shared by a Japanese business establishment with its own unique culture and employment practices.


Originally introduced in the USA at the turn of the last century, the MBA was instrumental in laying the foundations of a ‘scientific’ approach to management for an increasingly industrial era. Today, there are literally hundreds of MBA programs being run worldwide, many of them in English, and most offer a core curriculum focussed on subjects as diverse as accounting, finance, business law, marketing and operations, to name but a few.

The MBA is a graduate degree and should not be confused with post-graduate management degrees. In general, business schools will expect MBA candidates to already have some significant prior work experience before starting a program, and to provide entrance test scores, along with an academic CV, references, and a written statement as to why they are seeking the MBA.

Courses are typically 2 years long in the US, UK and many other parts of the world, though a more concentrated 1 year course is available in many parts of Europe; and courses can be full-time, part-time, executive or by correspondence.

With an overall emphasis on management analysis and strategy, MBA programs prepare graduates for a broad range of careers or career moves in higher management roles, as well as in-house or freelance consultancy, entrepreneurial ventures and even the public sector and government.

Foreign MBAs in Japan

Because MBA program accreditation bodies ensure consistency and quality of MBA courses worldwide, it shouldn’t matter, in theory at least, where or how one acquires one’s degree. That said, prospective Japanese employers may well be more interested in candidates’ work experience, personal qualities or other selection criteria specific to the company’s needs. It’s also the case that, for most small and medium-sized Japanese companies, the higher salaries MBA graduates demand are prohibitive.

But for foreign MBA graduates, as you might expect, it’ll be a lack of Japanese language ability that most significantly limits the number of positions open to them. If working professionally in Japan is your aim, it’ll pay to learn the language beforehand and, where possible, acquire JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) or, better still, BJT (Business Japanese Proficiency Test) certification.

In addition, there are many Western companies operating in Japan for whom Japanese language ability might not be such a stringent requirement, though one suspects that they tend to fill their more prestigious posts in Japan by transferring staff from overseas parent companies. But for anyone attracted to living and working in Japan, taking a job with a foreign company that has a presence here could make sound long term sense.


Japanese MBAs

As I recall it, back in the 1990s, the MBA and overseas MBA programs, indeed business schools in general, weren’t taken all that seriously by Japanese corporations. A few of the more wealthy Japanese corporations sent mid-level managers to study on MBA programs overseas, primarily in the USA, but the overall perception was that such courses were nothing more than ultra-expensive English classes.

Furthermore, when those staff returned to their Japanese companies, they often found themselves sidelined into positions where the ‘new fangled’ skills they’d learned couldn’t be applied, skills that many managers believed contrary to the traditional ethics of on-the-job training and employment for life. Thankfully, such attitudes have waned significantly since the financial crisis, and in light of Japan’s rapidly ageing workforce.

A desire for greater mobility within the Japanese job market, and an increasing need for skilled foreign staff have worked hand-in-hand to soften traditional attitudes against foreign management ideas. As a result, business schools have responded with programs that attempt to integrate both Japanese and Western styles of management and make the curricula of their MBA courses more relevant to Japanese business culture. This, of course, makes Japanese MBA courses very attractive to foreign graduates seeking careers in Japan.

I think it fair to suggest that most international MBA students in Japan fully intend to live and work in the country after graduation, and most that have good Japanese language skills are successful in finding jobs or internships, especially in the fields of manufacturing and consulting. Even those who are less competent in Japanese can often find work with overseas branches of Japanese companies, or with foreign companies in Japan.

Where to Study for an MBA in Japan

In Japan, it’s still common for people who want to work in the corporate world to be very selective in choosing which university they attend. In fact, it’s all too often been the perceived prestige of the university one attended, rather than the skills one acquired, that determined whether or not one was hired by a major company. As one might expect, the stand out universities in this respect are Keio University, The University of Tokyo, and Waseda University.

However, studying for an MBA in Japan might not be the best option for anyone who plans to strike out in the wider world soon after graduation; Japanese business schools are still not considered competitive internationally when one considers the number of Japanese MBA programs currently accredited by the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), AMBA (The Association of MBAs) and EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System). To date, no Japanese business school has managed to be accredited by all three bodies.

As far as I know, only Keio University (Graduate School of Business Administration) and Nagoya University of Commerce and Business are approved by the AACSB, which compares badly with the twenty or more similarly accredited institutions in China – Japan’s principal market, trading partner and, paradoxically, business rival. As for AMBA accredited schools, Nagoya University of Commerce and Business is the sole Japanese recipient, and for EQUIS, only Keio Business School is accredited.

Of course, the apparent poor international stature of Japanese business schools may be due, in part at least, to the hybrid nature of Japanese MBA program content – that blend of Japanese and American business management principles I mentioned above. Then again, a business school’s international accreditation probably won’t matter if its domestic reputation is sound, especially to MBA students who intend to stay in Japan for the long haul, or where foreign companies might actually value an individual’s Japan experience far more than the prestige of the school they attended.

The following is a link to some of the most popular English language MBA programs in Japan:

Jobs for MBAs in Japan

It would be impossible for me to point to particular types or ranges of jobs open to MBA graduates in Japan because there are so many. What you probably can’t expect, is to walk into a top management job right after graduation, though you might fare a little better than if you just had a bachelor’s degree. For the really good jobs, it’ll be your work experience prior to and following your MBA that really swings things in your favour, that and your proven Japanese language skills. Oh, that again! Yes, and I can’t emphasise enough how important Japanese is for a successful career in Japan.

Check out the Glassdoor link below to see the kinds of positions currently open to MBA graduates in Japan and the kinds of experience they require. Notice too how many are bi-lingual positions or require good Japanese skills.,5_IN123_KO6,9.htm

A Final Thought

As Japanese companies continue to innovate globally, their demand for foreign and overseas staff with well-developed interpersonal, motivational and leadership skills, as well as those who can manage decision-making processes, will surely continue to expand. This is why the MBA, despite the less than enthusiastic attitudes it once aroused in Japanese corporate culture, will become ever more important to the country’s global business; where in depth understanding of general business principles goes hand-in-hand with innovation and analytical thinking.

By Bill Ambler

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