The death of on-the-job training in Japan


A silent, tectonic shift is taking place in Japan. The so-called lost decade — that commenced in the 1990s with the collapse of the nation’s asset prices — is now into a third decade. The period has seen stasis in many areas, including investment in human-capital productivity.

It is not that white-collar workers and the service sector fail to be paragons of efficiency, for that they never were. More critical is the fact that the lack of investment in people has seen the formal-training-internal-follow-up nexus break down.

As a result, the on-the-job-training (OJT) construct has become a parody of a reasonable idea, with the untrained, incompetent and mediocre leading the corporate charge. It has also become the sole default.

With clueless leaders clueing in successive generations, many workplaces now have seniors who have not faced a new idea about leadership in the last two decades. The injections of formal training, from which employees were able to learn 30, and even 20 years ago, are no more. Training and learning are not the same, and OJT is killing firms.

Although some of the older, more traditional firms are seeking training to enable their senior ranks to catch up, these employees are not able to confront the new. Moreover, these days, training has become little more than a box-ticking exercise.

The leadership style with which the seniors have grown up has come from the school of tough love, but minus the love. Just as in many countries, in Japan modern leadership training roots stretch back to the military model of World War II.

Most countries have moved on from this model but, mainly thanks to the OJT, elements of the imperial forces linger here, in the form of giving orders not praise, condemning not complimenting, and criticising mistakes rather than motivating.

The rationale in Japan is that this is how the present batch of leaders were educated through OJT. And, if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for this generation.

But it is not. This generation is different; and future generations will be in short supply. Meanwhile, as universities are rapidly dropping their standards, to better compete for fewer fee payers, the raw material entering firms each April is no longer of the same quality.

Japanese universities, never a powerhouse of education and learning at any time in living memory, will continue to have marginal impact on the intellect of those in their care. Firms will be tapping cosseted, 22-year-old brains that won’t be up to par. Imagine this generation being trained on-the-job by managers dishing out tough love as part of their corporate buffing, designed to make them appear to be glistening diamonds.

I find that scary, as do a growing number of Japanese firms. The young people are baffling them. They have attitudes which seem incomprehensible and disturbing, while nearly 40% of them are jumping ship in their third and fourth year with a firm, voting with their feet and heading off to greener pastures.

The cost and disruption of the youth exodus is huge. Firms are starting to work it out: the OJT solution for training this generation just isn’t working.

Apart from induction training, demand for leadership training in the senior and middle ranks is well up when compared to three years ago. Communication skills get the Gold Medal for burning need. Leaders who can inspire, arouse, motivate, enrol, engage, and incorporate are what they are seeking. Yet, the younger generation is driving this requirement, whether or not firms like it.

Sales is the other area in which OJT is in a death spiral. Globally, most salespeople are not adequately trained, and Japan is no exception. Slowly but surely, the realisation that particular knowledge might be better learned than merely wished for, is sinking OJT as the default setting.

Author Infomation

Dr Greg Story
Dr Greg Story
The author is president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan.
  • 2


    Most countries have moved on from this model but, mainly thanks to the OJT, elements of the imperial forces linger here, in the form of giving orders not praise, condemning not complimenting, and criticising mistakes rather than motivating.

    It's pretty much spot on, though there are exceptions at times. in most cases though and in my time living here - I've hardly heard any praise, compliment or anything motivating for anything from folks all around towards others or me. I guess it's a total different mind set, and it will be hard for folks here to adjust to a different way of thinking.

    It's got it's good and bad. Good in a way how Japanese companies have the highest standards in pretty much anything they make. Electronics, food, clothes, the list goes on ...... - The highest quality IMO.

    If you go to any Department store or hotel, 99.9% of the time you'll get the best service in the world. All from the text book manual of course but you'll get that A1 service. It's great for the consumer but comes at a price of strict orders, condemnation and strong criticision when things don't go right.

  • 1

    Al Stewart

    Spot on! I complain with some co-workers everyday about this. Most language schools have what they call Branch Mangers who are suppose to be "managers" as the name implies, but most everyone, including the Branch Managers act like the instructors are in charge.

  • 1


    The so-called lost decade - that commenced in the 1990s with the collapse of the nation's asset prices

    LOL. The whole reason for the massive success of Japan Inc. had nothing to do with marvelous technology or any kind of innovative training or product development or research. It was money printing and the subsequent asset bubble, plain and simple.

    A better description of the above statement would be:

    "Collapse of the artificially inflated asset prices"

    Unfortunately, Japan thinks that it's economy was in any way based on any kind of sustainable development or production model.

    It wasn't.

    Japanese were good at building factories, working cheaply, and selling decent products abroad when NOBODY ELSE was doing it. Throw in a bunch of artificial money creation, and you've got a booming real estate market, a booming stock market, and everybody felt rich.

    NONE of the elements that made that happen exist today. No free money, no cheap labor, and there's lots of competition.

    Until Japan can recreate those (which it can't) the economy will continue to sputter,and politicians will spin their wheels trying to figure out why.

    To Summarize to Japan Inc:

    You weren't great because you had some kind of unique skill that only Japanese people have. Your economy boomed because you had:

    cheap labor

    easy money policies

    NO competition

    Get over yourselves, Japan Inc.

  • 2


    bullying doesn`t fly with these new kids in the companies. there is no longer anything wrong with jumping ship in japanese companies. i say, more power to these new kids. this may be a wave of change in the way japan inc does business which would be a good thing.

  • 0


    I agree with Gaijinfo. I would like to add, that when it came to trade, specially with the US, they wanted everything on their favor. The US, for that matter, let Japan get away with a lot of unfairness, like their high tariffs on a lot of products, while we imported a lot of their cheap products, in the interest of propelling japan out of their post WWII poverty.

  • -1


    Summaried: It was a great act of economic deception, which in the end has come back to haunt it. Wait a little bit more and japan will have a crisis worse than that Europe has been experienced. There are not too many friends or family you can rely on when things go bad for you in Japan. Unlike other World countries where somebody is always willing to extend a helping hand. If when you had money you only thought about your money and the lust in can provide, then when the money is gone, who will come to your rescue in times of tumult? Why are the nations in tumult?

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