The Better Half

In what is a first for this 'A Story A Week' series, I'm going to make a short disclosure before we start: some names and other identifying features of certain individuals have been changed - in order to protect the incompetent!

Ever since I became familiar with the general tenor of the Japanese education system - with its emphasis on examinations as the 'gateway' to a system of ranked institutions - I have been pretty much against it. I think I have had this opinion mostly because of the clear knowledge of how I would have fared had I been part of such a system myself. Which is to say I would have failed dismally. I never studied with any enthusiasm, I was frequently lax in doing homework, and I generally rejected any attempt to push me to 'work to your full potential', etc. etc. I would have been a dropout.

Now actually, I was a dropout anyway, never making it through the first year of university, but at least I lived in a society that gave such people second chances (or more), so I ended up doing pretty well after I got some experience at life. But I had an experience this week that brought with it the thought that perhaps after all, the 'exam hell' system is not such a bad fit for Japanese society, and does produce practical results for the country.

I had email communication, and subsequent telephone contact, with a couple of young Japanese students who (for a purpose not relevant to our story) wished to come and visit my workshop. I acquiesced, and we set up a date and time. A few minutes before the scheduled time arrived, I received a phone call; the two boys were lost, and were calling for directions.

This in itself is not so unusual, as anybody who had searched for addresses in a Japanese city can testify. But what happened next was a bit out of the ordinary. In trying to determine just where they were, I asked them to describe nearby buildings, and they said they were in front of what looked like a daycare center. There are a couple of these not too far from my home, so I asked them what it was called. This was followed by a slight pause, some discussion between the two of them, and they then replied that they weren't able to read the sign, but that they recognized one of the characters in the name - the one for 'tree' (not exactly the most complex character in the language, for sure).

Now this was enough information for me to figure out which building they were in front of, and I told them to wait there while I came over to meet them. After I approached them, and we made our greetings, I casually asked "Don't you have any kind of phone or device that might have a map?" One of them proudly pulled out his phone, "Yes; I have an iPhone!" It turned out though, that he didn't understand how to use it for getting directions ...

In any case, to make a long story short, the subsequent interview was a total disaster. These guys not only couldn't find their way around town, but they couldn't easily explain their requirements, they had no sensible plan for the project for which they required my cooperation, and the entire episode was a total waste of everybody's time.

After they left, I and one of the current printer trainees - a very competent young girl - talked about the episode. She had asked one of them which school they were from, and she now said to me, "Well, that's about what you would expect then, from that place ..."

The point being this - that the examination system for university entrance does indeed act as an efficient filter of 'competence' (I hesitate to stretch the point to include 'intelligence'). Kids who can actually get things done end up at schools in the upper ranks, and when they graduate are scooped up by major companies, who don't care a whit what they learned at school. The companies know all they need to know by just looking at the name on the graduation certificate. The examination system 'works' very well indeed, from the point of view of corporate Japan.

For me - in my new function as an employer - I now get the picture; if I want competent young men, I need to look for ones from schools in an upper ranking. The bad news for me of course, is that those boys soon get cherry picked by the Toyotas and Sonys of the country. None of them would be interested in what I have to offer.

But I have a secret weapon! One that corporate Japan is still almost completely ignoring, no matter what rank of school is involved. A good half of the population of this country is being ignored by the 'cherry pickers'. I'm learning my lesson about just where the competence resides in this country, and I don't think I'll be interviewing any more ... boys.


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Margaret Maloney

Are women accepted at the higher level schools beyond mere tokenism? Or is it that they are, but a woman's degree is considered inferior just because it is a woman who holds it?

Posted by: Dave

This is a very complex subject, and in a very short item like this I could only really touch on one particular point - that women aren't generally 'valued' as much by corporate Japan as are men. And it's mainly for the fundamental reason that the company 'knows' that women won't be there for a lifelong career. (I'm speaking of the long-established patterns, of course.)

Women are going to, you know, want to have a baby and stuff like that. When that time comes, they are going to quit, because - again, in those established patterns - that's their only option at that point.

From our more wide-ranging (and dare I say more modern) viewpoint, the answer for corporate Japan would seem to be simple - just set up work structures that allow women to return after having a baby, and do the in-house daycare thing, etc. etc.

But it's not that simple. Corporate Japan can look around the world and see that even in more 'enlightened' countries, where such systems are in place, there is still a huge disparity in the gender balances at 'work'. So from their point of view, why bother with that stuff ... it's 'doomed' to failure anyway.

As I said, it's a fiercely difficult question, arguably one of the most important questions that our contemporary societies all face. How should women balance the two - clearly competing - pulls in their life: finding satisfying work, and having a good family life? This 'pull' destroyed my own family [1991, 1993] more than two decades ago, so I have to be careful when I discuss this topic, as I may tend to let emotions get in the way of rational discussion ...

Posted by: Steve

it's so disappointing to see folks decide that it's okay to pre-judge people based on some arbitrary factor. you'll be missing opportunities (and reducing diversity) by setting up rules like that for sure. your experience clearly told you that those boys wouldn't work for you, but it certainly can't tell you anything about anyone else (even someone from the same school, sex, etc.) in any meaningful way.

Posted by: Dave

Steve, I did hire one young man - to do the work on the cases - and he worked out very well. If it were my choice, he would still be here (he left at least in part because I couldn't provide enough work for him ...).

When I say that I won't be interviewing many more males it's simply that I'm going to cast my net in the places where I am more likely to be able to catch something ... which I think isn't so much 'pre-judging' as much as 'sensible targeting' ... ??

... can't tell you anything about anyone else (even someone from the same school, sex, etc.) in any meaningful way.

But this is the entire point of the little story - that the exam system is indeed such an efficient filtering system, that you can tell a lot about the people after they've been through it. Pretty much all the people from that particular school (which I will of course leave un-named) - both males and females - will demonstrate the same basic level of competence/intelligence/whatever. That's what a filter does - it filters things into levels/categories. It's actually astonishing how similar kids from the same school are ...

None of this is to suggest that I myself like this sort of system; as I mentioned I think it would not have been a good predictor of how my own life was to play out, but my point was to describe how well it seems to be suited to the needs of corporate Japan in acting as the primary filter for finding staff who would fit their requirements (easily malleable, trainable, staff).

Posted by: Steve

Bull-san, i guess i still don't agree. it's been my experience that exams tell you very little about a person, though they might (in a very narrow way) suggest what someone knows about a particular thing. and it's true that people from a similar background share many of the same qualities, but those measures are limiting.

i see this over and over with colleagues that judge the fitness of people for particular tasks based on similar arbitrary (and often ridiculous) factors. it rarely turns out to be helpful, and when (interested) people are given a chance, they very often surprise and delight us, and themselves!

as a concrete example, i know some people that think giving brain teasers is a great way to decide how smart a candidate is for various reasons. so, i trade "Fermi problems" with them to see if we would have hired each other based on our ability to make progress on a problem in short order. the result is almost always inconclusive or negative.

you see, people can't help but choose criteria that only strengthens their confirmation biases. however, if you're in a position to choose arbitrary criteria to winnow your candidate pool, than that's great for you.

i thought you were on the right track (and happy to see) when you posted your ad seeking people who are -- if i may try to quote you -- "cheerful, happy, even playful, enthusiastic, and competent - you have to be good at something, and confident about yourself!" that seems like a great place to start judging candidates. i agree that your use of the word 'competent', rather than intelligent, is also very thoughtful.

Pretty much all the people from that particular school (which I will of course leave un-named) - both males and females - will demonstrate the same basic level of competence/intelligence/whatever.

i accept that i know absolutely nothing about schools in Japan and perhaps the school is small, so i will have to concede this point, but i can't agree with the principle in general. perhaps the system results in a better corporate workforce for Japan as well, but to map that strategy to a small business seems counterproductive.

For me - in my new function as an employer - I now get the picture; if I want competent young men, I need to look for ones from schools in an upper ranking.

i think if you reconsider any rigid criteria you may apply to candidates, and spend your time trying to judge a person's level of interest and character (while also trying hard to ignore your own biases), along with their abilities appropriate for your needs, then you'll have a more diverse, productive, and happy workforce.

Posted by: Dave

Steve, thanks for the long and thoughtful comments. This is actually a bit funny (as in 'strange' funny) that I'm sort of defending the exam hell system! I of course despise it ... and sent my own two girls off to school in Canada specifically so that they wouldn't have to go through it.

The sort of 'take-away' point for me in all this is that because of all that filtering and the influence of the corporate employment practices, we have a situation where there are very few competent young males available to me. There is no getting around that. And the flip side of the story is that this community (and presumably everywhere else in the country) is packed with competent, bright and eager females, many of whom are frustrated in their inability to find satisfying employment ...

This is basically why I sat down to try and write the story I guess. Although reading back over it all now, I see that really we're conflating two quite disparate points - the value of the exam system, and the attitude of corporate Japan towards females in the workforce. My apologies if my points have been somewhat confused!

Posted by: Dave

[This was received from a Japanese lady who read the story ...]

One other point you are missing is the unfriendliness of the Japanese system for working women.

It is very rare that a father will take paternity leave in Japan and - as I see with my own two daughters - most capable smart ladies have to choose between being a homemaker or chasing a career and thus reducing her commitment to her children.

Only a handful of very blessed women - those with good family support from parents, a husband with a flexible working environment, and an extremely strong body both mentally and physically - can continue working in a company.

(I shouldn't mention this, but both of my two son's in law usually come home after 11 pm or later!)

In such a social environment the choice of most smart women is obvious ... they will become part-time workers.

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