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Global Japan
OCT 8, 2013

The Two Japans: Incompetent Leaders vs. Diligent Citizens

By Yoshito Hori
Photo credit: AP Photo/Air Photo Service

From sushi to the Sony Walkman, Japan is famous for many things. Sadly, effective leadership isn’t one of them. Between late 2006 and late 2012, Japan had no less than six different prime ministers. Thanks to this “revolving-door premiership,” foreign heads of state were reluctant to meet Japanese leaders at international summits.

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 shone another harsh light on Japanese leadership. When the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant started leaking radiation, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was incapable of communicating clearly with the domestic or international audience. He held endless meetings, but produced no concrete action plan; he made off-the-cuff remarks, reacting to public opinion rather than shaping the terms of the debate. He ended up losing everyone’s confidence.

In April 2011, just a month after the earthquake, GLOBIS hosted a joint conference with The Economist. I’ll never forget the comment of one foreign CEO: “I can’t understand how Japan became so prosperous with such awful, incompetent leaders.”

Unfortunately, his view represented the global consensus. There was nothing I could say in Japan’s defense.

The behavior of ordinary Japanese people in the devastated area stood in stark contrast to that of national leaders. Ordinary citizens had lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones; they were living in crowded evacuation centers, initially without light, heat, or adequate food. Did they riot, loot, or complain? No, they quietly went about rebuilding their lives—and helping their neighbors rebuild theirs. It was an extraordinary display of personal resilience and community spirit.

Organizations behaved just as impressively as individuals. Hardworking road crews repaired the cracked and buckled expressways within days, enabling emergency supplies to get through. Gas, water, and electricity services were quickly restored. Factory workers quickly had their damaged assembly lines up and running. Overall, the speed of recovery was astonishingly fast compared to other natural disasters, and given the extent of the affected area.

There are, in fact, two Japans: one of incompetent leaders, and one of sincere, hardworking, and collaborative citizens.

But if the Japanese people are so capable, shouldn’t they be able to produce capable leaders?

Well, no. And there’s a very simple reason why: we lack the mechanism to produce them.

There’s no leadership education. In junior high school and high school, the focus is on preparing for college entrance exams. Once you’re at college, the emphasis is on knowledge, rather than skills. The first time I ever received lessons in leadership was when I went to Harvard Business School in my late twenties.

That’s what motivated me to found GLOBIS, a business school whose stated mission is to “develop visionary leaders.” Through teaching case studies, we’re aiming to create a new generation of leaders to fill a big gap.

We started in 1992, and we’re already showing results. Take Hiroki Iwasa as an example.

A Tokyo-based IT entrepreneur, Iwasa was halfway through his MBA at GLOBIS when the tsunami smashed into his hometown in the northeast. He immediately went up to help with the cleanup. He wept at the sight of his devastated hometown. The beautiful beaches had been destroyed, and the strawberry farms of his parents and neighbors had been totally washed away.

After a few weeks, he realized that he could contribute by putting his business school know-how to work. He raised $5 million, and in January 2012 opened a business growing big, sweet, premium-priced strawberries in three huge computer-controlled greenhouses.

Iwasa’s bold venture has helped his hometown get back on its feet by generating much-needed jobs and tax revenue. He has introduced new technologies and marketing concepts into agriculture, one of the country’s most conservative sectors. More than that, he has become a role model who inspires other entrepreneurs throughout Japan.

We have too few inspirational leaders like Hiroki Iwasa in Japan. But things are changing.

Let’s hope that the time will come when we can proudly say that Japan has an ample supply of competent leaders working for its diligent citizens, not against them.