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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Going places depends on where you're from


Two thirtyish Japanese junior execs both applied for an opening at "Worldbeater Tech," a subsidiary of an offshoot of a spinoff of a fat-cat blue-chip company.

Candidate A had 10 years of first-class experience, well-honed communication skills and was respected by both colleagues and customers alike.

Candidate B, meanwhile, had been pitched about to various departments like a ticking bomb, earning the nickname of "The Never-ending Nuisance." He also had medieval hygiene skills.

So who got the job?

Trick question. For I neglected to provide one vital piece of information. Candidate A, you see, was from Hometown Tech, while The Never-ending Nuisance had these magic words on his resume: "Graduated University of Tokyo."

The moral perhaps being: "Who needs deodorant if you have the right degree?"

Or so might say traditionalists in Japan, a country known for its emphasis on pedigree determined by alma mater -- which in turn is determined by entrance exams. The so-called gakureki shakai points to a society where the critical question is never, "What have you done lately?" But rather, "What did you do in your senior year of high school?"

"What I did in my senior year of high school," says a foreign friend, a budding entrepreneur in Tokyo, "was to take Suzy Jones to the prom. And Suzy had just been voted 'Most likely to one day be a trophy wife.' "

Quite an achievement. Too bad it doesn't show on his resume.

"You see," he says. "I can't get off the ground here. Japanese read that I graduated from Nobody U. and their 'brand name' bias clicks in. I sometimes think if I had instead gone to Harvard, I would only need about a tenth of my current talent to achieve five times the success."

Personally, I've always sensed the gilded path to prestige in Japan is not as shiny as advertised. The litany that starts with Junior getting into the "right" pre-school so he can then graduate to the "right" kindergarten and so on until he eventually retires from an elite company (only to graduate to the grave just like the rest of us schmucks) seems as overdone as yesterday's refried noodles.

Yet perhaps I have an unusual view on things, because for years I worked firsthand with students from one of the biggest springboards in this vault to the top -- prestigious University of Tokyo.

It is true that a high percentage of these young folks were both intelligent and amiable, the very best of the very best.

But it is also true that a few were as goofy as fish from the Mariana Trench.

"Yes," says a University of Tokyo professor. "Even we admit this. Some of our students have spent so much time shut up with books that they no longer relate well to other living things. They are, in a word, weirdos."

The professor himself had lips that writhed like bull snakes, teeth like bullets and the unsettling habit of never closing his mouth.

How weird are these people? Well, one mild-mannered fellow would make polite contributions to each class discussion until someone eventually disagreed with him. Then he would shoot to his feet and threaten to take that person's life.

Eventually this drove the other student away. "See," the boy would say. "I win the argument."

I could only agree.

I also could predict this lad would be unemployable -- and he was.

Of course, the flipside to such nerds from hell are the youths who study like tigers to enter top schools and then, with graduation almost guaranteed, revert to playing like kittens thoughout their college days.

"Yet, all this is exaggeration," I tell my friend. "And even the ones who do ride the golden rails to the top are not the ones who move and shake this society. Instead they are the ones who get pegged into some bureaucratic pigeonhole requiring the creativity of cardboard. The innovators, those people who create change, are those who have vision and drive and guts. Meaning that in the end, alma mater doesn't count."

He disagrees, but I decide to spare his life.

"You've left out the 'connections' factor. It's all about who you know. If you graduate from the right school, you've got a web of contacts built in. People in high places who know other people in high places. It's an advantage, believe me."

If that's the case, I tell him, what he has to do is clear. He has to get to know people.

"I do know people," he says. "The problem is they don't know me."

I pause and ask, "What's your name again?"

He ignores this and dives into a monologue about a foreign acquaintance who, after long struggles, finally found the ultimate solution to a wimpy resume.

"He lied?"

"No. He created. And when he was caught 10 years later, he was just too valuable to let go. Besides, the man who hired him wanted to avoid embarrassment. Nothing ever happened and everyone lived happily ever after."

"Yet, he was a crook."

"I prefer to call him an innovator with vision, drive and guts."

Still, we both concede that such success doesn't resonate like the real thing.

"Maybe I should go back to school," he says. But in the next breath, he doubts aloud whether he could ever enter a name institution.

"Why is that?"

"Well," he tells me. "I just don't have the resume."



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