Episode 9: Shugyo – Training For Intuitive Wisdom

Most Westerners prize practical knowledge and hands-on experience above all other kinds of learning.

They are also condition to approach work and other challenge is directly, aiming for the “the shortest distance between two points”.

It is therefore, inevitable that Westerns in Japan, and those working for the Japanese companies abroad, will be mystified and frustrated by a great deal of typical Japanese behaviour, for to the Japanese the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line; indeed, both practical knowledge and experience can be a handicap in functioning well in a Japanese environment.

I know this sounds bizarre, but bear with me as we explore the Japanese code word for intuitive wisdom training.

Americans, in particular, are extremely inpatient for results once they begin any kind of training or enterprise. And you have to chuckles at the novice foreign students of Zen Buddhism and how they pester their masters, wanting to know when they are going to “learn something“ the new foreigner employee hired by a Japanese company wants to put their experience to work immediately, almost always causing distress and social discomfort amongst the company members.

In Japan, the cultural element in training and work often and take precedence over results.

This is particularly true in the early stages, but generally applies in perpetuity. 

In the Japanese value system, the way things are done outweighs what is done. 

For example, young students practising the ideograms used in writing Japanese are expected to learn more than just mechanical strokes necessary to reproduce correct characters. They are also expected to learn form, order, aesthetics and harmony.

The first obligation of young employees of Japanese companies hired directly from school is not to learn work routines so they can immediately become productive. No no, not that indeed, the first obligation is to learn the company philosophy and culture, so their personal behaviour in the work decisions they make in the future will be “correct”.

One of the most important words in the Japanese corporate world is shugyō, which usually translates as “training”, but shugyō has far deeper and broader implications than this English translation implies.

Shugyo in its full Japanese contacts is better translated as “apprenticeship” in the old, traditional sense of the word, when it refers to a young person being apprentice to a journeyman or to a master for at least 10 in sometime as many as 20 years.

The goal of shugyo in a Japanese company is for the new employee to gradually absorb knowledge about the company and how it functions, and to determine intuitively what the responsibilities and duties of the new employee are. 

Like the apprentices of old, new employees get little or no direct feedback regarding the work performance for many years.

Managers and supervisors do not stand over newcomers, instructing them about what to do and how to do it.

The employees are expected to figure that out for themselves.

You can be assured in this strict and hierarchal society things are not made easy for Japanese students or apprentice workers. 

The Japanese believe that the harder something is to learn and the more effort  it requires to learn it, the more valuable than knowledge or the skill. 

Furthermore, the ultimate goal in Japanese training is perfection, which cannot be achieved, so theoretically there could be no end to training or to learning, and shugyō is seen as an ongoing process.

This Japanese attitude about learning is in sharp contrast to that of the western mindset, again, particularly Americans, who after reaching a certain level, tend to either rest on their laurels or take so much pride in their learning that they do not open themselves up to learning more. 

There is another important characteristic in Japanese training and employment that sets them apart and motivates them to continue learning and striving to improve. 

Because they receive no direct, explicit feedback about their work, they never know where they stand. In this atmosphere, peer pressure and the fear of bringing shame on themselves and their coworkers forces them to continually strive to improve their performance.

The true challenge for any foreigner entering a Japanese company is to have a clear understanding of the concept of shugyō and internalize it when navigating the mysterious complex Japanese corporate work culture.