As the sun slipped behind the hills above Malibu, 10 men and women trudged up Mulholland Highway, some mumbling to themselves, others clutching folded pieces of paper.
Cars whizzed by as drivers stared curiously at the motley group marching single file, each person 10 feet from the next and each bearing 14 bright yellow ribbons attached with safety pins to white smocks.
The group maneuvered down a gentle slope and snapped to attention in front of three flag poles. They bowed Japanese style, loudly announced their return from a walk and then ceremoniously removed the flags, stacking them, neatly folded, with the Japanese rising sun atop America’s Stars and Stripes.
This is jigoku no kuren-- hell camp--a grueling 13-day training program designed to teach Americans about Japan’s management style. Before it was over, the participants would hike 25 miles at night, be scolded for infractions of arcane rules and shout a song in front of surprised shoppers at a Thousand Oaks mall.
The students learned to mind shouts of “attention,” “bow,” “sit down, please; stand up, please” echoed in the hills.
And then there were the school’s 10 commandments: “Commandment 1. No shilly-shallying. Be strictly punctual. Be at your station, ready, with both your work and your attention well prepared five minutes before any action.”
Start at the Bottom
Why would seemingly sane adults subject themselves to such treatment?
As he prepared for a speech on punctuality, Larry Leintz, operations manager for Blue Chip Inventory Service in Sherman Oaks, attempted to explain. “The object of the course is to drag you to the bottom.
“We’re starting at the bottom, and they’re pulling us up using their methods. They’re trying to tell you that your way is no good. It requires a high degree of concentration.”
Hoping to trade on the mystique of Japan’s economic prowess, Kanrisha Yosei Gakko has brought its training camp from the foothills of Mount Fuji to the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu. The school claims to have trained 100,000 Japanese managers. Its first U.S. class graduated Sunday.
In fact, stirring up interest in KYG’s Malibu venture has not been easy, school officials concede. “We had a very, very hard time to start in the United States. . . . We are so grateful that although our first class is small . . . the school has started,” KYG’s principal, Yasuo Motohashi, said through an interpreter.
The first class was scheduled to start in early November but was postponed several times for lack of students.
KYG drew no participants from major Japanese companies operating in the United States. (The Los Angeles office of U.S. Japan Business News sent two employees, but the firm handles KYG’s advertising.) This puzzled Motohashi, who said the school used newspaper advertising and direct mail flyers to reach Japanese firms.
When the first 10 U.S. students finally assembled in Malibu on Feb. 16, at least half were affiliated with the school in some way. The others included an aspiring rock star, a massage therapist, a businesswoman and two managers. KYG cut its normal $2,480 fee in half as a special incentive for its first-time students.
For that, students got 17-hour days. At 5:45 a.m., they stumbled out of their dorm rooms for a morning roll call. Then came morning calisthenics. The two women were excused when it came to the “towel rub.” The men, on the other hand, had to strip to the waist and do a series of exercises with their orange and yellow hand towels.
The rest of the day was consumed in memorization and endless tests for penmanship, reading correctly, telephone training, writing quickly, songs and speeches. Visitors and phone calls were not allowed. Lights went out at 10 p.m. sharp, but then the flashlights went on. When the going really got tough, some students sneaked out and studied late into the night in their cars.
Pace Is Hectic
Four days into the program, Tadashi Sato, a district sales manager for Singapore Airlines, was complaining--"I’m struggling. We’re memorizing all the time. It’s like brainwashing.” Sato came to the United States from Japan 12 years ago. “All these Americans love it. This is what is so surprising to see.”
Carl Craig, who left his job in the research department at USC to join KYG as a sales representative, said: “Most people in America are not used to this intense approach to acquire business skills. The pace is hectic. You have no time to do nothing. When I complete this I know there is nothing I can’t do.”
The group’s mission was to pass the tests necessary to get rid of each of their “ribbons of challenge.” It was the way back to heaven, head instructor Naoyoshi Fujimori told students the first day. “We have to shed 100 liters of sweat and 100 liters of tears. Instructors don’t have anything to teach you. You have to find the solution.”
Some things they learned they would never want to repeat. A mid-afternoon expedition on the first Saturday, for example, found the group at a busy Thousand Oaks shopping mall where each had to deliver a passionate rendition of the school’s “sales crow” song, an exercise to help the student overcome fear and embarrassment.
While three girls in blue and white cheerleader outfits cheered the group on, Jeff Eskenasy, a sales manager for a Studio City company, watched the KYG group with his family. “My mom could do it. She’s a good singer,” said his daughter Sheryl, 7.
“It’s not about singing,” her father explained.
“Oh, you mean it’s about yelling?” she asked.
Kanrisha Yosei Gakko first came to the attention of U.S. audiences in January, 1987, when CBS aired a segment about the school on “60 Minutes.” The piece captured the riveting emotion of Japanese students as they struggled to get through hell camp, an achievement that could help to make their path to a promotion easier.
“Our emphasis is on group action, teamwork, courtesy and punctuality,” head instructor Fujimori explained. The idea, he said, “is to train the students to be efficient in business by enhancing their writing, listening, speaking, thinking and action skills. Everybody has that potential.”
Two entrepreneurs, Randal J. Ochs of Thousand Oaks and Charles R. Whitlock of Westlake, were among those watching the segment. They contacted KYG officials, who had been thinking about coming to the United States for two years. The Americans entered into a preliminary agreement for a joint venture, which has since been scrapped.
“We would have been responsible for the marketing,” Ochs explained. “They would have been responsible for the actual teaching. What we discovered in the process is that the adaptation of the program to the American market would be long and experimental process. It would be longer than we could maintain our focus, and we suddenly realized that it would be a long haul.”
Ochs said a preliminary market survey of large American companies in the Southern California area indicated that KYG could fill a void in training programs. The firms were looking for programs that emphasized personal performance and achievement within a team concept. “The idea that it was a Japanese program had a lot of sizzle to it,” Ochs explained.
Other Americans initially involved with the school are more critical. Donald D. Schenkel of Westlake, who helped KYG recruit two of its American instructors, said school officials resisted suggestions. “They didn’t want to listen, so they decided to go off and do it on their own. . . . Their approach is to formulate a strong dedication of followers, but you do not challenge the leaders within their own business.”
Ted Buffington of Canoga Park, an American trained in Japan as a KYG instructor, left the school in November because he felt that the Malibu program should be modified to better serve American students. (Buffington conducted seminars worldwide on fire walking from 1983 to 1986. His feet appeared in the fire-walking scene in the film “The Jewel of the Nile.”)
“What is clearly Japanese in the program, which I respect and admire, is the collective ‘we’ instead of ‘me.’ We emphasize the individual, the self-esteem of the individual. In Japan, the emphasis is on the group versus the individual. The company is the group. The company is Japan.”
That notion of the individual is paramount in U.S. training programs, according to Buffington, who has conducted such programs and is developing a five-day seminar he calls “black belt in business management.”
His suggestions to KYG included eliminating the constant scolding used in the program, shortening the length of the program, providing students with materials they could take home (now they must all be returned to the school) and changing the memorization exercises to exclude the loud shouting.
Instead the Japanese stuck to their original format.
“It’s not difficult, it’s not new, it’s the way it is presented,” KYG instructor Dan Galitz, former director of security at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, explained. “We help them to learn how to ask questions, not to generalize, and teach them to break to the core of the problem with different techniques.”
One Saturday morning, students tackled an exercise called “On the Way to Drink Water.”
Galitz told a story about a man who was visiting an acquaintance, a victim of cerebral palsy, at the center for the disabled. The man waited to see his friend in the lobby where there was a drinking fountain. Nearby was a chipped and dirty cup.
The man washed the cup thoroughly, drank some water and replaced the cup upside down just as he found it. Later, he watched a young woman drink some water. The man was touched by the way the she drank.
Galitz asked how the woman drank the water and how was her method different from the man’s. The problem triggered a lively discussion. Some responses focused on the idea that the woman drank without using the cup because she was afraid of disease because they were in a clinic. Others thought she drank without using her hands because she was disabled.
Galitz needled the group, asking why the location should make any difference on how they drank the water. “Why was the cup there?” he demanded.
Sato responded, “The cup was there as a courtesy. . . . He was thinking only of himself when he washed the cup before he drank.” Leintz volunteered, “She showed courtesy to the man?”
Eventually the students turned up the answer: The woman did not wash the cup before drinking because she trusted it had been cleaned previously. But she did wash it after she finished as a courtesy to the next drinker.
“Oh, that is absolutely right!” Galitz roared. “The idea of trust and consideration. Wouldn’t it be nice in daily business to have trust and consideration for everybody? Do you get the concept of consideration and trust?”
Some students were skeptical. “In America,” said Craig, the KYG sales representative, “This is a dog-eat-dog society.”