Japanese Put Down Pencils and Pick Up the Beat

Hitoshi Kondo has been busy for the past decade or two.

He sums it up fast: Got married, built a house, had babies, then worked hard to feed them.

Now, as his two daughters near adulthood, the lanky, affable vice president at Visa International thinks it's time he had a little more fun, and for this Glenn Miller fan, that means the piano. "I need to tune up," Mr. Kondo explained the other night as he registered for private lessons at Tokyo's Yamano Music School. "And I want to spend some time on myself."

As he signed up, practice room doors opened and closed, releasing little blips of sound - people tooting, strumming, and singing to beat the band.

That glorious cacophony spilling out into Yamano's hallways is the sound of an adult-education bonanza that has institutions from universities to ukulele academies packing them in at night. The trend is being driven by two different factors - a shaky economy and a burgeoning desire to develop a life outside of work.

"It's not just a passing fad," says Hideo Teshima, a Ministry of Education spokesman. "It's established now."

Japanese children are diligent students, often going to cram schools to continue studying after the regular school day is over. Once high school is done though, for many the studying is too. University is often jokingly referred to as a four-year holiday. And once young Japanese start working, there's little time for pursuits outside the company.

But the rate at which adults are signing up to develop extracurricular skills today is taking educators by surprise. "It's amazing," says Kazuaki Sugihara, who teaches educational psychology at Tsukuba University just north of Tokyo. Demand for night classes has been growing steadily, he says, and occasionally exceeds supply by spectacular margins: One counseling class with 25 available spots attracted more than 1,000 applicants, he says.

Tokyo's Hosei University, which started Japan's first MBA evening program six years ago, now turns away two-thirds of its applicants. Hosei business professor Takashi Ishigami attributes the popularity of night classes to the faltering economy.

The economic downturn here has changed the way people think about their jobs. The traditional system of lifetime employment and guaranteed promotions is ending as firms struggle to stay competitive. Bankruptcies have shaken confidence in Japan's economic future as well. The result is that once-complacent employees are thinking carefully about staying competitive themselves.

"The students are keen on what they need to survive these changing times," says Mr. Ishigami. "They go back to school to learn the latest skills and know-how."

Until recently, upgrading your skills at the university level wasn't even possible. The Ministry of Education allowed Japanese universities to offer graduate evening programs only in 1989. By 1990, three of the 385 Japanese universities with graduate programs had begun offering classes.

Almost a decade later, 12 schools have evening classes, early starters like Hosei have expanded night-school programs, and enrollment figures for evening graduate classes have quintupled across the board.

But the impetus behind adult education isn't all gloomy economics or workplace upgrading. Many observers, like Tsukuba's Professor Sugihara, think the boom is due in part to Japan's economic success of the past decade. He argues that as Japan has become more affluent, social values have shifted to encompass a life that isn't defined by work. "More people are investing their time and money for personal interests," he notes. "[They want] challenges to stretch and polish them as a person."

His theory would certainly explain the rush on Yamano Music School, where the musical skills being taught have little to do with the corporate world.

Yamano's new branch in the swanky Ginza area enrolled 160 people who walked in off the street in the first 10 days after it opened this month. At the competing Yamaha Music School, just down the road, enrollment is 25 times higher than it was three years ago.

And at both schools, administrators have noticed a gradual increase in the number of men signing up. "Salarymen seem to want to expand their private lives," says Yamaha spokesman Kazuaki Hagiwara.

Women have traditionally had more time to pursue classes in pottery or French, as many stay home while their husbands work. Now men are trying to squeeze in a little learning after work, a trend captured in the hit movie "Shall We Dance?"

In that film, a middle manager with a numbingly ordered existence starts taking dance classes and injects some excitement and creativity into his life.

Kazuo Uruno, Yamano's trumpet-playing manager, has worked to inject the same sense of fun into the atmosphere at the school, which features a small cafe and a stunning night view of downtown Tokyo. He sees the growth in adult education in simple terms. "Coming here is a way of connecting with other people and it's fun," he says. "And people are sick and tired of working all the time."


A horticultural organization was misnamed on Page B8 of the April 28 Learning section. Its correct title is Audubon Naturalist Society, a nonprofit group based in Chevy Chase, Md. The Monitor regrets the error.

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