So what’s an MBA class like in Japan?

So what sort of classes does an MBA student take in Japan? Well, my course selections are perhaps not representative of an average student, because I am placing a large focus on learning Japanese in addition to business courses. But anyways, here’s what I decided to take, and why:

Business courses
Innovation and Production Management
Basically, this course covers the process of innovation in industry and some of the key concepts to consider when managing an enterprise that relies on innovation. The innovator’s dilemma, chain-linked model of innovation, process innovation, and industrial clustering are some major subtopics. My reasoning behind choosing this course was mostly because it covers the Toyota Production System in some detail, and I thought it would be interesting to learn about that topic from the source–in Japan. After a few lectures, however, I have lowered my expectations. The course is taught in English but the professor does not have an clear command of the language, and he tends to deflect questions that do not follow the flow of his lecture slides. The one bright spot is the variety of nationalities among the students; on the first day of class I counted 11 different countries of origin, including Mongolia, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Quite a few of those students apparently dropped the class, but there is still a decent variety.

Business Innovation in the Smartphone Era
It may seem odd to take two courses with the same buzzword in the name, but there is surprisingly little overlap in content between the two. This course is mostly about the rapid changes in business models that are occurring due to both smartphone market penetration and increases in broadband coverage and speed. It is a packed course, probably because the topic is new, exciting and relevant to many students. Japan is also a great place to learn about smartphone innovation, since it has some of the highest penetration and broadband coverage among advanced nations. The professor’s English is about the same, but he seems to be more organized with his lectures and responds well to questions. He also has scheduled for quite a few business connections to come in and give guest lectures, which should be enlightening.

Financial System Theory
This course is my stretch goal, although that is probably an understatement. It is entirely in Japanese, and to be honest, my Japanese language ability is not at a graduate student level. To be fair, I have a decent base of knowledge about the financial system, so the material itself is not a stretch for me to understand. It’s just… all in Japanese. Given enough time and preparation, I can understand the lecture slides and the textbook completely, but in class I can barely follow along with the professor’s lecture. I catch maybe a quarter of what is said. The only graded assignment in this class, as far as I can tell, is a paper and presentation about a topic related to the financial system. Since I’m the only student from the U.S. in this class, I can cover a topic from our financial system that the other students may not be aware of, and probably won’t need to go into as much detail. But I still have to give a presentation… in Japanese. Oh yeah, and there’s one more twist to this story: the class only meets for the first half of the semester, so the paper and presentation are due in a few weeks. Time to get to work!

Japanese courses
Comprehensive Japanese 6
The Japanese language courses at Waseda are divided into 8 different levels of increasing proficiency. The “comprehensive” courses are generally the most time-consuming and attempt to cover all language skills (reading, writing, verbal) within one course. I’ve been studying Japanese on my own for a number of years now, so I was interested to see what a classroom course looked like at my proficiency level. The curriculum basically consists of reading a handful of articles written about contemporary topics in Japanese society, learning all the new vocabulary and grammar introduced, discussing and debating the ideas presented, and then writing a few reports based on opinions gathered from classmates.

The teachers do a good job of keeping it fun and lively, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time for learning the language. We only read a total of four articles through the semester, while I was expecting we might read that many in a week. The conversation practice is nice, but I’m speaking with a bunch of other non-fluent students, so I listen to a lot of bad Japanese in class. This doesn’t help me to improve my own ability at all. Oh yeah, and I’m a decade older than all of my classmates.

Describe yourself in Japanese
This class feels more useful than the comprehensive one, mainly because it specifically targets a skill–writing–in which I need a lot of work. Basically, we read an article about personality–for example, blood-type or zodiac sign traits–and then reflect upon where our personalities match or differ from the article. From this analysis we come up with a story from our experience that explains a particular aspect of our personality, and then write a short essay about it. We read one another’s essay drafts, make comments and corrections, and then revise and turn in a final draft. Soliciting feedback from classmates is kind of a waste of time because they are not native speakers and thus do not know what is correct and what is not, but other than that the class has been pretty good.

Learning about the career of your choice
This is another one-credit “theme” course. The topic is careers and the world of work, which seems appropriate for an MBA student trying to change careers. It also seems like the course most likely to help me succeed in a Japanese job interview. Of course, almost all of my classmates are undergraduates, so the scope of the course is a little different than what I’m looking for as an MBA student, but it’s close enough. Most of the work in the class revolves around putting together a few presentations, so it’s definitely good speaking and writing practice as well.

Other courses
Database and archive
This is a course offered by the graduate school of information technology, and I’m just auditing it so I won’t get an actual grade. It covers the basics of database theory and design, SQL, and some related topics. It’s knowledge that I’m going to need if I really want to pursue a career in “big data” business analytics, so I thought I might as well try a course and see how it goes. The course is a little odd in that it is taught in both English and Japanese, so the professor basically just switches back and forth between the two, repeating the same material twice. And, honestly, the lectures are very… passive. The professor generally just shows a presentation and read his slide notes, often without even looking up from his computer. In any case, as long as I get some practice actually putting together a database and writing SQL queries the course should be worth my time.