A 13-Day Japanese Boot Camp Shows U.S. Executives How to Succeed in Business Through Suffering

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Droves of shoppers, intent on their business, bustle through the Plaza shopping mall in Westlake Village, Calif. As they pass by, though, they are distracted. Some push ahead, ignoring the disturbance; others stop and stare as a middle-age man engages in eccentric public behavior. First, he stands at attention. Then, he bows to everyone present. Finally, without apparent embarrassment—and certainly without vocal training—he launches into a full-throated rendition of a song that includes lines such as, "Cheer yourself up; never feel down. Don't give up. And in this town, under your feet, you do the best you can. Get yourself up, up on your stage, and act like a man."

After he finishes, another man, identically dressed in white jacket and dark-blue pants, steps forward and goes through the same routine. He is followed by another singer and another, until six men and three women have stood up, bowed and belted out the song. By now, many of the shoppers have moved on, wondering what exactly they have just witnessed. Was it mass hysteria, perhaps, or the bizarre liturgies of a deservedly obscure cult? Maybe a particularly clumsy display of performance art?

In fact, what they have seen is nine Americans who, adhering to the theory that the Japanese do certain things better, have paid $2,480 each to enroll in a 13-day intensive-training camp sponsored by the Kanrisha Yosei Gakko, a management-training school. The Kanrisha program, which resembles Marine boot camp in its physical and psychological intensity, has been a great success in Japan, graduating more than 150,000 students in the last nine years. Now, 25 miles from Los Angeles, in the hills above Malibu at the 80-acre Calamigos Ranch, Kanrisha Yosei Gakko has come to America.

The California camp, started in February, has graduated 43 students, who have jobs as different as a sales operations manager at AT&T and a part owner of a hair-replacement center. Chief instructor Naoyoshi Fujimori, a Kanrisha graduate, and his three assistants (two of whom are American) direct the students in a 5 a.m.-to-9 p.m. regimen that starts off with exercises and ends with everyone bunking together in dormitory rooms. In "hell camp," as it's fondly called by faculty and students alike, the would-be boardroom samurai study together and work together. They learn to stand in formation, to march—and to bow in the approved Japanese manner. They are scolded when they do wrong, they learn the school song and they stand at attention as three flags—the Stars and Stripes, the Rising Sun and the school's own blue-and-yellow banner—are raised and lowered daily. They participate in yelling exercises with an instructor, repeating such phrases as, "I am powerful!" and "I can do it!" They attend seminars on, among other subjects, report writing and penmanship, and they study intensively, sometimes even after the official lights-out. They go on a 25-mile night hike in the mountains, and along the way, according to the school's theory, they learn skills aimed at giving them the edge over their less-prepared competitors—such useful abilities as overcoming weakness, gaining confidence, sticking to goals and working effectively as part of a team.

The singing in the shopping mall is aimed at overcoming shyness about public speaking. Students have to bellow their way through the song without a pause. If they hesitate or forget the forgettable lyrics, they have to try again—and keep trying until they get it right. In the words of Jim Kowalick, a 50-year-old middle manager for an Irvine, Calif., aerospace company, the idea "is to overcome any fear or anxiety that we would have because of the presence of all these people thinking we're a bunch of weirdos." The oldest student in the March course, Kowalick also was the only one who got through the song on his first attempt.

For 25-year-old Troy Mitchell, who with his mother owns a hair-replacement center in Santa Monica, management camp was a challenge and an adventure. "It was never really done in a hard way," he says. "They set these goals way out in front of you, and then they pushed you to them." Not every participant has to go the distance though. Students who quit are refunded the unused portion of their tuition.

By the second day of the course, each student has 14 "ribbons of challenge" safety-pinned to his or her jacket. The ribbons are removed as the students accomplish a series of tasks, such as completing an exercise regimen or memorizing the ten commandments of salesmanship. No student graduates until he or she has lost every ribbon. Most students are middle-management level and are sent by their companies.

As Mitchell, ribbonless and triumphant at last, looks backs on the 13 days, he is impressed by his "ability to do so much with so little time, to live on four hours of sleep a night and use my brain all day and all night for 13 straight days. I have a lot more confidence and self-assurance in what I do, and it's just natural now. If you're going to start something, boom, you get right on it."

—By Michael Neill, with David Lustig in Malibu

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