TOKYO — As a young sales manager at a leading Japanese department store company, Masayuki Miyake struggled to find the middle ground between frontline sales workers who did their best to please their customers and the higher-ups who were intent on trimming costs.
“I didn’t understand the management thinking on that,” he said. “They seemed out of touch with how employees think.”
He then enrolled in a graduate program at a business school in Tokyo. “I wanted to understand the mentality of the management, and then I figured I could bring my case to the top brass,” he said.
While taking courses on weekends, Mr. Miyake, now 34, was later transferred to the corporate planning department, an elite division that devises strategies for the company, and he is playing a role he had desired: bridging the divide between frontline workers who find the most reward in delivering what their clients want and the management eager to make company operations rational, often to the detriment of worker morale.
“I acquired the language of the management, which a little while ago was almost a foreign language to me,” he said recently during a class break at the Tokyo campus of Nagoya University of Commerce & Business, one of the growing numbers of professionally oriented schools of management geared toward working professionals.
Mr. Miyake is part of an expanding number of Japanese business people who study for a degree while working, often getting their M.B.A. at unconventional schools. They regularly put in 20 hours of weekly study and spend more time networking and brainstorming with classmates from other companies.
This is a nascent but growing phenomenon in corporate Japan. For years, big Japanese corporations emphasized in-house training and skills acquired on the job. Internally nurtured talents and know-how were thought to raise unique corporate value, experts on corporate Japan said. Generic skills like those taught at business schools were thought to be useless.
That appears to be gradually changing. The number of business programs has grown from just a handful five to six years ago to more than 30 M.B.A. programs with more than 2,300 students admitted each year as degree candidates, according to Ministry of Education.
Accreditation of such professional schools officially began in 2003. Some conduct online classes, others hold sessions in buildings in central Tokyo and Osaka so business people can attend in the evening after work.
Until about a decade ago, the limited number of Japanese business people who obtained an M.B.A. went overseas to get one and were often sponsored by their employers.
In the 1990s, Naoshi Takatsu, now executive vice president of IMD Japan, a branch of the Swiss business school, was sent to the French business school Insead by his Japanese employer at the time. The expectation was simply “to experience the rough and tumble of being in foreign cultures,” he said. “It wasn’t intended much to study business.”
Rather than return to their employer with an elevated status, “they simply returned to the same job and position they previously held,” said Yuji Nagasawa, a professor at the Nagoya University of Commerce & Business Graduate School who went to Harvard Business School at the expense of his Japanese employer in the 1980s. Demoralized, many of those young business people, who typically returned in their late 20s or early 30s, quit and joined American management consultancy or investment banks, he said.
“In the past, seniority rules made it difficult for young employees to make use of their management knowledge learned at a business school,” Mr. Nagasawa said.
“But things have changed. The seniority system is crumbling, and now employers are thinking more about making use of available talents and skills.”
Mr. Takatsu said the phenomenon of attending business schools was to some extent generational, led by those in the 25 to 35 age bracket.
“These are people who joined companies after the collapse of lifetime employment system,” in the mid to late 1990s, he said.
“They have a keen awareness that what your employer provides alone isn’t going to be sufficient.”
That is different from those in earlier generations who joined their firms when the Japanese economy was more stable and where the assumption was that your lifetime employer gave you all you needed in terms of job training, he said.
In most cases these days, students pay their own way at Japanese business schools, which tend to focus on the technical and the practical — be it marketing, finance or organizational behavior — and have faculty members with management experience.
At Business Breakthrough University, or BBT, which conducts classes online, for example, all the professors come from the business world. One of them is the founder, Kenichi Ohmae, a well-known management consultant.
“These are people who understand, for example, what happens when you cut worker salary and/or lay off people,” said Yasushi Ito, provost of the university. “Academics won’t know what that means in reality.”
The school delivers video classes over the Internet, and students are expected to participate actively via e-mail and blog postings.
One recent graduate of BBT, Shigeru Hayashi, a business manager at Bunan Hospital in Saitama Prefecture, said the experience was highly relevant to the his daily work.
Drawing on the technical and conceptual skills he learned, he recently helped bring the hospital’s accounting, which had been outsourced, back in house so that managers could have a firm grip on the flow of funds. He also hired two people to sell services like health checkups to corporations, a rare move for a nonprofit hospital in Japan.
“People used to say experience and instinct were paramount in handling my job as a hospital manager,” he said. “But those things alone won’t solve problems this day and age.”
That is precisely an area that instruction at a school like BBT is meant to address, Mr. Ito said. “Many of our students are doctors, accountants and lawyers, who previously didn’t study business,” he said. “These days, a hospital must be managed well or it can go bankrupt. If you are a C.P.A., you need to know a lot about management so you can carry on meaningful conversations with corporate managers and understand what their needs are.”
Studying while working also seems to be a better fit for the Japanese.
“If you are studying while working and sweating with your colleagues, you don’t lose loyalty to your company, don’t lose the momentum you have with people around you,” Mr. Ito said.
Many of the M.B.A. programs that rank high in student satisfaction surveys are not affiliated with well-known universities. Globis Graduate School of Management, an independent business school founded in 1992, started offering an M.B.A. program in 2003 and scored well last year in a survey conducted by Nikkei Career magazine. With 849 registered students, it is the largest business school in Japan.
This year, the graduate school of Nagoya University of Commerce & Business scored well, even though it is hardly a household name in Japan.
Many students say they are selecting schools on the basis of usefulness and applicability.
“I didn’t want to go to a school where they are studying cases 20 years old,” said Takayuki Maruyama, 51, an executive with an information technology company in Tokyo who completed his M.B.A. at BBT this year.
He said BBT lessons were “connected directly to what’s happening in the forefront of the business — that was the single most important criterion for me.”
Students in Japan are also encouraged to think deeply about business problems in relation to issues they face at work. The problem with U.S. business schools has been that Japanese students “study a lot of outside business cases, but they didn’t encourage students to think about the company they currently work for,” said Hiroyuki Kurimoto, professor at the Nagoya University of Commerce & Business Graduate School.
“So the returning students ended up leaving for other companies, because the knowledge they gained wasn’t applicable to their own firms,” he said.
Business professors say it is important to show relevance to students’ day jobs, and that is especially the case with studying organizational behavior.
“The way in which people behave in Japanese organizations is different from the way people behave in Western organizations,” said Ariko Hibino, director of BBT. “What you might learn in organizational behavior classes in the U.S. would not be immediately applicable in the Japanese context. We blend both perspectives.”