We sat down with Professor Kazuo Ichijo, fondly known as Kaz, for a faculty interview commemorating the 20th anniversary of Hitotsubashi ICS.
Part 1 will unveiled his personal history, starting with his recollections from high school up to the various turning points in his early life that set him on the course to his professional career and who he is today.
Part 2 will highlight his experience studying abroad, how he got involved in the founding of ICS, his views on the strengths and current challenges faced by ICS, his deep attachment to Hitotsubashi University and its community, and his vision on how he wishes to see ICS evolve as a world-renowned graduate school after marking its 20th anniversary next year and beyond.
Marketing team: Were there any setbacks in preparing for your life in the U.S.?
Kaz: As I said, it took a lot of effort, courage, and determination to push my way through to boldly change the course of my career from an active social science professor to a dormant professor on long leave who went back to school at the age of 30! But by sheer chance, I was lucky to get this privilege to pursue this new path.
It was about a month or so before leaving for Michigan. From literally every faculty member in the Graduate School of Commerce I met on or off campus, I received massive pressure to give up my study-abroad plan. There was a lot of resentment and they tried their utmost to persuade me to not go.
At the time, I didn’t know why they adamantly objected to my idea of going to the States to study business. I found out a little later that, at that time, there were still not that many Japanese professors specializing in business who had a PhD from an American university, particularly at Hitotsubashi’s Graduate School of Commerce.
See, a PhD from an American business school was a prestigious credential that many scholars in Japan dreamed of getting, but couldn’t. So, to put it mildly, they were jealous of my opportunity to reach that platinum status, if I worked hard and successfully enough, especially since I was still a rookie in the faculty.
One very famous professor, that I won’t name, was a high-profile senior faculty member who used to take good care of me whenever I went to him for advice. One night, he took me out to a yakitori house. As we started drinking, he slipped into a lecture with the strong intention of convincing me of his logic on why I should reconsider my decision.
He rambled on about all the cons there were in my next move against a few pros, if any. In retrospect, he basically said, “Hey Ichijo, have you gone insane or what? Going to the States to get a PhD from now? You know how long that will take? You’re going to be enslaved there. This is a really bad move. You are wasting your time. Gotta stop it, right now! Besides, you already got a great start, being blessed with a hard-to-obtain position as a professor at Hitotsubashi in the first place. What are you going to do about that? You are going to just throw it away? Don’t you feel this job is a big honor? If not, shame on you!”
He went on and on like this, laying out one argument after another in a fervent tone for the next three hours! After we both got pretty drunk and thought it was time to go home, he tossed me his last question. “So Ichijo, after hearing what I said, I’m sure you now understand what I’ve been saying. So, at last, you’ve changed your mind, right?”
And I replied, “Dear Sensei, thank you so much for all your precious advice. But with due respect sir, I have to tell you that I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to give it a try and that’s what I’m going to do.” And hearing what I said, he finally seemed to have given up on me and simply said, “Well then, so be it. But tonight’s Dutch treat.” (laughs)
After all these unexpected psychological setbacks I had to fight my way through, the time had finally come for me to embark on my next knowledge-building journey in September of 1991. The first semester at the University of Michigan ran from that September to December.Marketing team : Please share with us your memories of your years at the University of Michigan.
Kaz: Based on my experience at Hitotsubashi, I had this notion that for a student in a graduate or doctorate program to be successful, he or she had to prioritize on staying focused on his or her research theme. I thought that, to get a good grade, you had to study really hard on your chosen theme, spend most of the time attending seminars and workshops related to that theme, and write up a beautiful thesis based on your in-depth findings and the wealth of knowledge you gained from that meticulous research.
Actually, I think that was the common approach taken by students in most Japanese graduate schools at the time. At least at Hitotsubashi, which was the only institution I had studied in after high school and therefore knew much about, the majority of students I knew took this approach.
So, in my first semester at the University of Michigan, I brought that mindset and became a really eager and attentive student in the lectures that were closely related to the research theme, which was organizational theory. There were core “Introduction to” classes too, but I cared less about them.
So, in all the classes related to my research project, I got big fat A’s. But in those introductory courses, such as accounting, which I had to take because I didn’t have an MBA, I got B’s. I managed to finish my first semester with many A’s and a couple of B’s. When I was feeling relieved that the semester was finally over, I got an international call from Japan. We didn’t have e-mail at the time.
It was Takeuchi-san. Over the phone, he asked me, “Hey Kaz, you finished your semester? Did you get your grades? How did you do?” So, I honestly answered, “Well, I did great in my theme-related subjects but got a B in accounting and some others.”
Then he bellowed, “What the hell do you think you are doing! Are you out of your mind or what?” And then he warned me, “If you continue to perform in a lukewarm manner next semester, you’re definitely going to be kicked out!”
My jaw fell. I just couldn’t believe what he just said. All I could respond was, “Sir, if you knew that, you should have told me so before I came here.” I could well imagine he was shaking his head in amazement at my ignorance and naiveness.
He went on, “Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t even know that. Look, that’s how the high-level educational system works in the United States, young man. The top schools there first open their arms widely and accept a lot of students. Quite early on, they screen students aggressively and ruthlessly based on their performance so they can retain the best ones that will help them maintain their reputation as a competitive institution. They are only interested in elite students that are truly capable of staying at the top of their game. They only want straight-A students, the cream of the crop. You get that? Better wake up, son!”
Oh yes, I surely did. Takeuchi-san’s call that winter struck me hard. It was a bombshell revelation of the reality I was in, and it opened my eyes. In the next moment, I found myself getting pale and scratching my head, as I asked myself, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do from here?”
After all the trouble I had faced at Hitotsubashi and my bold declarations to all those who tried to hold me back from envy, I couldn’t go home empty-handed, saying “I didn’t make it.” I would be a laughingstock, keeping my head low for as long as I stayed at Hitotsubashi, and persevering against their cold “I told you” attitudes and sneers behind my back.
So, from the second term, I woke up at 3:00 every morning and literally spent the whole day working my butt off. I think I studied the most desperately in my lifetime during that period. I remember working like a mad man from 4:00 am daily to prepare for the GMAT and TOEFL exams a year before, and I worked hard in prep school before entering college. But the level of concentration I showed during that second semester surpassed both these past experiences. It was so intense that my father, who flew over to see me, told my wife, Kyoko, that he was worried that I might drop dead if I kept it up throughout the semester.
Not only did I study so frantically, I also spent a lot of time meeting with my professors, visiting their offices as often as possible. I did have questions, but also, in the back of my head, I wanted to make a strong impression about how serious and earnest I was as a student. I did all this only for one purpose; to get a top grade in every course.
All these efforts paid off and I made straight A’s in the second semester. In fact, of the four students in the doctorate program with organizational behavior as the main research theme, I was the only one who actually earned a PhD four years later in 1995.
I spent the first two years in Michigan as a full-time graduate student. I also became a father of a daughter during those two dramatic years. In the latter two years, I travelled back and forth, working as a social science professor at Hitotsubashi and completing my doctorate program in Michigan.
My thesis theme was partly focused on tacit knowledge, which Nonaka-san had gotten me interested in. At the time, he was forming his thoughts about knowledge creation and how it affected the corporate world and helped to produce creative and innovative organizations. He knew that the University of Michigan back then was the mecca for scholars interested in Organizational Learning and wanted to learn the similarities and differences between his research findings and what they advocated.
This thought process eventually culminated into what we know today as the Knowledge Creation Theory, for which he is known globally as the founding father. I believed that this theory had the power to expand and flourish into a widely accepted norm in the coming years, so I told Nonaka-san that I would like to help spread the word and promote it. Although I already knew Nonaka-san, my doctorate project brought me much closer to him at the scholarly level.
I was blessed with another wonderful mentor in Michigan. Professor Noel Tichy’s expertise was in leadership. When I entered the university in 1991, he had just returned from a three-year sabbatical.
From 1988 to 1990, he was the director of GE’s Leadership Development Center. He was one of the key minds supporting Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric for a good two decades. Under Welch, Professor Tichy became the main architect of numerous leadership programs and highly advanced organizational structures for GE.
So, from my first year in Michigan, I had the fortune of obtaining the freshest thinking about leadership directly from one of the world’s leading authorities. That’s how leadership became one of the two most important fields of my lifelong research.
Marketing team : How did this experience of studying abroad affect your later life as a professional in education? And how did this lead to you becoming one of the founders of ICS?
Kaz: When I came back to Japan, I kept my seat at Hitotsubashi as a member of the Faculty of Social Sciences, instead of transferring to the Graduate School of Commerce. As you can see from the name, “Faculty of Social Sciences” has an “s” after Science. So, this department does not have to limit its courses to those strictly related to a single social science that others might refer to as sociology; it can offer interdisciplinary programs. This flexibility allowed me to combine what I learned in Michigan about organizational behavior and leadership with labor-management relationships, which I had specialized in prior to my study-abroad experience.
But after I returned from Michigan, I also got the opportunity to double-hat as the professor on organizational theory in the Graduate School of Commerce. It was this dual role that led me to be involved in the founding of ICS in 2000. This dual role ended in 2007 when I became a full-time ICS faculty member to succeed Nonaka-san, who wanted to move on from his position as a professor in charge of MBA courses.
So, since 1988, I’ve been on this long winding road in a vast field called education, where I met a lot of interesting people who have affected the course of my life. They showed me a whole new world that I had no idea about, which took me in different directions I never could have imagined. I believe these encounters embody the true essence of education.
Education is a term that derives from the Latin word educere; the prefix e means outside, as in exit, and ducere means the act of guiding. So, education is something that guides you to a world outside of your limited internal knowledge base.
My encounters with Takeuchi-san and Nonaka-san speak for themselves. If I had not met them in the right place at the right time, my life would have been a totally different ball game.
Continued to Part 2-2...