Japan: in search of a winning formula

Teamwork, goals, out-of-bounds: sport is often held up as a model for business. Now, the success of a French sports personality in Japan may hold lessons for the country’s corporate players.

A few months after the FIFA soccer World Cup, the fever with which the Japanese people watched their players in blue heroically reach the latter stages of the competition has not much dissipated in Tokyo. But the interest is moving quietly from that of a sports event to the personality of a foreigner who engineered the team’s unexpected success and how he did it. He is Philippe Troussier, a 47-year-old Frenchman who coached the Japanese team for four years until stepping down just after the World Cup. His place has been taken by another non-Japanese manager, the Brazilian Zico. Mr Troussier has set a high standard.

In fact, his is the second French success story to take Japan by storm after Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan, who was sent by Renault to rescue the financially troubled second largest automotive company in Japan and now enjoys widespread respect in Japanese circles (see references).

Mr Troussier was invited to Japan four years ago when the country, together with Korea, volunteered to host the World Cup 2002. Doing well in football became a matter of national pride for both co-hosts. Humiliating defeat at an early stage of the competition had to be avoided. This was an ambitious goal for Japan, since it had never won a single game in the history of the World Cup! By 9 July, when the Japanese football team made it through to the final stages, Mr Troussier had become a national hero. Eventual defeat by Turkey would not change that. The emperor and prime minister each sent a message to express their personal thanks.

Mr Troussier’s rise is full of lessons for Japanese managers working in large companies. When the Frenchman was chosen, there was considerable doubt and suspicion as to whether a foreigner should be allowed to coach a Japanese team at all. Moreover, Mr Troussier was largely unknown in Japan – nor was he a household name in France – and despite some success in Africa, his track record had not been that outstanding. Hardly a first choice candidate or a nation bent on avoiding embarrassing defeat. To cap it all, this Parisian had to speak through an interpreter.

How irrelevant all of this proved to be. Mr Troussier’s first pleasant discovery was that he would work with several good young players with international potential. But because of the heavy culture of seniority and other background issues, they had not been given the chance to demonstrate their talents. He promptly replaced old players with these young people, making Japan’s perhaps the youngest team in the competition. (Ironically, his own country France’s dismal failure at the World Cup has been put down by many to a failure to do just that: renew an ageing team.) Spotlight Mr Troussier urged his players to think for themselves and act independently, rather than waiting for his instructions. A spirit of independence and mental toughness were the qualities he wanted to inject into the minds of the Japanese players.

Out of frustration, the Frenchman occasionally criticised Japanese attitudes, sometimes in rather acerbic fashion. “Those who wait until the traffic signal turns green are of no use on the pitch. You must go when there is no car coming,” he once said. In many respects, this ran counter to the culture that had dominated the Japanese sports community, where collective achievement is given priority over individual success. He introduced a sense of competition among the team-mates and caused a public uproar when he did not include some popular names in the final team sheet. In short, his management style and handling of problems were anything but Japanese. He was stubborn and from time to time caused tensions in the camp to rise. His abrasive style nearly cost him his job early on, but success followed success, with a runners-up spot for his youth team at the FIFA World Youth Championship Nigeria 1999, a quarter-finals place at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and victory in the Asia Cup the same year. How right he was to stick to his guns; in Japan, a polite and conciliatory coach would probably not have achieved as much.

If only Japan’s companies could follow Mr Troussier’s example. In the 1980s, Japanese firms dominated key global industries such as electronics and automobiles. Today, although information technology is still a strength, the world corporate directory is dominated by American and European names, like Nokia, Motorola, Microsoft and Dell. Korean electronics companies, like Samsung, are competing head-on with Japanese ones. (Incidentally, Korea also enjoyed World Cup success under a foreign coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink.) And three of the five main Japanese automotive companies are foreign-owned. Japanese industry has without doubt lost ground.

But as the case of Mr Troussier shows, a leader from abroad can have a better chance of succeeding in driving industry forward where local managers fail. Insiders tend to shy away from a bloody reform. They are either too close to the people or too used to established working practices. Japanese CEOs have long been chosen from the inside. Continuity is too often seen as important, the fear being that a major break with the past would only result in confusion and a loss of loyalty and morale.

Another lesson from the experience with Mr Troussier, who never played for France and who has a Master’s degree in sports science, is that playing and coaching call for very different talents. Selecting managers based on in-company record is a fundamentally flawed approach. Yet, this is what most Japanese companies still do.

Mr Troussier made clear what he wanted from his team. He asked the same of his players, urging them to come forward and speak clearly. This is in sharp contrast with Japanese management practice where silence and evasiveness rule.

An international perspective was another quality that Mr Troussier brought to the job. European players are used to playing abroad, including in Japan’s J-league, with teams like Grampus and FC Tokyo. But apart from Ichiro, a Japanese baseball player plying his trade in the US, Japanese sports people rarely play abroad. Under the Frenchman, several stars joined leading European clubs. Though the Japanese Football Association feared losing their top strikers, Mr Troussier was uncompromising.

The CEOs of leading global companies like Canon and Sony spent their early years in foreign subsidiaries. Ironically, such overseas posts were not mainstream career paths. Yet they created the bosses that now lead these successful companies.

This is what openness is all about. As well as trade liberalisation, foreign investment and international capital transactions, openness should apply to recruitment of managers and skills. In general, the Japanese are very cautious about immigration. They fear it would result in more crime and higher unemployment among locals. However, the success of Mr Troussier is leading people to think that foreigners can do some good after all.

Is it just a coincidence that Mr Troussier and Mr Ghosn are both French? Japan and France knew very little about each other. In fact, they were often at odds with each other, as well as with everyone else. The French viewed the Japanese as economic obsessives. One French leader famously likened them to ants scurrying around and invading with their industries. In turn, the French were hardly seen as an open, corporate lot, but rather as arrogant, with their own suspicion of foreigners and seeming respect for hierarchy probably making them quite like the Japanese. And while the Japanese were fond of French wines and fashion, they had never viewed France as a model business nation. Now the two nations enjoy each other’s company immensely. For while Messrs Ghosn and Troussier have been opening Japanese corporate minds, Paris has become home to Japan’s first major overseas cultural institute.

A good number of the Japanese players who excited the Japanese people in June 2002 left for Europe this summer. They will form the core of the World Cup team in 2006. The number of students leaving Japan to study abroad is also on the rise. Foreign companies in Tokyo are pleased with their increasing popularity among top-notch students who 10 years ago would never have thought of applying to them for jobs. A gradual but steady change is occurring in the business community of Japan. The World Cup 2002 probably helped accelerate this change. At long last, the Japanese have begun to appreciate the real benefits of openness.

*Risaburo Nezu is former head of the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry.


OECD (1999), Open Markets Matter: The Benefits of Trade and Investment Liberalisation, Paris.

Nezu, R. (2000), “Carlos Ghosn: cost cutter or keiretsu killer?”, OECD Observer No 220, April 2000, Paris, also available at www.oecdobserver.org. 

©OECD Observer No 234, October 2002

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