Grand Tour

Group of students from Atlantic Canada
explore Japanese business and culture

Early on the morning of February 13, Acadia University Professor Conor Vibert, Acadia’s F.C. Manning School of Business Director Paul Callaghan and 10 students set off for Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport. They had a one-hour drive from the university campus in Atlantic Canada’s Annapolis Valley ahead of their 6:30 a.m. departure for Toronto, from where they would fly to Haneda International Airport.

The group spent a nervous 45 minutes sitting in the plane on the tarmac, waiting for blizzard-like conditions to abate before the wind finally died down, the go-ahead was given for the plane to take off and, much to the relief of the class, the journey was under way.

The trip was a part of Business in Japan, a course that would take the group around business and cultural sites in the country. The students had been meeting once a week to learn about Japanese culture and business practices, and to gain background information about the Kansai region and Tokyo. An Osaka native and Wolfville, Nova Scotia, resident, Shoko Hatanaka, introduced the students to some basic Japanese vocabulary and the proper way to exchange business cards.

The places they had been learning about and were to visit couldn’t have differed more from the small town where Acadia is located. Congestion at the local stop sign in town can mean a three-minute wait. That said, Acadia consistently ranks among the top under-graduate universities in Canada, according to an annual survey by Maclean’s magazine.

Vibert, a business strategy professor, had decided to take the plunge in March 2018 and create the course. The move was based on his personal experiences and contacts in the country, which he has visited more than 15 times to see family since the mid-1990s.

He had spent 11 months bringing a number of pieces together to make the 11-day trip possible, doing everything from liaising with representatives of Japanese multinationals and briefing parents to creating course content and researching subway routes in Nagoya.

A trip in April 2018 to visit companies and tourist spots was also part of the preparation. In terms of organizing the trip, he said his Japan network was invaluable — this included Mike Takeda, a professor at Doshisha University; Junko Inoue, a Doshisha alumna whose daughter had spent a year at Acadia studying English; staff at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo; and a representative of Rio Tinto Japan.

On the Road

The group hit the ground running. Shortly after they arrived, students travelled to Nagoya to view the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, which features working robotics and state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment.

Separate day trips to Sakai on the outskirts of Osaka allowed the group to see the production facilities of Kubota Corporation and Daikin Industries, Ltd., brands that are well known and recognized throughout Atlantic Canada. At both companies, students were struck by how the Japanese drive for perfection influences the way that work is done on the production line.

The group pays a visit to Kubota in Osaka.

Daikin also welcomed the students to its Technology and Innovation Center and gave them a tour of their factory. Brendan McNeil, one of the students on the program, was amazed by the experience: “It struck me the moment I walked into the Daikin factory — floors so clean they could be eaten from, orderly rows of machines and workers, all moving in a sort of dance — it was like you could hear the rhythm of efficiency in the air.”

One of the most satisfying experiences of the trip was the reception hosted for the Acadia students by Doshisha at its downtown Kyoto campus. A university restaurant served as the location for a leisurely evening of food and conversation that brought together the Canadian students with a group of 10 Doshisha students who had studied English for one year at Acadia’s English Language Centre.

Something that the students realized during their conversations was that, even though they came from different cultures, they shared many similarities when it came to personal desires and values. Some of the Japanese students served as tour guides when the Canadians spent the following evening in Osaka’s Dotonbori neighbourhood.

In the Tokyo area, students learned about insurance during a visit to Manulife Japan; the commercial operations of a major company at Iwatani Corporation’s offices; the Japanese market for minerals at Rio Tinto Japan; and the business of Japanese job hunting at Leverages KK. The students came away from many of their meetings impressed with the open-ness and transparency of many of the company executives and managers who spoke with them. Canada’s relations with Japan were the subject of presentations at the embassy by the office of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service and Jim Zhang, then-executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The students also had a chance to explore Tokyo by visiting the Ginza, Shinbashi, Odaiba and Shibuya areas from their hotel, next to Shinagawa Station.

Visiting Rio Tinto Japan in Tokyo

As the students reflected on their trip around the country they had spent the term studying, they realized the difference between studying the country in the abstract and seeing it for themselves. As Alana Quigg, a program participant, explained, “Witnessing the business side of Japan first hand is an experience I will never forget.” Sara Baxter, another participant, put it: “Having the opportunity to explore Japan as part of my undergraduate education is a highlight of my degree. The things I learned and the people I met will influence me for years to come.”

Visiting Daikin in Osaka

“For me the value in education and travel isn’t just from reading or textbooks; it’s also in the people you meet, and the experiences you have.”

Looking Ahead

The inaugural trip was a great success, and another course with another trip is already being planned. Next time, Vibert intends to add the Edo-Tokyo Museum early in the trip, because it offers an excellent chance to learn about Tokyo’s history, as well as the business history of Japan. He also hopes to find a cosmetics company and a department store that would be willing to accept a tour, and is looking to help Acadia develop at least one strong relationship with a university in the Tokyo area to complement its existing ties with Doshisha, Doshisha Women’s College and Kurume University.

Vibert also hopes that the enthusiasm of the students who went on the trip will be contagious, and help to demystify Japan for other Acadia students. In the long run, he’d like to see more students applying to study abroad at Japanese universities and maybe even take part in cooperative work terms with Japanese companies.

And he hopes that the students’ visit to Doshisha helped to generate a small buzz in Japan as well, and build market awareness about Acadia as a good place for Japanese students to study abroad. In fact, more and more Japanese students are finding their way to Canada’s East Coast. In recent years, study abroad agreements have enabled students from Doshisha, Doshisha Women’s College and Kurume University to study at Acadia’s English Language Centre and take under-graduate courses there.

Ultimately, though, the reward of travelling overseas as a part of one’s studies isn’t something that can be measured by increased enrolments or applicants. It’s in what each student takes away from the experience, which McNeil summed up after the trip had finished: “For me the value in education and travel isn’t just from reading or textbooks; it’s also in the people you meet, and the experiences you have. Japan opened my eyes to just that: meeting students from their universities, interviewing local reporters and talking to entrepreneurs broadened my appreciation for global business in a way that nothing else could.”


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