Japanese workers return to school to boost skills and motivation

Consulting firm employee Misuzu Mukae began to worry about her professional skills in her mid-30s, so she decided to take action.

“I felt that I might dry up when I turn 50, if nothing is done,” recalls Mukae, 42.

To “update” her knowledge and connections, Mukae signed up for the Graduate School of Project Design last year near Omotesando station in Tokyo.

She is one of many people with full-time jobs flowing to graduate schools and other institutes for recurrent education and retraining.

It has been repeatedly recommended that people who have professional careers retrain in specialized structures.

An industry insider noted that the latest boom is different from those of the past, although it’s still unclear if the practice will become the norm.


After graduating from college, Mukae started working in a consulting company. She gave birth to two children in her first half of her thirties.

Mukae tried to do well both in raising children and in work, seeking to “deliver results as efficiently as possible”.

Because it was difficult for her to be a mother, company employee and graduate student, she quit her office job last year to focus on her studies. Mukae found a job at another company this year and works while attending school.

Mukae said graduate school is not just a place to acquire knowledge. Reviewing business plans prompted her to rethink her thoughts on what ‘happiness’ and ‘wealth’ are.

“Recurrent education made me reflect on myself,” Mukae said. “It gave me a ‘drive’ or inner motivation for work.”


One Saturday in early June, eight graduate students, in business or elsewhere, were taking a course at the École Supérieure de Conception de Projets.

They presented their business ideas, such as local revitalization using sake, contributing to the activities of school clubs plagued by a lack of coaches, and supporting the careers of women raising children.

Misuzu Mukae, left, studies at the Graduate School of Project Design in Tokyo’s Minato district on June 4. (Jun Miura)

Students received guidance from their academic advisor and classmates.

The graduate school opened in 2012 and offers classes on weekday evenings and Saturdays, making it easier for full-time workers to attend the school.

Students are expected to learn foundational topics involving marketing and concept development during their first year in the academy’s master’s course, while master’s theses are to be developed in their second year to detail their business plans.

In the 10 years since its establishment, a total of 466 people from various fields have completed their courses at the Graduate School of Project Design. These include, for example, a company employee, a doctor, a retired professional baseball player and a local municipality official.

Its graduates would have launched new projects within their companies or founded their own companies.

“A growing number of graduate students are coming forward to change their lives in the stifling atmosphere of this era,” said Risa Tanaka, president of the Graduate School of Project Design. “The need for recurrent education is increasing.”


Recurrent education is increasingly popular in private institutions as well as universities.

According to Yano Research Institute Ltd., the recurrent education market is expected to be worth 49 billion yen ($360 million) in fiscal 2022, up from 40.8 billion yen in fiscal 2018.

“A strong wave of recurring education is emerging among full-time workers,” said Kenshiro Mori, 35, chairman of Schoo Inc., which was established in Tokyo in 2011 to provide training programs via the internet.

Mori said there have been three waves of recurring education fever. The first happened in 2011, when online lecturers won over many students from all over the world in colleges mainly in Europe and the United States.

The second boom was reported as the fusion of information technology and education was promoted between 2014 and 2016. With more people expected to live to be 100+, recurrent education gained in popularity for the third time around 2017.

“They (all the boomers) died down quickly,” Mori said.

Mori said the wave this time differs from those in the past, although he described the reason as “somewhat painful”.

In Japan, where there was a well-established tradition of companies guaranteeing lifetime employment to their employees, only a fraction of those who worked were positively inspired to pursue higher education in the hope of earning a higher income and get a better position elsewhere.

But increasing globalization has made it difficult for many companies to maintain the lifetime employment system. Meanwhile, the need for digital transformation has been made evident by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“People currently have to compete with AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics,” Mori said. “Not getting an education goes against improving or maintaining their annual income, which creates the need.”

As employers face increased competition to attract staff specializing in digital transformation, companies consider it “essential” to develop these human resources internally rather than hiring external specialists.

“An inevitable wave of recurrent education is looming,” Mori noted, adding that Japan lags other countries in retraining full-time workers.

“Accelerating recurrent education is indispensable at least for Japan to maintain its current position,” he said.