Managers sent in to ask questions - just as Japan runs out of answers

The economic crisis has not put the EC off recruiting a team to study Japanese skills in management
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IN WHAT can only be described as a case of questionable timing, the European Commission is looking to send young executives to Japan to improve their management and business skills.

Only last week the head of Sony, one of Japan's largest companies, warned that the country's economy was close to collapse. But that has not stopped the Commission launching a scouring search of the continent for thrusting young bucks prepared to spend 18 months in the Far East.

The EC's faith is commendable: Japan suffered a further blow last Friday when Moody's, the credit rating agency, downgraded its sovereign debt, citing "uncertainty about the ability of authorities to achieve a policy consensus that would help promote a return to economic growth."

The Japanese economy has been in turmoil for most of the decade after the collapse of a speculative property bubble and a series of political scandals involving bribery and government ministers. The country's financial system is staggering under huge amounts of debt.

But the Commission has not been put off. Its scheme is part of an initiative to increase the amount of business European companies do in Japan. According to the Commission, three-quarters of companies who send a manager to be trained in Japan subsequently increase their exports to the country.

In a letter to potential candidates, Sir Leon Brittan, Commissioner for external relations, points out that the Japanese market has recently opened itself up to foreign companies.

He argues that the Japanese market remains fundamentally different to what European companies are used to when they export to countries like the United States: "You cannot break into Japan until you have learned to handle the social business culture."

The Commission has asked SHL, the recruitment firm, to come up with 18 suitable young managers every year. Fortunate trainees will spend 18 months in Japan - at the Commission's expense - first learning the language, then doing work experience with Japanese companies.

Sponsors of the programme include Sumitomo, a huge corporation embarrassed last year by a massive copper-trading scandal.

The prospectus does not say whether the training includes such Japanese corporate delights as singing the company song, voluntarily giving up holidays, or socialising with colleagues in Tokyo's infamous hostess bars.