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Tokyo Business

Japanese Firms Coming on Board for Sail-training

By Peter S. Crosby; Free-lance writer and photographer

March, 1994

Local companies are just beginning to try out a novel training method and discovering that it can be much more: an employee reward, a perquisite, even a way to attract union members.

When Kaisei, Japan's first corporate sail-training ship, sailed into the port of Misaki just south of Tokyo in January of 1993, fireboats arched water streams into the winter air, a TV helicopter hovered above, brass bands erupted, cheers went up from the waiting crowd and the Mayor gave the captain a golden anchor.

Having completed its 57,375 km. homecoming voyage from the U.K. via the United States, the celebration for this magnificent 48-meter brigantine was well deserved. Yet even after weathering a Polish refitting, a tall-ship regatta in New York harbor and several typhoons, Kaisei was sailing into its biggest challenge yet: making an unknown method of education popular in Japan during the worst economic downturn in 50 years.

One year later, all of Kaisei's hands are still on deck trimming her marketing sails, trying to maintain headway for the ship's not-for-profit owner, the Sail Training Association of Japan (STAJ). And now, by adapting to the needs of Japan's corporate training clients, Kaisei is picking up speed again.

Sail training isn't new. About 300 square-rigged ships around the world initiate landlubbers into the rigors of the sea. But most train merchant marines or navy sailors. Kaisei, on the other hand, is open to the public. Which is exactly the point. Anyone can crew this ship, regardless of gender, race, nationality or sailing experience.

Teaching methods that take advantage of unusual experiences and situations, particularly those outdoors, have only recently begun to gain visibility, let alone acceptance, in Asia. In fact, Kaisei is only the second such vessel in Asia, along with Outward Bound's Hong Kong program. Economic priorities in the region have traditionally focused private and governmental training resources on acquiring skills such as Western management techniques.

Public sail-training in Japan has come about because of one man's vision. Kaoru Ogimi was introduced to the sail-training concept while scouting Australia for Nippon Challenge, Japan's extravagant but unsuccessful attempt to capture yachting's America's Cup. Together with private sector investors and a publishing company, Ogimi founded the STAJ in 1991, purchased the Y300 million ($3 million) ship and adapted it for sail-training. A former executive with Saison Corp. and Reader's Digest, he is also a sailor's sailor, having won several open-water yacht races.

"We teach by living, not by preaching," he says brusquely. "But," he adds, "our sail4raining is neither."

The goal of Kaisei's fourteen-day voyages is not to produce sailors, but to instill trainees with respect for teamwork, physicality and nature. Lectures about the ship's workings, sailing theory, navigation, weather, even stars, are just considered part of that process. "We want to take people out of their push-button worlds," says Ogimi, "wake them up to nature and to themselves."

Trainees are divided into watch teams of five-to4en people with whom they work, eat and play for the duration of the journey. About halfway through, the experienced watch leaders "disappear." Trainees - a quarter of whom are usually female - must then crew the ship in shifts totaling six to eleven hours a day, fostering listening skills, communication and a sense of interdependence. In short, teamwork.

Hard Work and Hot Showers
But even when the crew feels they know what to do, sailing the Kaisei is no casual pleasure cruise. All of the more than 100 polypropylene ropes that raise and lower the ship's sails must be pulled by hand. Anytime, day or night. And they're heavy. Soft hands and flabby muscles get a rude awakening. In addition, trainees must clean, swab, scrub and polish the ship for an hour or two every day-regardless of the weather. And last but not least, there's galley duty.

"The more the work, the more the bonding," says Kaisei's captain, Chris Blake. With three decades at sea - half of them commanding sail-training ships in the U.K., Australia and Hong Kong - Blake is one of the most experienced training masters afloat. He admits Kaisei is actually designed to be inefficient so that trainees must work together. And with a mischievous twinkle he adds, "Nothing brings people together like a storm."

While Kaisei is not necessarily a ship intended for comfort, it is a comfortable ship. Bunkrooms have bathrooms with hot freshwater showers. The diet, mostly meat and rice, is bountiful and tasty. And Kaisei is equipped to be safe. From its satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) and two different types of radar, to dual life rafts and rubber speedboats, every rescue contingency has been addressed. Eight veteran officers also make sure that safety comes first.

This top-class outfitting shows the unprecedented level of corporate support that Kaisei receives as part of a registered zaidan hojin (non-profit foundation). Telephone giant NTT, ad colossus Dentsu, and Japan's three largest insurance companies have contributed financing, in-kind donations (from radar and generators to radio-phone service and marine paints), and publicity. Media conglomerate Asahi followed Kaisei's journey to Japan with a year of print coverage and a 90-minute TV special.

Perhaps the most indulgent support has come from one of the largest publishing companies in Japan, Shogakukan. The 70-year-old company also puts out scores of popular newspapers and magazines such as Shukan Post, BP-4 and Jump. Besides owning one-third of Kaisei through the STAJ Foundation, Shogakukan has produced promotional videos published more than 50 splashy photo articles and run numerous essay contests enabling readers to sail aboard the Kaisei. A 'Kaisei' magazine is even under consideration. Yusuke Suzuki, Editor-in-Chief of Shogakukan's Electronic Book Division, says this long-term patronage is the company's largest commitment ever. Yet the firm's objectives, he says, are only to polish its educational image and promote nature: "For our company, cultural value is more important than economic returns," he insists.

Sails and Suds
But to maintain economic headway, STAJ has had to compromise over the past two years. To defray the costs of sailing from Europe to Japan, as well as participating in the Grand Regatta marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to America, STAJ arranged a corporate sponsorship from Suntory Ltd. The liquor firm covered the first year of STAJ's operating expenses (almost Y180 million), so the Suntory Malt's "Voyage of Global Partnership" became an ocean-going advertising contract. The deal, brokered by Dentsu, was based on a pay-per-exposure formula and strictly a promotion of Suntory's new 'Malt's' beer. The contract was not renewed after the spring of 1993. Ogimi is searching for another overall sponsor now, one whose image is more in line with Kaisei's.

The target market has evolved as well, from individuals (90% of the trainees so far) to company managers and their families. Corporate memberships, where a yearly fee is paid and employees take voyages at a discounted rate, is a primarily thrust. But only three companies are members so far: NTT, Keihin Electric Express Railway and Life Foods. They use it as an employee perquisite akin to a floating resort villa.

"It's a real benefit because a number of our people really want to go," says Atsushi Ishihara, associate manager of NTT's public relations department. The Kaisei program is run through the PR department even though NTT is Japan's largest employer and no publicity angles are exploited. Yet Ishihara says that NTT's Y2.5 million annual corporate membership fee is not a gift "because it is for the enjoyment of our workers."

About 40 employees sign up each year on a first-come basis to take 1-2 week voyages. Each employee pays about a quarter of the regular Y20,000 daily fee, and can go whenever it suits them as individuals. "We want employees to find life outside their daily challenges," says Ishihara adding, "If Kaisei were used as a training course, I'm afraid we might have to force some people to go."

On the other hand, Wakako Takahashi, head of human resources for the Kirin Beer workers' union, uses Kaisei for member training and has filled the ship with eager new employees. She booked two-day voyages because she wanted a trendy way for young workers to enhance themselves, to exercise their leadership potential and to become "union fans." In the past, the union offered lecture-based "Life Design" seminars, but Takahashi notes that younger people have no interest in such activities. So Kirin's union will use Kaisei again next year to entice recruits into the union fold.

To attract more corporate clients, STAJ is busy adding more value to its courses and has recently developed a three-day program to put corporate groups through intensive team experiences. Communications and personal interaction are discussed at every stage. Special emphasis placed on working as a unit rather than relying on the most senior or experienced members is providing useful insights into office dynamics and workers' roles. An outdoor management training consultant, U.K.-based Impact Development Training, is also working with STAJ to create more learning situations on board, more "programs within the program." Exercises and assessment modules are being cultivated to focus on problem-solving, team-building and leadership.

Inspirational Voyages
Ogimi admits that Kaisei's first year in Japan was more of a "market research program" than a victory cruise. So STAJ is also continuing to broaden its appeal with shorter trips that include more children and parents, international programs that offer language studies through U.S. universities, and homestay programs in Japan. But Ogimi wants to make sure that STA]'s mission doesn't become muddied like that of the newly launched sail-training ship designed by and for the city of Osaka. Blown in many bureaucratic directions, the ship apparently does little well, "It looks like a freighter with masts," chides Ogimi.

Kaisei also has one big marketing advantage over the Osaka venture and other would-be imitators: 800 or so alumni. These converted sailors, many of whom came to cheer on that winter homecoming, provide a word-of-mouth network for testimonials, recruiting, and volunteer work. In fact, more than 100 volunteers from around the globe have already donated in excess of 10,000 hours to refit, maintain and crew the ship. That in itself is a testimonial to the kind of inspiration to which Kaisei gives rise. It is just that spirit of personal dedication and team effort that Japanese companies are looking to build these days, and the best reason why Kaisei's future as a training venture should have smooth sailing all the way.