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ETP in Paris

November 30, 2007

Wow, what a fortnight in Paris! I thought I had been working hard before I left Berlin putting everything in place for the time of my absence in addition to complying with the requirements of daily business . But that was quite nothing compared to what expected me in Paris. During the etp Inception Module we had 37 presentation and conference sessions of mostly 2 hours starting at 8 a.m. and running through with short breaks until 6 p.m. That means every day 8 hours of uninterrupted input. It is a well known fact in neurophysiology that the average brain goes off-line after more than 45 minutes of stereotype information processing, i. e. attention drops sharply. Well, the stipendiaries of etp are supposed to be part of the European executive elite and expected to learn what the Japanese call “gamman”, the capacity of enduring stress, pressure and social conformity.

Sciences Po, with its full name Institut Études Politques de Paris, was rated the 8th best university in the world in a (admittedly French) survey from September 2007. It is an elite and highly selective institution by which the French upper class is regenerating itself in business and administration. Nevertheless these days I found the students and teachers at Sciences Po far less arrogant and posh than in the 1980 when I studied there. The air that one can breath there has become somehow much more liberal and the windows are more opened to the world. This applies also to Paris itself which has become much more welcoming to foreigners and the general level of politeness has increased a lot.

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Anyway, the etp courses took place in the former building of ENA École Nationale d’Administration in rue de l’Université that was taken over by Sciences Po. ENA, the institutional top of the French elite pyramid that educated the last three French presidents and most of the top politicians, was forced to move to Strasbourg some ten years ago within a move to more decentralization – which almost led to wild riots of the Parisian bourgeoisie.

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ENA building seen from the inner court

I got up at 6.30 a.m. in my tiny room with view on the Eiffel tower. I was lucky to stay at the little but decent and absolutely recommendable ** Hotel Saint Pierre in rue de l’École de Medicine (39€/night) right next to Boulevard St. Michel and some ten minutes from Sciences Po.

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On my way to the university I took a coffee Grand Crème and a croissant in one of the traditional cafés of St. Germain. These were about the most “French” moments of this stay. After that I met my class, some twenty-seven people from all over Europe. Eighteen of us are supposed to go to Japan, nine to South Korea. With my 44 years I was one of the seniors of the group, the youngest being just 25 years old. Classes where extremely intense. We learned a huge lot about about history, politics, economy, finance, literature and culture of our respective target countries.

As business people we were eager to know what is the value of the12 months of Executive Training Programme (www.etp.org) in money terms. The coordinators and delegates of the European Commission where quite diplomatic on this issue – up to the point of not telling us at all how big the burden of our stipends for the European Union is. But we did our own research and found out that each etp student is subsidized with about 120.000 Euro (>20 million Yen) by European tax payers. That includes a grant of 24.000 Euro in cash for every student. If you compare this with with the tuition fees of up to 80.000 Euro for top MBA courses at Wharton, Harvard, IMD or INSEAD you get a feeling of how big this privilege of etp is.

One aspect that I did not expect when I had read the initial curriculum was how much we were going to learn about the whole of Asia, not only Japan or Korea. We had a profoundly technical discussion with Claude Meyer about the currency problems with the Chinese Renminbi (or Yuan as the units are called) and another one not less specialized one with Françoise Nicolas about the ominous security situation between Taiwan and Chinese mainland. The only thing that really bothered us apart from the overload of classes was the incredible noise of drills during these sessions. The building was still under construction or rather ongoing renovation.

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Ikegami-san from Waseda University in a clinch with ambient noise

Our main teacher and academic tutor for the whole program was Jean-Marie Bouissou. He covered most of the lectures and taught us fascinating things about Japan in an impeccable English with a really strong Gallic accent. Julian Schaub, the only other German within the whole group, made a very wise remark when he said that he preferred this frank confession of ones origins to the slick English of those people who were linguistically “brain-washed” after having taken their MBA in the US. I agree. Some former etp students were complaining about the difficulties of understanding the teachers in Paris and Milan. In a way this is unfair, mentally lazy and quite un-cosmopolitan. Indian and African English can be quite difficult to understand, but we need to get used to it. Maitre Bouissou is a colorful, funny, witty and mind-catching person and we felt quite privileged to have such an intellectually curious expert on Japan as our teacher.

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Jean-Marie Bouissou

Lessons learned
We encountered some surprising facts when digging deeper into the heart of the Japanese “miracle”. On the political and the economical side we were struck by the dominance of a variety of inefficient institutions and habits, especially by the power of bureaucracy. The political system is dominated by public servants – just like in Germany where public servants are even the biggest professional group of lawmakers – and entirely designed to prevent any kind of evolution. This happens only through accidental mutations, and that means “outstanding and autonomous politicians” like Nakasone or Koizumi. The last prime minister Abe (wonderful feature “Requiem for a Loser” on Japan Times Online here) and the present Fukuda are quite clearly to be seen as steps to the reestablishment of the old pre-Koizumi order. Economically it is difficult to understand how Japan could become the second biggest and wealthiest country on our planet. White collar productivity is very low, a lot of time is lost with talking to everybody (“nemawashi”) during the process of decision making at all levels, the distribution systems pamper old and quite useless channels and true innovation is a shy animal that rarely shows up. It is truly an enigma how this can work so well and we were looking for another perspective that shows maybe from a bigger distance the efficiencies of a system that looks from close so incredible inefficient. We got to understand that the Japanese model of state directed capitalism is challenging some of our most common assertions in economic theory. We will have to dig even much deeper into that at Bocconi in Milan and at Waseda in Tokyo. One of my personal interests is to understand the parallels and differences between the post-war order in Germany and Japan. And I want to find out whether I can substantiate my feeling that things are about to turn better in Japan since a few years ago.

Nevertheless there was one rhetorical topic that almost none of us was ready to accept. Japanese and other Asians (and even some Europeans who have “gone native” like one of our teachers) come up quickly with something that pretends to be an explanation but which is nothing of this kind: “Well, that’s typical for Japan, it’s even very Asian. You cannot understand it if you are not born here”. That is first-class bullshit. Many Asians take this rather folkloric topic for granted and maybe they even believe in it. But this is very clearly nothing else than intellectual laziness. Any even middle-sharp mind finds out easily that this Asian stereotype is nothing but a powerful instrument of the smarter Asians to keep the obedient ones under control. “This is typically Asian” indicates usually that something is really going wrong, but many people are happy if it goes on like that because they are living at the expense of these dysfunctions. I have not yet encountered one single phenomenon that was well explained by this myth of the Asian difference. It was always easy to distinguish very specific interests or inabilities of certain classes or groups that just used the foggy Asian uniqueness topic in order to disguise their interests or deficiencies. There is this beautiful book Straitjacket Society. An Insider’s Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan (1994) by the psychiatrist Masao Miyamoto who can tell a lot about the strategies of disguising straightforward group interests under a fabricated common sense. I will review this book here later on.

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One night the Japanese etp group went to Nos ancêtres les Gaulois on Ile Saint-Louis, a famous and eventually wild place for old style French cuisine. We had a rustic meal. The starter was vegetables served in big baskets on the table and a buffet with all kinds of pickled vegetables, hams, cheeses and sausages. The guests help themselves with getting the wine from the barrel, going back and forth with the jars. You can drink as much as you want and as you can. Of course we had big fun, but in the end the waiters kicked us out although we were really no trouble.

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Julian (G) and Eric (F) at Nos Ancêtres les Gaulois
This night went on for some more time and I introduced my new and evenly drunken friends to another famous and hidden place of Paris inside, the Les Trois Maillets in rue St. Jaques where Balzac was strolling around in his youth. Upstairs, there is a nice and cozy piano bar. But when you venture downstairs, there is a pandemonium of table dancers and the Parisian demimonde waiting for you.
Of course I could not make it on time next day. I arrived at 9 a.m. at Sciences Po, offering my deepest apologies to the Maîtres Bouissou and Meyer. But they were just laughing and told me that I was already punished: During my absence this morning I was elected speaker and delegate of the Japanese etp group.

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Les Trois Maillets, table dancer
Another place where we enjoyed ourselves was the old café La Palette in rue de Seine, a place where artists, writers and journalists gathered for many decades. When you arrive there as a group they just put some bottles of wine on the table and serve simple and tasty slices of bread with ham and cheese.

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Café La Palette, rue de Seine

Paris was a good experience. The etp group is a bunch of serious and highly entertaining young Europeans. We will spend a lot of time together during the next 12 months. More pics are on flickr if you search “etpj26” or directly here.

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