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Interview – Mr. Kanai: Representative Director and Chairman

Mujirushi Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. operates MUJI, a global company, that is based on the motto “Naturally” “Unknown” “Simple” “Earth as a unit”. We interviewed Mr. Kanai, Representative Director and Chairman, about his opinion on “Society and education”.


Education, Country’s Power, Individuals – From a history class in Northern Europe

Rie Kuribayashi (Head of School, hereafter ISN): “ISN has been authorized to become an International Baccalaureate school. It is an inquiry-based program. While balancing English, Japanese and ITC in our program, we continuously try to make a system for teachers to use their time effectively. We are always moving forward. ”

Mr. Kanai – Representative Director and Chairman (hereafter abbreviated): “By conventional standards, what is the level of Japanese education in general?”

ISN: “It is high. The students who may want to aim for Japanese universities would need to go to high schools in Japan, but students who wish to go to famous overseas universities would usually need to go to a high school overseas. [Aside from the usual full IB curriculum in English] ISN offers Japanese lessons to prepare for the Japanese school exams. Japanese language and mathematics taught in Japanese start in grade 1, with social studies and science being taught in Japanese from grade 3. This year’s students nearly achieved a full score in the nationwide standards. At first, I was frustrated with the contradiction that we had to follow the idea of “what must be taught”, but now Japanese lesson time is considered as a part of Japanese culture: Japanese-style learning time.”

Kanai: “Northern European countries, such as Finland and Norway, are always top-ranked in the international academic ability tests.”
ISN: “They have always listed on the top about five years ago in the tests that the United Nations conducts.”

Kanai: “This is a primary fifth grade textbook from Finland [Mr Kanai shows on his smartphone], Finland has only public high schools, there is no concept of private schools. There is no such thing as an exam competition such as in Japan, China, and Korea, for example. Why is their academic ability the top of the world? They say that teachers are the most respected professional. The very talented people become teachers, respected by everyone. Because the country’s resources are limited, they are aware that an investment in education is for the future of the country. I happened to come across one of the textbooks that fifth grade in Finland use. There, no one would be taught, like in Japan, “The Kamakura Shogunate began in 1192, repeat after me!”

ISN: “That’s right.”

Kanai: “We say history is a very important subject to think about the future, however, we don’t really know what has truly happened because the stories are in the past. Learning history is about thinking about it. We are not sure what has happened and why it happened, mostly because these stories were told by the people who won. And this is written at the beginning of the history books in Finland.”

ISN: “It’s written here [pointing to the Finnish textbook] that “we should not believe everything.””

Kanai: “The method of learning is important. I think it would take about 40 to 50 years for Japan to think like Finland.”

ISN: “The country is conscious that it is important to nurture human resources. The Finantech Global chairman, Mr. Robert, who I interviewed the other day, frequently visits Finland for his business. I heard that the proportion of female company presidents, officers, and engineers is very high. ”

Kanai: “You won’t see that in Japan.”

ISN: “In Finland, with a population of about 5 million people, they are the country’s asset. The country invests in education to ensure that each person can pay a high-income tax. And it is working. I would like Japan to use ISN as a laboratory. I would like to present a global standard of education as a realistic option in small and medium cities in Japan. One school has to be managed to last for a long time, however, it doesn’t have to make a huge profit. The young learners absorb skills instinctively and the families are pleased by how happy their children are every day. I hope that what we do becomes an inspiration for the region.”


Working to restore the disconnection between people and environment.

Kanai: “On the subject of how MUJI communicates its concept with the people of the world, we want to communicate through objects.”

ISN: “To let people know what is happening. Once informed, you can make a right and logical decision. I think it is really important that humanity feels some responsibility for the planet, although the situation doesn’t appear to be improving much. Is it the fault of environmental organizations that we have limited awareness? Why are we not conscious? Who is responsible for it? After all it is up to everyone to be informed on the subject.”

Kanai: “‘Let us tell you.’ would sound a little “pushy”. My preferred phrase is ‘We’d love you to feel…’. Due to societal problems, an excessive market economy developed. Capitalism, industrialism, and globalization accelerated market competition. It has spread rapidly and extremely for the last decades, involving people, production areas, companies. Now national governments are also a part of it, and that has made our societies very difficult places to live. Behind it is the fact that the world has become money-centered. Although we humans are but animals, the relationship between nature and people has been destroyed. Even the relationships between people and their society, between individuals themselves, has been diluted. This is an overriding worry for us. We want to contribute to rebuilding.”

Kanai: “MUJI was born in 1980. At this time, consumer society had steadily entered Japan. Japanese people’s desire for more had quickly escalated, and it was a period where people became obsessed with what other people would think about them based on their possessions. This way of thinking was very attractive for companies that were trying to do consumer-based business. Because of low self-esteem, many Japanese wanted to be the same as the blonde model who had a Louis Vuitton or Chanel bag on a poster. They became jealous of their friends. On the other hand, there were a few people who stayed true to themselves and lived life beautifully. These people weren’t deceived by the media images. We wanted to create a product for those people. This was the start. ”

ISN: “These were the products of Seiyu [At that time the parent shop of MUJI].”

Kanai: “There may have only been a few customers trying to live consciously at that time, but as society matured, we assumed more people would seek such products. It is our job to connect the disconnects in people’s lives. ”

ISN: “Focusing on products and shops.”

Kanai: “Of course, we are developing our business through our products and shops, but if there were people trying to preserve Satoyama [traditional rural areas at the feet of mountains in Japan] for example, we will take our customers in Tokyo and have them experience this agriculture together physically in this Satoyama. Also, there are about 2,100 Michi No Eki (local service areas, where local produce is sold), but over 70% of them are in the red. ”

ISN: “Do the local people operate Michi No Eki on their own?”

Kanai: “Not on their own. The city and the prefecture give subsidies to offer a framework to the local people. Not many local people have the skills to manage and run the business, therefore most cases do not work well without such management. ”

ISN: “I love Michi No Eki”

Kanai: “Besides that, forests in Japan are the best in the world.”

ISN: “In terms of…? Quantity? Quality?”

Kanai: “Both quantity and quality.”

ISN: “I would tend to think more of Canada.”

Kanai: You already spoke about how nice Japan is, how it is a special island country, but due to the rain and warm climate, the wood growth and the varieties are the best in the world. However, when Japan began its industrialization, many primary industries such as agriculture, the forest and fish industry, declined. They didn’t want to pass on to their sons the burdens of such work. So their sons left the rural areas and came to Tokyo. The forests became worthless. 80% of global exported wood comes from countries like Germany, Canada, and Austria. Although the export quantity of those countries is large, the quality of the wood is much better in Japan. Plywood is useful so it has spread all over the world, but Japan’s solid woods are incredible. No one has realized how amazing they are. ”

ISN: “A few people are aware of the importance of such things. For example, Matsumoto has some lovely restaurants, and their delicious local vegetables are much cheaper than they would be in Tokyo. Some might be rare vegetables originally from Europe but they have been raised in Matsumoto. In contrast, some people have succeeded in growing vegetables without soil, and the farming system continues to change. It seems to me to be a waste not to utilize the wonderful natural resources around us. Though it will be difficult to find a good solution if we don’t spend money or somehow make the primary businesses easier to do physically. ”
Kanai: “It’s not easy. We actually paid to plant rice in Chiba. It was fun, but I could see how doing it every day would be very tough. Rather than leaving everything in life to computers and robots, we could try doing such physical work at least twice a month. Society will become unbalanced if we seek to eliminate blue collar work. I think it is necessary to experience all sides of work. ”
ISN: “From the very beginning, the planet is where we living beings are from. Touching the soil feels naturally good and gives us a feeling of gratitude and inspiration.”

Kanai: “The total amount of carbon dioxide on our planet has not changed either now or in the past. But because we have decided to burn fossil fuels, we have had a very negative impact on our atmosphere. Moving closer to the old, more agricultural way of life will be a significant activity.”


MUJI staff learning, ISN learning

Kanai: “There are many parks in our cities, but the little ones are rarely used.”

ISN: “There tend to be only climbing frames and swings.”


ISN: “They don’t feel especially welcoming”

Kanai: “We want to revitalize such places. Sounds fun, right? Some people are concerned whether such activities will make a profit, but this is a type of education and a chance for creation that many of our staff can do. They gather and interpret information. Developing these skills is required for any company to grow.”

ISN: “What do you mean by interpreting information?”

Kanai: “Up until now, companies have grown in information processing, but now machines can alternate the work faster and cheaper. Information interpreting requires thinking skills. The traditional methods of teaching in Japan that heavily focus on memorization are not important for such work. It’s so much more meaningful if we all build the ability to think independently. I believe that this is the same case in companies too. ”

* ISN evaluates students using 5 colors. For example, to see what a student learned from a book, red is “I have just started to read. I need some support.”, ” yellow is “I can explain one thing written here”, green is “I can explain everything that is written here”. This is what was required in the conventional learning in Japan. (So their tests scores can be high) But we want to take them to blue and purple. “Blue can connect the concepts written in this book and the concepts learned outside of this book.”. Purple is “discovering or innovating an object or a way by actualizing the concept connected at the blue stage. They will create things, services, etc. And/or putting it into practice” Students aiming for purple share unique ideas in whatever field they are interested in (animals, science, medicine, etc.) and will create an action. ISN students use their naturally high creativity and fully enjoy the cycle of exploration.

Our endless desire to want more and want to compare with other people stop us living our own lives, for our own needs. What is important is not the information that can be taught by someone, but how that information makes us feel and think. I was interested in meeting Mr Kanai, who I had read was on a “quest for good quality consumers”, but when Mr. Kanai started talking about education in Finland, I knew it was a so important that I spoke to him today. In order to celebrate the hands-on experience in learning, ISN immediately organized a fossil excavation trip, a visit to the forest center, and to several factories as well.
ISN seeks ways for many people to feel the educational concept that has to be changed. Each of us in the ISN school community has the power to make a change. The school will provide more opportunities for parents to be able to “feel” our children’s development.