The Japanese economy was at its peak in the 1980s. At that time the United States could not help but note with dismay and indignation that Japan had acquired first-rate real estate, such as Hollywood studios or the Rockefeller Center in New York.
Japan had everything, except it seems, a tolerance towards certain middle-level managers, seen as an obstacle to the Japanese economic miracle.
But a solution was quickly found. Obtaining an entry ticket to “Jigoku no kunren”, the hell camp for managers perceived to be too gentle, indolent or otherwise incompetent.
Far from the self-confidence-building exercises that some companies nowadays have, Japanese executive hell camps were organized with the discipline and intensity of military training.
The objective was to rehabilitate the less performing employees, while giving the necessary reassurance to those who felt they could not be on par with their Western competitors.
At Kanrisha Yosei Gakkou, the most famous hell camp during the 1980s, the rules for the 13-day internship were strict. Days started at 4:15 am and continued late into the evening. Radios and visitors were prohibited, candidates had to concentrate entirely on the mission at hand. Questioned by the instructors, the responses of the students had to be quick and above all noisy.
The most striking feature of these camps? The ribbons of shame pinned on each candidate!
The ribbons, 14 in total, corresponded to a particular task or gap that needed to be overcome, in order to validate the internship.
Confidence, company pride, ability to write reports, optimizing phone calls, team building and public speaking are just some of the areas in which executives needed to prove themselves.
In order to validate their internship, the participants also had to sing at the top of their lungs in front of Fujinomiya’s mess and its many users, in order to overcome their lack of self-confidence.
Leaving the camp most often meant the end of his career with the company. In its first nine years of existence, over 150,000 applicants graduated and the camp now has over 300,000 graduates nationwide.
The unusual nature of the Hell Camps inevitably caught the attention of Westerners. Ron Howard’s film “Gung Ho, Sake in the Engine,” which tells the story of a Japanese auto company buying an American factory, introduced the general public to the training elements of a hell camp. as well as the concept of ribbons of shame.
As the United States watched the inexorable rise of the Japanese economy, the camps in hell only heightened their curiosity.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that the Hell Camp concept was exported to the United States in the late 1980s.
At one facility in Malibu, the training program was roughly the same as its Japanese counterpart, with some tweaks to match the sensitivity of American employees.
Days started at 5 a.m. and Ribbons of Shame had been renamed “Ribbons of Challenge”. The candidates also had to carry out arduous missions such as night hikes of 40 km or the dreaded song, this time in a parking lot of a shopping center.
Surprisingly, Kanrisha Yosei Gakkou still operates at the foot of Mount Fuji and has been offering a range of programs since 1979 for middle managers, new employees and recent university graduates. The bursting of the economic bubble and the modern business climate, however, largely led to the closure of the other camps.
And you, would you be ready to spend 2 weeks in this hell camp?
Documentary broadcast in France (2009):