Kasai’s journey: From UW student to chairman of Central Japan Railway

“Since you never know when your life will end,” Yoshiyuki Kasai says, “it is not meaningful to draw up a whole life plan that assumes you will enjoy a long life.”

Instead, Kasai says, “What is important is to hold convictions and try to aim for the summit of a high mountain in the distance. While you are trying to get there, your life will be filled with uncertainties, and what you should be doing is to do your very best, day in and day out.”

Kasai offers this bit of advice in a book he wrote recently to help guide the next generation of leaders. He draws on the experiences of climbing his own mountain.

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Yoshiyuki Kasai

He began his journey in 1963 when he joined the Japanese National Railways, where he held a variety of positions including corporate planning and labor management.

After the privatization of Japan National Railways in 1987, he became president in 1995 and chairman in 2004 of Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central), the country’s leading high-speed-rail operator. Now he serves as the Chairman Emeritus of JR Central, but his journey to the summit is still en route.

Along the way, his path brought him to the American Midwest, when the Japanese government sent him to UW–Madison to study economics in the late 1960s.

Kasai recently sat down with Lora Klenke, managing director for international alumni relations with the UW–Madison International Division and the Wisconsin Alumni Association, to talk about his Wisconsin connections and his successful career.

Among his fond memories of living in Madison, he cites one in particular: “My child was born at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. Contrary to what we expected, it was difficult delivery and they had to go through a C-section. Now, that baby is 47 years old.”

He recalls having great confidence in the physician, “a very capable doctor,” adding: “Of course, there are differences between the Japanese medical system, and we did have concerns in terms of the language. But we were very impressed by the fact that the doctor was teaching as a professor at the university at the same time.”

Yoshiyuki Kasai with Lora Klenke

Yoshiyuki Kasai with Lora Klenke

In those days, Kasai lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Eagle Heights: “It was in the middle of the park, and it was a beautiful place.”

When he returned to Madison in 1999 to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association, he says, “I went to the place and I was very happy to see that the building, the same building, was there.”

The experience made Kasai a strong believer in the importance of overseas experiences.

He explains: “You are going to a land which you know nothing whatsoever about, and you have to speak in a language that you’re not very good at communicating in, and, in my case, I had to go through studies which I had not done in the past. Somehow I was still able to achieve what I was supposed to do and this has given me a source of confidence.”

He says that the courage and confidence he gained at UW–Madison served him well in the mid-1980s, when the Japanese National Railway was being privatized and split up.

“Most of the people were opposed to this idea but it came to the point that people started to understand that this was the only way forward. There was the risk that I might have to quit, but still I went ahead with what needed to be done.”

After this transition, he continued his career with JR Central, the railway company operating the Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) linking the metropolitan area of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, and the conventional lines linking the Chūbu (Nagoya) region of central Japan. Under Kasai’s leadership, JR Central has been in the spotlight for its development of the Superconducting Maglev (SCMAGLEV) train, the world’s fastest train (exceeding speeds of 311 mph) and the newest technology in rapid transit.

Kasai also was instrumental in bringing together UW–Madison alumni in Japan.

“I thought that it would be important for me to keep in contact with people who had been at the same places as me, experienced the same thing at different times,” he says. He adds the good friendships he has made through this network “has made my life richer.”

Kasai07His Wisconsin connection also led to JR Central sponsoring internships for UW–Madison students. In discussing this, Kasai points to the importance of fostering good relations and mutual understanding between the United States and Japan.

“The Japanese way of working is different than overseas and therefore very difficult to understand from the outside,” he explains.

He describes his company as a huge organization that tends to be inward looking.

“I think that it is important for domestic companies, such as ours, to come in contact with foreigners as much as possible. I thought that this would benefit the Americans and also would be good for our company to have experience introducing people to the Japanese way of working. I thought this was important, and that I might as well start from Madison, Wisconsin, because I had the experience of going there.”

Kasai describes efforts to individualize the internships, while ensuring that all participants gain a sense of how a Japanese company operates.

“Each individual has different interests,” he says. “Some people are interested in sales, some in PR, and others who are interested in the operation of the railway and car maintenance, overhauling of the cars, and so on. So we get people to try to do mostly things that they are interested in or that they are good at doing.”

He adds, “They spend two months at our place, and they are struck by the fact that we have the so-called life-long employment system, that people who come out of the university continue to work at the same employer throughout their whole career.”

According to Kasai, the benefits of this system include maintaining higher levels of safety and fostering a family-like unity throughout the company.

“All the students from Wisconsin are great students,” he says.

“Because Japan is a maritime country, we invite students, at the end of their two-month stay, to go to the bay and experience drag-net fishing. The people who are looking after the students also join in, and 20 people or so take part in the event. After they catch the fish, they have the fish cooked and eat the fish together. We do this every year, but this year, due to the typhoon, it unfortunately had to be cancelled.”

Kasai travels to the United States two or three times a year, but his busy schedule has kept him from including a stop in Madison.

“The last time I was in Wisconsin was back in 1999,” he says. “But the next time I go to the States, I would like to extend my stay there and go to Madison.”

Looking back, he emphasizes that the opportunity to come to Madison “has held a very important meaning in my life.”

– by Kerry G. Hill